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Once a physicist: Walter Ray Williams Jr

Walter Ray Williams Jr is a professional ten-pin bowler, based in Ocala, Florida, in the US. He has won more titles in his career than any other bowler.

Walter Ray Williams Jr

What is your background in physics?
I was always good at maths and interested in science and when I took physics at high school it just seemed to make sense. I then got an associate degree in mathematics and physics at Chaffey Community College, near Los Angeles, followed by a BS in physics with a minor in maths at California Polytechnic University at Pomona.

How did your talent for bowling develop?
As a youngster, I won the boys' world horseshoe-pitching championships three times and went on to win the men's championship six times. For those who are not familiar with the sport, it involves taking a U-shaped metal object weighing about 2.5 lb and "pitching" it 37 ft at a 15 inch high stake. The aim is to make a "ringer" where the horseshoe encircles the stake – world champions can usually do this around 85% of the time. Since horseshoe pitching is an underarm motion similar to ten-pin bowling, I thought that I might be good at that too. During college I bowled in local events when I could and joined the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA), which ultimately helped me pay my way through college.

When did you realize you could make a living as a professional bowler?
I started competing on the PBA bowling tour in January 1983, before I got my degree. I finished my thesis, which was on the physics of a bowling ball rolling down a lane, on the road. In my first full year on the tour I made more money than I spent, so I figured that I could do this for at least a few years.

What are some of the highlights of your career?
I won my first national PBA title in 1986 and after winning two more events that year was voted PBA player of the year. I have since won a total of 42 titles, which ranks me number one of all time. I have been PBA player of the year six times, and I am currently the highest ever money winner in bowling with over $3.6m in official earnings.

Are there any ways that your background in physics helps you in your career as a bowler?
I am not sure exactly what I learned from my thesis. I think I made mistakes in some of the calculations that I keep meaning to go back over and fix – but I haven't and it has been 24 years now! However, I do think that physics is a huge part of bowling and that gives me a different insight to other players into what is going on. Unfortunately some of the variables change or are very difficult to know exactly, so it comes down to more of a statistical game – a perfect shot doesn't always get a strike.

This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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