Above: Portrait of Bill Mathews drawn by his daughter, Amey Mathews, using graphite on paper (photo courtesy Amey Mathews)
Thousands of pages covered with graphs, calculations, remarks, and handwritten notes sit in Amey Mathews’s home studio.
The papers belonged to her father—astrophysicist, musician, mentor, and inspiration—Bill Mathews, who died in September 2021. Bill was a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz for over five decades, leaving a remarkable legacy in the university’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, and a mountain of notes for Amey, her brother, Jeremy, and her mother, Cynthia, to sift through.
The family donated material containing scientific relevance to Bill’s colleagues at UCSC; then Amey—an artist and yoga instructor—began weaving portraits of her father into and over the remaining notes, drawing out Bill’s presence on the pages. The notes—typically dense calculations written on 8½-by-11-inch paper, galactic images, or even Post-its—gradually evolved into a most unusual kind of canvas.
A project that started as a method of processing her grief soon turned into a way for Amey to build an even deeper connection with her father after his passing.
“He was an enthusiastic person about life, about science, and about his family—he just had a lot of enthusiasm,” Amey said. “It’s funny that he left behind papers, mechanical pencils, and binders; those are basically art supplies if you reimagine them in that way. So I just started coming out to my art space and sitting with all of these papers, my memory of him, my love for him, and his love of this subject—it was such a meaningful part of his life.”
Amey and her father rarely spoke about the specifics of his work, but the combination of her father’s enthusiasm, excitement, and thought process captured in the thousands of pages has made the topic accessible in a new way.
“It’s become this fun and poignant process of spending time with him and witnessing a side of him that I didn’t actually know,” Amey said.
Foundational contributions to our knowledge of the universe
Bill contributed fundamental knowledge to understanding some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe. He employed atomic physics and hydrodynamics to understand luminous interstellar gas clouds—glowing nebulae—that formed because of phenomena such as the remnants of dying stars in the galaxy and quasars expelling energetic gasses. His early work focused on how dust forms in galactic gas clouds, and by the 1970s, his work had advanced our fundamental understanding of various types of glowing nebulae.
His legacy includes more than 200 publications in professional journals and conference proceedings.
Bill’s work began at UC Santa Cruz in 1970; 52 years later, he is remembered by his students, friends, and colleagues as a dedicated and dynamic astronomer and mentor. In addition to his work in the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, Bill had a lifelong interest in music and taught a popular course at UCSC on the physics of music.
Astronomy and Astrophysics Professor Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 2007. Ramirez-Ruiz said that Bill quickly became an inspirational mentor to him.
“Bill’s passion for life and science, his fervor, his honesty, his brilliance, his dedication, his relentless resolution, his high expectations for the pursuit of knowledge, his love of family and community, and his wonderful attentiveness for fun were the trademarks of his life,” Ramirez-Ruiz said. “He was an inspiration and became a mentor and friend. I am eternally grateful that my path crossed his.”
Amey hopes her artwork will embody Bill’s character and spirit and touch those who knew him.
“There were people who knew him from music, people who knew him from university science, and his family—collectively, all the ways that we each knew him add up to a pretty good sum of who he was,” Amey said. “All those people together, remembering him in all the different ways that he showed up for each of them, makes the whole picture, and it feels healing and cathartic to remember someone with another person. And so, to share this work also feels like a way of sharing my dad, his quirkiness, and his deep enthusiasm for the world, learning, and science.”
Bill Mathews Fund for Excellence in Astronomy and Astrophysics
Cynthia Mathews—former Santa Cruz mayor, long-term city council member, and Santa Cruz Planned Parenthood co-founder—was married to Bill for 57 years. Years before his passing, Bill and Cynthia planned to establish a fund in UC Santa Cruz’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Department.
Cynthia said Bill’s deep appreciation for the department and its students inspired the creation of the Bill Mathews Fund for Excellence in Astronomy and Astrophysics.
“It was clear he always wanted this to happen,” Cynthia said. “Bill’s career in astronomy and astrophysics was enormously rewarding to him. He was grateful to work in such a continually exciting field with wonderful colleagues; he wanted to invest in future generations of astronomers to carry on.”
The Bill Mathews Fund for Excellence in Astronomy and Astrophysics was established to support current graduate students and attract outstanding graduate student candidates to the department.
The fund can be used to support graduate program fellowships, individual graduate student research programs, travel funds for graduate students to attend meetings and deliver talks, and participation in collaborations.
“I remember him expressing so much support for these bright young minds, and this endowment is what he wanted,” Amey said. “This is how he wanted to continue to support the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department because it’s a thing that brought him and his work so much richness.”
Amey is excited to continue sharing her artwork of Bill and his memory.
Gifts in Bill’s memory can be made to the Bill Mathews Fund for Excellence in Astronomy and Astrophysics.
Amey Mathews’s artwork will be exhibited on the Sandra Faber Floor of the Science & Engineering Library at UCSC beginning March 30, 2023.