Scope and Content of Collection
Organization of Collection
Title: William A. Fowler papers,
Date (inclusive): 1917-1994
Collection number: Consult repository
Fowler, William A., 1911-1995
94 linear feet
California Institute of Technology. Archives.
Pasadena, California 91125
Abstract: These papers document the career of William A. Fowler, who served on the physics faculty at California Institute of Technology
from 1939 until 1982. Focusing heavily on nuclear physics and astrophysics, the Fowler papers form a rich and important collection
for the history of physics, and illustrate the politics and sociology of science in the twentieth century. They also contain
substantial material on Caltech's World War II rocket developments, plus documents on Project Vista, a Cold-War strategic
defense study headed by Fowler.
The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access.
Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish
or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of the Archives. Permission for publication is given on
behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include
or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.
[Identification of item, box and file number], Papers of William A. Fowler. Archives, California Institute of Technology.
The papers were donated to the Caltech Archives by William Fowler in several installments between 1980 and 1986, bringing
the collection to approximately 67 linear feet. After Fowler's death in March, 1995, his heirs completed the donation of the
papers, nearly doubling the size of the collection with approximately 60 more linear feet.
The pre-1995 papers were roughly sorted into document boxes, plus about 15 linear feet of original binders consisting mainly
of Office of Naval Research files. The 1980 accession was processed by Assistant Archivist Susan Trauger in 1980. This material
deals mainly with the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NUSAC) and various astronomy committees. A rough inventory for about
one third of the pre-1995 collection was prepared by C. Bugé, L. Wood, and M. Williamson.
Thanks to a grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, further processing
of the complete collection took place from 1998 to 2000. This generous award by the AIP allowed the Caltech Archives to finish
processing the pre-1995 donation, process the complete 1995 donation, and finally, merge the two portions into a single integrated
collection, making it accessible to the scholarly community.
Physicist William A. Fowler received the Nobel Prize in Physics with Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar in 1983 for his "theoretical
and experimental studies of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements in the universe."
For most of his scientific career, he was the acknowledged leader of the discipline of nuclear astrophysics and the driving
force behind the theory of nucleosynthesis that the elements and their isotopes were generated in stellar furnaces.
Fowler was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 9, 1911, and grew up in Lima, Ohio. He graduated in engineering physics
from Ohio State University in 1933, then moved to the California Institute of Technology, where he began his graduate studies
under the supervision of Charles C. Lauritsen at Caltech's Kellogg Radiation Laboratory. He received his PhD in 1936 for his
thesis on radioactive elements of low atomic number. Fowler spent his entire scientific career at Caltech, where in 1970 he
was named the first Institute Professor of Physics, a position he held until his retirement in 1982.
Early nuclear studies at the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory established the basis for quantitative determinations of reaction
rates of interest in stellar processes. In the late 1930s reactions in the C-N (carbon-nitrogen) cycle were being studied
at Kellogg, but World War II intervened, and the laboratory staff was engaged in defense research throughout the war. Fowler
and his colleagues worked on a variety of defense projects, first on the invention of the proximity fuze for anti-aircraft
rockets, and later on the development of rocket ordnance for the US navy. For that work, he received the Medal of Merit in
1948. After the war Fowler and his colleagues at Kellogg returned to the field of low-energy light-element nuclear physics,
aiming a major fraction of their research at nuclear reactions in stars. Fowler continued his defense work after the war,
dealing with the study of strategic nuclear weapons as the scientific director of Project Vista.
Fowler's interest in nuclear astrophysics was stimulated by Fred Hoyle's visit to Caltech in the 1950s. Fowler spent his sabbatical
year of 1954-55 at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, England, where he started a collaboration with Fred Hoyle and with
Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, which culminated in their 1957 seminal paper, "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars." Subsequently,
Fowler and Hoyle studied the nuclear processes of supernovae and extended their research to dating the synthesis of chemical
elements from the abundance of their isotopes—a field of research which later became known as nuclear chronology.
In 1967, Fowler, Hoyle, and Robert B. Wagoner produced a comprehensive study regarding the dynamics of expansion of the universe
and the resulting nucleosynthesis, known as Big Bang nucleosynthesis. That same year, Fowler's collaboration with Georgeanne
Caughlan and Barbara Zimmerman led to the publication of the first of a series of reviews evaluating experimental nuclear
reaction rates. This series of reviews continued with a variety of co-authors until 1988 and provided a foundation for the
study of stellar evolution and nucleosynthesis.
Throughout his scientific career, Fowler was also very active in a variety of societies and professional organizations. He
served terms as an officer and then as president of the American Physical Society (1976) and was a member of the Governing
Board and Executive Committee of the American Institute of Physics (1974-1980). He also served on the National Science Board
of the National Science Foundation (1968-1974), the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences (1970-1973, 1977-1980),
and as member and then chairman of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NUSAC) of the National Science Foundation and Department
of Energy (1977-1981).
Fowler received many honors in addition to the Nobel Prize. These included the Vetlesen Prize (1973), the National Medal of
Science awarded by President Gerald Ford in 1974, the Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1978), the Bruce
Gold Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1979), and the Legion of Honor awarded by President François Mitterand
Fowler continued his scientific research and his lecturing activities until his death due to kidney failure on March 14, 1995.
Scope and Content of Collection
The working papers, correspondence, reprints, and biographical material of William Alfred Fowler form the collection known
as the Fowler Papers at the California Institute of Technology Archives.
The Fowler papers form an exceedingly rich and important collection for the history of physics and astrophysics, as well as
for the politics and sociology of science in the twentieth century. Fowler saved a vast amount of material, including documents
related to his mentor Charles C. Lauritsen from the 1920s and 1930s at Caltech. Lauritsen destroyed most of his own papers
connected with Caltech's World War II rocket project, but Fowler preserved his, giving researchers today a detailed first-hand
account of Caltech's intensive involvement in the war effort. A similar level of documentation exists for Fowler's involvement
in postwar defense work, particularly the study of strategic nuclear weapons known as Project Vista, and the creation of the
Office of Naval Research (ONR).
The collection has been divided into twelve sections (see Table of Contents), organized in 213 archival boxes. The Correspondence
Section (Series I) contains a large amount of both incoming and outgoing correspondence. Letters are arranged chronologically
within the alphabetically ordered folders. An effort was made to gather the general as well as a major portion of the scientific
correspondence into one main section. However, some correspondence has been left in other sections, in particular, in the
Technical Files (Series IX) in order to preserve its original context. World War II rocket project correspondence and Project
Vista correspondence is also found in the relevant sections. Correspondence concerning awards and honors, including the Nobel
Prize, as well as family correspondence, has been placed in Series X, Biographical Material. Researchers with access to a
digital version of this finding aid should conduct name and keyword searches in order to find all correspondence by or with
one individual or on one subject or project.
Fowler spent his entire scientific career at Caltech, and his papers contain extensive information on the history of Caltech
in general, and on the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory in particular. Series II, California Institute of Technology, is subdivided
into Fowler's teaching material, Kellogg Radiation Laboratory material, the Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy (PMA) Division
material, and general documents. Some portions in the PMA section are sensitive (faculty salary distribution, appointment
and promotion files, etc.), and thus will be closed for an indefinite period.
Series III deals with World War II and its immediate aftermath. Caltech's principal involvement was the rocket project sponsored
by the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). Fowler kept administrative material regarding the project, as
well as many technical reports. This section of the collection has also been subdivided into five parts: Administrative Material,
Facilities, Reports, Correspondence and Miscellaneous. The reports subsection is the longest and most complex. Reports are
organized by type: Caltech weekly progress reports from October 1941 through September 1945; local intermediate reports between
November 1941 and June 1945; OSRD and CIT technical reports during 1942 to 1946; and technical reports organized by subject
in the original order in which Fowler had kept them. Correspondence is organized by person, organization, or subject. Visual
material connected with the rocket project can be found in miscellaneous under "The South Pacific Theatre Trip." Sixteen-mm
films on the rocket project have been placed in Series XI, Photographic Material, and in Series XII, Oversize, Box 210.
Project Vista material is gathered in Series IV and contains correspondence, administrative material and reports. One box
of slides pertaining to Project Vista can be found in Series XI, Photographic Material.
Fowler was very active in many scientific and professional organizations, and he also served in an advisory capacity to several
government agencies, laboratories and the military. His most extensive involvements, aside from World War II activities and
Project Vista, were with the American Physical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation's
Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NUSAC). The material dealing with these organizations and others, including a significant
portion of correspondence, is found in Series V, arranged alphabetically according to the organization.
Fowler's talks and lectures both at Caltech and elsewhere are arranged in Series VI in chronological order. Folders in this
section contain a wide variety of talk-related documents, from talk outlines and notes to related correspondence. Every effort
has been made to identify each talk and its date and venue, but often the information about a given talk remains sketchy.
Many talks were delivered several times, usually in varying forms, and many were also eventually published. Researchers should
note connections between material in the talks section and in the following section (Series VII), Manuscripts.
Series VII, Manuscripts, contains Fowler's drafts, manuscripts and some unpublished manuscripts in chronological order. Additionally,
some manuscripts by other authors are included. Folders in this section contain a variety of materials such as manuscript
drafts, notes, figures, and tables, and even correspondence, as many of Fowler's papers were co-authored. Fowler's habit was
to refer to his publications by abbreviations formed from the last-name initials of the authors. If two co-authors had the
same last initial, such as Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, his convention was to use the superscript 2 (for "squared"). Thus,
he commonly refers to his famous publication with the Burbidges and Fred Hoyle, "Synthesis of the elements in stars" (1957),
2FH. The sets of data on thermonuclear reaction rates, published in several volumes with different co-authors, are also referred
to by Fowler in this same shorthand. Typically on these projects his collaborators were Georgeanne Caughlan and Barbara Zimmerman
(respectively C and Z). Fowler's shorthand references to his publications have been included in some instances in the manuscripts
section of the finding aid and will be found throughout the collection.
Printed publications in reprint or offprint form that were extant in the Fowler collection are grouped together in Series
VIII under the heading Reprints. It should be noted that the reprint section does not contain all of Fowler's publications,
only those that were included in the original collection given to Caltech.
The large and complex set of technical materials donated to Caltech has been put together in Series IX, Technical Files. For
the sake of clarity, this material has been subdivided into broad subject areas and further subdivided into narrower topics.
However, readers will find some overlap between subsections. Further, the technical files contain a wide variety of materials,
from calculations, plots, notes, data and memos, to full exchanges of letters with collaborators and interested parties. Every
effort has been made to describe the contents clearly and to list names of correspondents in this section of the finding aid,
so that researchers with access to a digital copy may conduct name searches. The subsections of the technical files are: Nuclear
Physics; Nuclear Astrophysics (including nucleosynthesis of the elements [subdivided thermonuclear reaction rates, nuclear
processes, cross-section material], the solar neutrino problem, stars and supernovae, cosmochronology [subdivided into particle
physics and the early universe, and the inflationary universe]); Published and Unpublished Papers and Talks (by Fowler and
others), and Miscellaneous. The subsection on papers and talks overlaps to some degree with the previous Sections VI and VII,
but the distinction in this set of files is the presence of purely technical notes and ancillary materials. Once a project
had taken an identifiable shape as a talk or manuscript, it was removed to Series VI or VII. Researchers will again need to
recognize the relationships between the Technical Files section and the Talks and Manuscript sections.
The Biographical Section (Series X) includes records of Fowler's early and later education (up to and including his graduate
work at Caltech), his family, his awards, including the Nobel Prize, plus miscellaneous biographical information of interest.
Also included are several oral histories and interviews. Researchers may also refer to the oral history conducted through
the Caltech Archives' Oral History Project. The first interview in this series was completed by John L. Greenberg in 1983,
and the supplement by Carol Bugé in 1986.
Photos, slides, and films are collected in Series XI, Photographic Material, though additional photos can be found in the
Oversize Section (Series XII), such as the rocket project photos and conference group photos. The Oversize material also contains
a selection of certificates and various awards, honorary degrees and medals.
Organization of Collection
Organized into the following series: I. Correspondence; II. California Institute of Technology; III. World War II Rocket
Project; IV. Project Vista; V. Professional Organizations and Government Agencies; VI. Talks and Conferences; VII. Manuscripts;
VIII. Reprints; IX. Technical Files; X. Biographical Materials; XI. Photographic Material; XII. Oversize Materials.
The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection.
Lauritsen, Charles Christian, 1892-1968
American Physical Society
California Institute of Technology--Faculty
California Institute of Technology. Division of Physics, Mathmetics and Astronomy
California Institute of Technology. W. K. Kellog Radiation Laboratory
California Institute of Technology. Rocket Project
National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)
National Science Foundation (U.S.). Nuclear Science Advisory Committee
United States. Office of Naval Research
United States. Office of Scientific Research and Development
Rochester Conference on High Energy Nuclear Physics
Physics--Study and teaching
Science--Social aspects--United States--20th century
Science and state--United States--20th century
Strategic weapons systems
World War, 1939-1945--Science
Physicists--United States--20th century
Genres and Forms of Materials
In addition to using the Fowler Papers, researchers are encouraged to consult related collections in the Caltech Archives.
The Historical Files contain miscellaneous material on William Fowler acquired from many different sources. Researchers should
also consult other related manuscript collections at the Archives, such as the Papers of Charles C. Lauritsen and Thomas Lauritsen,
the Earnest C. Watson Papers, the Joseph Foladare Papers, and the Physics 3 Project collection (the latter specifically on
the World War II rocket project). Caltech's photo archives and artifact collections contain further material on Willy Fowler,
as do the audio-visual archives for films, video tapes, and audio tapes. For a complete listing of all William A. Fowler material
in the Caltech Archives, researchers may consult the Archives' web site at: