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March 26th, 2014

Fr. Bill Stoeger SJ (1943-2014)

A member of our community, Bill Stoeger, died on Monday. He had been found to be suffering from a particularly aggressive form of cancer last fall, which treatment was not able to contain.

I wanted to say that Bill was both the smartest man, and the holiest man, I have known; but he would have rejected that characterization, out of hand. So I will only say that his goodness, and his genius, never ceased to move me. He's the only person I know who could both understand and work with the mathematics of the Big Bang, and also direct retreats for religious women.

His scientific output was astonishing. At Cambridge, he was student of the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, worked with George Ellis, and was a classmate of Stephen Hawking; and his work was on a par with theirs. Every year, like clockwork, Bill would produce two major scientific papers published in the leading journals (Astronomy and Astrophysics, Physics Review, General Relativity and Gravitation), most recently on the topic of connecting the more esoteric aspects of cosmology theory with actual observations of the structure of our universe. His work has been cited hundreds of times in the literature; one paper alone, "Proving almost-homogeneity of the universe" written with R. Maartens and George Ellis and published in 1995, was referred to by at least 85 other papers in the field of cosmology according the the NASA ADS service (which notoriously underreports citations).

His work with his colleagues in religious life is not so easy to quantify but it was an equally important part of his life. He was in regular demand as a spiritual director and leader of retreats, both in the US and Europe. Connected with this work were the series of books he co-edited on Divine Action in the Universe, published jointly by the Vatican Observatory and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at Berkeley.

One often neglected aspect of how he lived these two lives, of science and service, can be seen in his scientific collaborations. More often than not, he worked with scientists from the developing world – South Africa and Brazil in particular. And he showed a special patience with those members of our scientific community who could be brilliant but eccentric and sometimes hard to deal with.

We will miss him. I will miss him.

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