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PMA, obituary
03/14/1995 08:00:00

Nobel Laureate William A. Fowler Dies at 83

PASADENA—William A. Fowler, who shared the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics for his research into the creation of chemical elements inside stars, died Tuesday morning, March 14, in Pasadena, California. He was 83.

Willy Fowler, as he was known world-wide, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and raised from the age of two in Lima, Ohio. He received his bachelor's degree in 1933 from Ohio State University and earned his doctorate in 1936 under the supervision of Charles Lauritsen from the California Institute of Technology. He considered Lauritsen 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 the time of his death, Fowler was Caltech's Institute Professor of Physics, Emeritus.

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 current "dark matter" debate over what most of the universe is made of.

"It is a remarkable fact that humans, on the basis of experiments and measurements carried out in the lab, are able to understand the universe in the early stages of its evolution, even during the first three minutes of its existence," observed Fowler several years ago.

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.

Outside of academia, Fowler had a lifelong passion for steam locomotives and steam traction engines. During his boyhood summers, his family returned to Pittsburgh during his father's vacations, and the young Fowler spent many hours in the switch yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad, not far from his family home. As an adult, Willy Fowler sought out passenger trains still pulled by steam locomotives, and in 1973 he rode the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Khabarovsk to Moscow because, among other reasons, the train was powered by steam for almost 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles). On his 60th birthday Fowler received from his colleagues and former students, at a conference held in Cambridge, England, a working model of a British Tank Engine, a type of steam locomotive. He named it Prince Hal and considered it his pride and joy.

Among his many honors, Fowler received the National Medal of Science from President Gerald Ford in 1974, and the Legion d'Honneur from President Mitterand of France in 1989. He was also proud of his membership in the Los Angeles Live Steamers and the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Fowler is survived by his second wife, Mary Dutcher Fowler, and two daughters, Mary Emily Fowler Galowin, and Martha Summer Fowler Schoenemann.

Written by John Avery