The Vetlesen Prize


William Alfred Fowler

Photo of William Alfred Fowler

William Alfred Fowler
Courtesy of The Archives,
California Institute of Technology


William A. Fowler, who shared the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics for his research into the creation of chemical elements inside stars, was born in 1911 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and raised in Lima, Ohio. He received his bachelor's degree in 1933 from Ohio State University and earned his doctorate in 1936 at the California Institute of Technology under the supervision of Charles Lauritsen, whom he considered the greatest influence in his life.

Upon finishing his PhD, Fowler promptly joined the Caltech faculty as a research fellow, and was appointed an assistant professor in 1939. During World War II, he carried out research and development on rocket ordnance and proximity fuses - fuses that would detonate only when close to aircraft or airborne bombs. He was appointed associate professor in 1942, professor in 1946, and Institute Professor of Physics in 1970, a chair he held until his retirement in 1982, at which point he entered Emeritus status.

During his career in nuclear physics and nuclear astrophysics, which spanned more that 60 years, Fowler was primarily concerned with studies of fusion reactions - how the nuclei of lighter chemical elements fuse to create the heavier ones in a process known as nucleosynthesis. In 1957, Fowler coauthored with Fred Hoyle and Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge the seminal paper "Synthesis of the Elements in the Stars." In it, they showed that all of the elements from carbon to uranium could be produced by nuclear processes in stars, starting only with the hydrogen and helium produced in the Big Bang.

This work, much of it carried out with colleagues at Caltech's Kellogg Radiation Laboratory, put Fowler and his collaborators at the forefront of some of the most central issues in modern physics and cosmology: the formation of the chemical elements inside stars; the Big Bang origin of the universe; and the Dark Matter debate over what most of the universe is made of.

Fowler's research was of two kinds: theoretical studies to calculate fusion rates for a wide variety of elements, and experiments with accelerators to guide the theoretical calculations. His research career was marked by this continual feedback between theory and experiment. Although Fowler was not directly involved in astronomy, his work had special relevance to astronomy, and astronomical observations both supported his results and often stimulated new investigations.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Fowler received the National Medal of Science from President Gerald Ford in 1974, and the Légion d'Honneur from President François Mitterrand of France in 1989, among many other honors, awards and associations. He was also proud of his membership in the Los Angeles Live Steamers and the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

William Fowler died on March 14, 1995.

Courtesy of The Archives, California Institute of Technology. © California Institute of Technology


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