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Guide to the Papers of Robert B. Leighton, 1938-1988
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms
  • Related Collections

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Robert B. Leighton papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1938-1988
    Collection number: Consult repository
    Creator: Leighton, Robert B., 1919-1997
    Extent: 7 linear feet.
    Repository: California Institute of Technology. Archives.
    Pasadena, California 91125
    Abstract: This collection documents the career of Robert B. Leighton, who served as a member of the physics faculty at the California Institute of Technology from 1949 until 1986. The materials relating to the California Institute of Technology include research proposals for funding on design projects for NASA, radio and optical telescope dish designs (Owens Valley Radio Observatory and Keck Telescope), and radio astronomy, and other observational data. The papers also contain lecture notes to courses led by Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann, as well as publication files on Feynman's Lectures on Physics.
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access.

    Publication Rights

    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.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item, box and file number], Papers of Robert B. Leighton. Archives, California Institute of Technology.

    Acquisition Information

    The Robert B. Leighton collection was donated to the Institute Archives in several installments originating from various sources. The bulk of the collection was obtained from the Physics Division in 1992. Two years later, a lot of photographic material was acquired by the Archives from Dr. Leighton's son, Allan, Professors G. Neugebauer and T. Phillips. Finally, the third installment came in 1995 from Allan Leighton and from the Astrophysics Library.

    Processing History

    This collection was processed by Laurence M. Dupray, Nurit Lifshitz, and Anne Simms. Processing completed July 2000.
    The processing of the Robert B. Leighton collection and the creation of the finding aid was made possible in part by a grant from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation and the Friends of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics.


    Born in Detroit on September 10, 1919, Robert B. Leighton was raised in Long Beach by his mother. He exhibited at an early age an interest in science, particularly in astronomy and photography. He spent his high-school years in Long Beach and Los Angeles schools. He then started a long tenure at Caltech: Bachelor of Science in 1941, Master of Science of 1944, PhD in 1947, research fellowship, and assistant professorship in 1949.
    His scientific career debut was in the field of particle physics. He made many important contributions, among them the identification of the mu-meson decay products, the measurement of the energy spectrum of decay electrons, and the first observation of a strange particle decay.
    It was only in the mid-1950's that Robert Leighton started to take an active role in astronomy. He turned his attention to the physics of the sun. He developed Doppler-shift and Zeeman-effect solar cameras which were used to demonstrate the existence of the sun's magnetic field and five-minute oscillations.
    In the early 1960's, he and Gerry Neugebauer developed a small infrared telescope, used to produce the first infrared survey of the sky. This 60-inch telescope was first set up at Caltech and then moved to the Mount Wilson Observatory.
    He became involved in several Mariner projects, particularly the Mariner IV mission where he was the principal investigator for the television experiment. This mission led to the discovery of Martian craters and the determination of the density of the Martian atmosphere. It also returned 22 television pictures covering about one percent of the planet's surface.
    In 1970, Professor Leighton's interest shifted to building large, inexpensive dish antennae for millimeter and submillimeter observations. This resulted in the construction of three 10-meter dishes at Owens Valley Radio Observatory and one in Hawaii for submillimeter interferometry.
    Besides these accomplishments, Dr. Leighton remained very active in teaching at the Institute. He taught an undergraduate course for many years. He also edited the Feynman Lectures for publication and wrote two textbooks: Principles of Modern Physics and Exercises in Introductory Physics, the latter in collaboration with Dr. Rochus Vogt.
    His outstanding academic career is reflected by his nomination to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in 1963.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    Includes correspondence, teaching materials, technical files, meetings reports and correspondence, manuscripts and talks, and films of planets taken by Dr. Leighton at Mount Wilson observatory in the late 1950s. The materials relating to the California Institute of Technology include research proposals for funding on design projects for NASA, radio and optical telescope dish designs (Owens Valley Radio Observatory and Keck Telescope), and radio astronomy, and other observational data. Also contains lecture notes to courses by Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann and publication files on Feynman's lectures on physics; and reports, correspondence, and notes relating to his membership in the National Academy of Sciences.
    I. Correspondence. This large section is arranged first in alphabetical order, then chronologically for each person.
    II. Caltech. This section contains material related to the California Institute of Technology. Each subsection is organized in chronological order, starting with the oldest material. The first subsection contains research proposals which were submitted over a period of twenty years to various funding agencies for the support and construction of various astronomical devices. The title of the following subsection is teaching. It contains material related to two courses offered by the physics division: Physics 234, with Gell-Mann as the instructor, and Physics 1 abc, with Robert Leighton as one of several instructors. The last subsection contains miscellaneous documents pertinent to the California Institute of Technology.
    III. Technical Files. This section contains information on the astronomical work done by Dr. Leighton. It begins with the construction of the 60-inch, infrared telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory. The following subcategory relates to the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, and the construction of the 10-meter dish telescopes (later called the Leighton telescopes) for millimeter-wave observations. It contains proposals, mechanical design notes and correspondence. The following category entitled "Submillimeter-wave astronomy" deals with the telescope built at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory in Hawaii. The content of this section is the same as the previous one. The last section, "Miscellaneous," contains three notebooks; two of them deal with particle physics, and the other one with astronomy.
    IV. Professional Organizations. Dr. Leighton was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Reports, correspondence and notes of the meetings he participated are contained in this section.
    V. Manuscripts and Talks. The first subsection, Manuscripts, contains mostly drafts of papers which were never published. The most important ones are five Feynman lectures which were never edited for publication.
    VI. Films. The last section deals with "The Planet Movies," which were a series of short footages from planets taken by Dr. Leighton during his observation times at Mount Wilson in the 1950's. These 16-mm films were recently transferred to a videotape and can be found in the Archives' audio-visual material.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection.


    Gell-Mann, Murray
    Feynman, Richard Phillips


    California Institute of Technology
    Mount Wilson Observatory
    National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)
    Owens Valley Radio Observatory
    United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration
    W.M. Keck Observatory
    Keck Telescope


    Physics--Study and teaching
    Radio astronomy
    Radio telescopes

    Genres and Forms of Materials

    Lecture notes
    Motion pictures



    Related Collections

    Records of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO)
    Papers of Alan T. Moffet
    Margaret L. Leighton Oral History Interview (1995)
    Robert B. Leighton Oral History Interview (1986-1987)
    Gerry Neugebauer Oral History Interview (1991)