Ralph H. Fowler

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Ralph Howard Fowler
Born(1889-01-17)17 January 1889
Fedsden, Roydon, Essex, England
Died28 July 1944(1944-07-28) (aged 55)
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge
Known forFowler–Nordheim-type equations
Fowler–Nordheim tunneling
Darwin-Fowler method
Bernal–Fowler rules
Field electron emission
Degenerate stars
Zeroth law of thermodynamics
AwardsRayleigh Prize (1913)
Adams Prize (1924)
Royal Medal (1936)
Fellow of the Royal Society[1]
Scientific career
FieldsStatistical physics
InstitutionsCambridge University
Academic advisorsArchibald Vivian Hill
Doctoral studentsGarrett Birkhoff
S. Chandrasekhar
Paul Dirac
Wang Zhuxi
Homi J. Bhabha
Douglas Rayner Hartree
John Lennard-Jones
Harrie Massey
William McCrea
Nevill Francis Mott
Maurice Pryce
Daulat Singh Kothari[2]
Bertha Swirles

Sir Ralph Howard Fowler OBE FRS[1] (17 January 1889 – 28 July 1944) was a British physicist and astronomer and physical chemist.


Fowler was born at Roydon, Essex, on 17 January 1889 to Howard Fowler, from Burnham, Somerset, and Frances Eva, daughter of George Dewhurst, a cotton merchant from Manchester.[3] He was initially educated at home, going on to attend Evans' preparatory school at Horris Hill and Winchester College. He won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge and studied mathematics, becoming a wrangler in Part II of the Mathematical Tripos.

War service[edit]

In World War I he obtained a commission in the Royal Marine Artillery and was seriously wounded in his shoulder in the Gallipoli campaign. The wound enabled his friend Archibald Hill to use his talents properly. As Hill's second in command he worked on anti-aircraft ballistics in the Anti-Aircraft Experimental Section of HMS Excellent on Whale Island. He made a major contribution on the aerodynamics of spinning shells. He was awarded the OBE in 1918.[4]

Academic career[edit]

In 1919, Fowler returned to Trinity and was appointed college lecturer in mathematics in 1920. Here he worked on thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, bringing a new approach to physical chemistry. With Arthur Milne, a comrade during the war, he wrote a seminal work on stellar spectra, temperatures, and pressures. In 1925 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.[1] He became research supervisor to Paul Dirac and, in 1926, worked with him on the statistical mechanics of white dwarf stars. In 1927 he was one of the participants of the fifth Solvay Conference on Physics that took place at the International Solvay Institute for Physics in Belgium. In 1928 he published (with Lothar Nordheim) a seminal paper that explained the physical phenomenon now known as field electron emission, and helped to establish the validity of modern electron band theory. In 1931, he was the first to formulate and label the zeroth law of thermodynamics.[5] In 1932 he was elected to the Chair of Theoretical Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory. In 1933 he worked with John Bernal to develop a model for the structure of water and ice known as the ice rules.[6]

In 1939, when World War II began, he resumed his work with the Ordnance Board, despite poor health, and was chosen for scientific liaison with Canada and the United States. He knew America well, having visiting professorships at Princeton and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. For this liaison work he was knighted in 1942 (see MAUD Committee). He returned to Britain later in the war and worked for the Ordnance Board and the Admiralty up until a few weeks before his death in 1944.

Fifteen Fellows of the Royal Society and three Nobel Laureates (Chandrasekhar, Dirac, and Mott) were supervised by Fowler between 1922 and 1939. In addition to Milne, he worked with Sir Arthur Eddington, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Paul Dirac and Sir William McCrea. It was Fowler who introduced Dirac to quantum theory in 1923. Fowler also put Dirac and Werner Heisenberg in touch with each other through Niels Bohr. At Cambridge he supervised the doctoral studies of 64 students, including John Lennard-Jones, Paul Dirac and Garrett Birkhoff.

The Fowler Islands, in Crystal Sound, on the Antarctic Peninsula were named by the UK Antarctic Place-Names Committee in his honour.

Personal life[edit]

Fowler was a keen amateur cricketer who played as a wicket-keeper. He played for Norfolk in the Minor Counties Championship in 1908 and 1909.[7]

In 1921 he married Eileen Mary (1901–1930), the only daughter of Ernest Rutherford. They had four children, two daughters and two sons. Eileen died after the birth of their last child, Ruth Fowler Edwards, a geneticist and wife of Robert G. (Bob) Edwards, the "father" of in vitro fertilization and 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine laureate. One of his grandchildren is Mary Fowler, a geophysicist and the sixth Master (2012–2020) of Darwin College, Cambridge.[8]

Selected publications[edit]

  • Elementary differential geometry of plane curves. Cambridge tracts in mathematics and mathematical physics .. ;No. 20. Cambridge University Press. 1920.[9] Dover reprint. 2005.
  • Statistical mechanics, the theory of the properties of matter in equilibrium; based on an essay awarded the Adams prize in the University of Cambridge, 1923–24. Cambridge University Press. 1929.[10][11] 2nd edition. 1936.[12]
  • Passage of electrons through surfaces and surface films; being the thirty-first Robert Boyle lecture. Oxford University Press. 1929.
  • with E. A. Guggenheim: Statistical thermodynamics: a version of statistical mechanics for students of physics and chemistry. Cambridge University Press. 1939.[13]


  1. ^ a b c Milne, E. A. (1945). "Ralph Howard Fowler. 1889–1944". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 5 (14): 60–78. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1945.0005. S2CID 170967451.
  2. ^ Panchapakesan, N. (July 1994). "DS Kothari and Delhi University" (PDF). Defence Science Journal. 44 (3): 199–202.
  3. ^ Milne, E. A. (23 September 2004). "Fowler, Sir Ralph Howard (1889–1944), mathematical physicist and weapons researcher". In Yoshioka, Alan (ed.). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 1 (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/33227. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ Van der Kloot W (2011). "Mirrors and Smoke: A. V. Hill, his Brigands, and the Science of Anti-aircraft Gunnery in World War I." Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. 65 (4): 393–410. doi:10.1098/rsnr.2010.0090. PMID 22332470.
  5. ^ Y. Cengel, M. Boles, Thermodynamics – An Engineering Approach 5th ed.
  6. ^ Bernal, J. D.; Fowler, R. H. (1933). "A Theory of Water and Ionic Solution, with Particular Reference to Hydrogen and Hydroxyl Ions". J. Chem. Phys. 1 (8): 513. Bibcode:1933JChPh...1..515B. doi:10.1063/1.1749327. Retrieved 22 March 2023.
  7. ^ "Player profile: Ralph Fowler". CricketArchive. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
  8. ^ "New Master for Darwin". University of Cambridge. 3 April 2012. Retrieved 17 August 2014.
  9. ^ g. b., M. (13 May 1920). "Review: The Elementary Differential Geometry of Plane Curves by R. H. Fowler". Nature. 105 (2637): 321–322. Bibcode:1920Natur.105..321G. doi:10.1038/105321a0. hdl:2027/uc1.b4073882. S2CID 28495684.
  10. ^ Bartky, Walter (1929). "Review: Statistical Mechanics by R. H. Fowler". Astrophysical Journal. 70: 194–197. Bibcode:1929ApJ....70..194B. doi:10.1086/143216.
  11. ^ Stone, M. H. (1933). "Review: Statistical Mechanics by R. H. Fowler" (PDF). Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 39 (11): 850–853. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1933-05737-3.
  12. ^ Frank, N. H. (1937). "Review: Statistical Mechanics, 2nd edition by R. H. Fowler". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 43 (9): 601–602. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1937-06586-4.
  13. ^ Young, T. F. (1941). "Review: Statistical Thermodynamics by R. H. Fowler and E. A. Guggenheim". J. Chem. Educ. 18 (4): 198. Bibcode:1941JChEd..18..198Y. doi:10.1021/ed018p198.3.

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