Lyman Spitzer

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Lyman Spitzer
Lyman Spitzer.jpg
Lyman Spitzer Jr.

(1914-06-26)June 26, 1914
Toledo, Ohio, United States
DiedMarch 31, 1997(1997-03-31) (aged 82)[1]
Alma materPhillips Academy
Princeton University (Ph.D.)
Yale University (B.A.)
Known forResearch in star formation and plasma physics
Promotion of space telescopes
Spouse(s)Doreen Canaday (1940)
AwardsHenry Draper Medal (1974)
National Medal of Science (1979)
Crafoord Prize (1985)
Scientific career
FieldsTheoretical physics
Doctoral advisorHenry Norris Russell
Doctoral studentsJohn Richard Gott
Bruce Elmegreen
George B. Field
J. Beverley Oke
Trinh Xuan Thuan

Lyman Spitzer Jr. (June 26, 1914 – March 31, 1997)[2] was an American theoretical physicist, astronomer and mountaineer. As a scientist, he carried out research into star formation, plasma physics, and in 1946, conceived the idea of telescopes operating in outer space.[3] Spitzer invented the stellarator plasma device[4] and is the namesake of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. As a mountaineer, he made the first ascent of Mount Thor, with Donald C. Morton.[5]

Early life and education[edit]

Spitzer was born to a Presbyterian family in Toledo, Ohio, the son of Lyman Spitzer Sr. and Blanche Carey (née Brumback). Through his paternal grandmother, he was related to inventor Eli Whitney.[6] Spitzer graduated from Scott High School. He then attended Phillips Academy in 1929 and went on to Yale College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1935 and was a member of Skull and Bones. During a year of study at Cambridge University, he was influenced by Arthur Eddington and the young Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Returning to the U.S., Spitzer received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University in 1938 after completing a doctoral dissertation, titled "The spectra of late supergiant stars", under the direction of Henry Norris Russell.[7][8][9]


In 1965, Spitzer and Donald Morton became the first to climb Mount Thor 1,675 m (5,495 ft), located in Auyuittuq National Park, on Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada.[2]: 347  As a member of the American Alpine Club, Spitzer established the "Lyman Spitzer Cutting Edge Climbing Award" (Now called the "Cutting Edge Grant") which gives $12,000 to several mountain climbing expeditions annually.[10]


Spitzer's brief time as a faculty member at Yale was interrupted by his wartime work on the development of sonar. In 1947, at the age of 33, he succeeded Russell as director of Princeton University Observatory, an institution that, virtually jointly with his contemporary and friend Martin Schwarzschild, he continued to head until 1979.

Spitzer's research centered on the interstellar medium, to which he brought a deep understanding of plasma physics. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was among the first to recognize star formation as an ongoing contemporary process. His monographs, "Diffuse Matter in Space" (1968) and "Physical Processes in the Interstellar Medium" (1978) consolidated decades of work, and themselves became the standard texts for some decades more.

Spitzer was the founding director of Project Matterhorn, Princeton University's pioneering program in controlled thermonuclear research, renamed in 1961 as Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He was an early proponent of space optical astronomy in general, and in particular of the project that became Hubble Space Telescope.

In 1981, Spitzer became a founding member of the World Cultural Council.[11]


Spitzer died suddenly on March 31, 1997 after completing a regular day of work at Princeton University. He was buried at Princeton Cemetery and was survived by wife Doreen Canaday Spitzer, four children, and ten grandchildren. Among Spitzer's four children is neurobiologist Nicholas C. Spitzer, who is currently the professor and vice chair in neurobiology at UC San Diego.



Named after him


  1. ^ Saxon, Wolfgang (2 April 1997). "Lyman Spitzer Jr. Dies at 82; Inspired Hubble Telescope". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 September 2020.
  2. ^ a b Ostriker, J. P. (2007). "Lyman Spitzer. 26 June 1914 -- 31 March 1997: Elected ForMemRS 1990". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 53: 339–348. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2007.0020.: 339 
  3. ^ "Hubble Essentials: About Lyman Spitzer Jr". Hubble Site.
  4. ^ Lyman Spitzer Jr. (1958). "The Stellarator Concept". The Physics of Fluids. 1 (4): 253. Bibcode:1958PhFl....1..253S. doi:10.1063/1.1705883. S2CID 11748652.
  5. ^ O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Lyman Spitzer", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews
  6. ^ Ancestry of Gov. Bill Richardson
  7. ^ Current Biography Yearbook. H.W. Wilson. 1960. pp. 395–96.
  8. ^ "Professor of Astronomy Lyman Spitzer Jr. Dies". Communications and Publications, Stanhope Hall, Princeton U. April 1, 1997.
  9. ^ Spitzer, Lyman (1938). The spectra of late supergiant stars.
  10. ^ Lyman Spitzer Cutting Edge Climbing Award
  11. ^ "About Us". World Cultural Council. Retrieved November 8, 2016.
  12. ^ "APS Fellow archive". APS. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  13. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter S" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 15 April 2011.
  14. ^ "Grants, Prizes and Awards". American Astronomical Society. Archived from the original on 22 December 2010. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  15. ^ "Past Winners of the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal". Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Archived from the original on 21 July 2011. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  16. ^ "Winners of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society". Royal Astronomical Society. Archived from the original on 25 May 2011. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  17. ^ "Landau-Spitzer Award".

External links[edit]