17 November: Tribute to Robert Hofstadter

OV Digital Desk
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robert hofstadter

Robert Hofstadter (5 February 1915 – 17 November 1990) was an American physicist. He won the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Life and Career

He was born on 5 February 1915, in New York City. He graduated from the City College of New York with a B.S. degree in 1935. He got his M.A. and Ph.D. in 1938 from Princeton University.

In 1939, he won a Harrison Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, where he continued postdoctoral research.


In 1946, he joined Princeton’s faculty, where he studied infrared rays, photoconductivity, crystals, and scintillation counters. In 1948, he filed a patent for a thallium-activated sodium iodide gamma-ray detector.

He left Princeton in 1950 and joined Stanford University as an Associate Professor of Physics. Then he started working on scintillation counters and developed new X-ray and neutron detectors.

He started measuring electron scattering in 1953. By using the linear electron accelerator to measure and explore the constituents of atomic nuclei, he worked with his students and colleagues to study charge distribution in atomic nuclei.


In 1956, he published ‘Electron Scattering and Nuclear Structure’ in a journal called Reviews of Modern Physics, in which he coined the term “Fermi”, symbol “fm” in honor of nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi.

As a Guggenheim Fellow in 1958-59, he spent one year on sabbatical at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1985, he retired from Stanford.

He developed a deep interest in astrophysics during his last years and helped design and develop the EGRET gamma-ray telescope.

Robert Hofstadter died on 17 November 1990, in Stanford, California.


In 1961, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for ‘pioneering studies of electron scattering in atomic nuclei and discoveries concerning nucleon structure’.

In 1986, he won the National Medal of Science.

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