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12/06/1995 08:00:00

International Astrophysics Symposium to Honor Willy Fowler

PASADENA—An international symposium on nuclear astrophysics will be held in honor of the late Nobel laureate Willy Fowler, December 14 to 16 at Caltech. This event, "A Celebration of Willy Fowler," will bring together top scientists from many countries, including Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United States, to discuss the latest developments in our understanding of nuclear processes in the universe, ranging from the Big Bang to the evolution of stars and the seed material of the solar system.

Fowler shared the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics for "his theoretical and experimental study of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements in the universe." His sunny good humor and joviality, coupled with his deep scientific insight and vigor, made him a hero of both older and younger generations of scientists. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and received many awards, including the National Medal of Science in 1974 and the French Legion of Honor in 1989.

The symposium will focus on the continuing, vigorous scientific research in the fields that Fowler helped found, with scientific talks highlighting research areas in which Fowler played an important role: the early universe, experimental nuclear astrophysics, neutrinos in stars, stellar nucleosynthesis, the chemical evolution of the galaxy, how the sun burns, the formation and evolution of stars from the interstellar medium, and gamma-ray astronomy.

"We didn't consider a memorial observance, by itself, to be an adequate way to remember Fowler, who died on March 14," says Gerald Wasserburg, chair of the organizing committee, a Crafoord laureate, and Caltech's MacArthur Professor of Geology and Geophysics. "Fowler played such a major, leading role in opening up new areas of research in astronomy and astrophysics that we wanted to honor him with a truly international symposium that would focus on the state-of-the-art research being done in those areas today."

Fowler joined the Caltech faculty as a research fellow in 1936. After serving in Caltech's World War II rocket programs, he worked in Caltech's Kellogg Radiation Laboratory, where he performed experimental and theoretical studies of nuclear reactions that showed how the nuclei of lighter chemical elements react to create heavier ones.

In 1957, Fowler and coauthors Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge and Fred Hoyle wrote a monumental paper that showed that all of the elements from carbon to uranium could be produced by nuclear processes in different stars over the history of the universe, starting with only the hydrogen and helium produced in the Big Bang, Wasserburg explains. Over the next three decades, Fowler's work proved to be central to issues such as the formation of the chemical elements inside stars, the Big Bang origin of the universe, and the age of the galaxy.

"Willy's laboratory work on the synthesis of chemical elements in stars and the sources of elements in the solar system spread to concepts about star evolution and formation and eventually to astronomical observations," says Wasserburg. "It revolutionized modern astronomy." He adds, "Our current consideration of a host of astronomical observations are tied together by the mechanisms of nucleosynthesis laid out by Fowler, his colleagues, and his students. His work provided the language with which these processes are discussed today."

The symposium is free and open to all. A memorial observance will be held on Thursday, December 14, at 4 p.m. in Caltech's Beckman Auditorium. Anyone wishing to attend the technical sessions of the symposium may obtain a schedule of events by contacting any of the people listed below.


In the Media Relations Office Jay Aller (818) 395-3631

On the Organizing Committee Ward Whaling (818) 395-4260

Charles Barnes (818) 395-4294

Gerald Wasserburg (818) 395-6139

Written by John Avery