spacer link to MAST page spacer logo image spacer
link to STScI page

Press Release from Princeton University on the Death of Lyman Spitzer, Jr.

Text courtesy of Princeton University

News from
Communications and Publications, Stanhope Hall
Princeton, New Jersey 08544
Tel 609/258-3601; Fax 609/258-1301

Contact: Mary Caffrey (609) 258-5748
Date: April 1, 1997

Professor of Astronomy Lyman Spitzer, Jr. Dies

Leading Theoretical Astrophysicist and founder of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, he conceived a large-scale observatory that became the Hubble Space Telescope

Princeton, N.J. -- Lyman Spitzer, Jr., widely known for his contributions to the fields of theoretical astrophysics and plasma physics, died suddenly Monday evening at his home. He was 82.

Fifty years ago this month, Spitzer was appointed to the Princeton faculty and named chairman of the Department of Astrophysical Sciences and director of the Princeton Observatory, posts he held until 1979. After retiring from his full-time position in 1982, Spitzer continued to work in his Peyton Hall office until the day of his death, analyzing results from the Hubble Space Telescope, the instrument he conceived in 1946.

According to Princeton University Provost Jeremiah P. Ostriker, who succeeded Spitzer as the Charles A. Young Professor of Astronomy, "Lyman Spitzer and S. Chandrasekhar are the two giants of 20th century theoretical astrophysics. Lyman ranks with Joseph Henry and a very few others among the major contributors to world science over Princeton's 250 years. He was also an exemplary citizen of the University and the nation, an outstanding teacher, an avid mountain-climber, and one of the finest and most decent individuals I have ever known."

"Astronomy has lost a great scientist and leader, and the many people, scientists and non-scientists who loved and admired Lyman have lost a great source of inspiration," said John Bahcall, professor of natural science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Spitzer's contributions included seminal and fundamental advances in four fields -- the interstellar medium, stellar dynamics, plasma physics and space astronomy. The impact of Spitzer's work was strengthened by his gift for clear exposition and his ability to identify the critical questions for research. "Spitzer has chosen big problems to work on, and somehow, for him, complexities unravel and the fundamental simplicities become apparent," Ostriker writes in the introduction to Dreams, Stars and Electrons: Selected Writings of Lyman Spitzer, Jr., which was published earlier this year by the Princeton University Press.

During World War II, Spitzer's work focused on underwater sound and its relation to undersea warfare. Associated initially with the Special Studies Group of Columbia University's Division of War Research, Spitzer directed the Sonar Analysis Group, working closely with the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Ships.

After the war, Spitzer became well-known for his work in launching the study of thermonuclear fusion. In 1951, Spitzer convinced the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to try to contain and harness the nuclear burning of hydrogen at temperatures found on the sun. First approved as Project Matterhorn, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory at the James Forrestal Campus became a world leader in the quest to copy the nuclear reactions occurring within the stars, in which far more energy is produced than consumed. After shepherding its creation, Spitzer led PPPL until 1967. Fusion research aimed to provide an unlimited, cheap source of energy that would meet the world's growing energy requirements, which could not be met forever with fossil and fissionable fuels.

In theoretical physics, Spitzer is credited with founding the discipline of "interstellar matter," which concerns the gas and dust between stars from which new stars form. Early on, Spitzer suggested that the brightest stars in spiral galaxies have formed recently from the gas and dust there. He also noted the presence and importance of interstellar magnetic fields, the likelihood of a multiphase medium -- with hot, warm and cool components -- and the significance of dust grains. His numerous contributions to the field were codified in the 1968 monograph, Diffuse Matter in Space, which became the standard text in the field. Spitzer also made major advances in stellar dynamics, contributing to the understanding of "relaxation" and how this process caused a dense stellar system to inexorably approach a singular state, the approach accelerated by the existence of a spectrum of stellar masses but retarded by the presence of binaries. His contributions to this field were summarized in the 1987 volume, Dynamical Evolution of Globular Clusters.

In space astronomy, Spitzer's contributions "are by now legendary," Ostriker said. In a 1946 report under Project Rand, and more than a decade before the launch of the first artificial satellite, he proposed the development of large space telescopes that would overcome astronomical "seeing" problems, increase the wavelength coverage available and function better in the stability of a low-gravity environment. Under Spitzer's direction, a group of Princeton scientists developed the 32-inch Copernicus ultraviolet satellite, which made several important discoveries after its launch in 1972. He later steered the development of the Hubble Space Telescope through several difficult stages of development and refurbishment. The productive Hubble, now feeding back incomparable pictures of the cosmos, "was quite in a literal sense Spitzer's brainchild," Ostriker said.

Born on June 26, 1914, Spitzer received his bachelor's degree from Yale in 1935. He spent a year at St. John's College, Cambridge University, before earning his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1938. He served on the Yale faculty from 1939 to 1942 before his wartime service at Columbia, then returned briefly to Yale before joining the Princeton faculty in 1947. In 1967, Spitzer was named to a five-year term as chairman of the University Research Board, which recommends policies for all sponsored research at Princeton.

In 1979, Spitzer received the National Medal of Science from President Jimmy Carter. Among Spitzer's international honors are the 1975 Karl Schwarzschild Medal, the 1978 Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and the 1980 Jules Janssen Medal of the Societe Astronomique de France. His awards culminated with the 1985 Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy, which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in fields excluded from those awards.

Spitzer is survived by his wife, Doreen Canaday Spitzer; a son, Nicholas C. Spitzer of Del Mar, Calif., three daughters, Dionis S. Griffin of Savannah, Ga., and Sarah S. Saul and Lydia S. Spitzer of North Pomfret, Vt.; two sisters, Luette Eaton of Peterboro, N.H., and Lydia Rheinfrank of Perrysburg, Ohio; a brother, John Spitzer, also of Perrysburg; and 10 grandchildren. Burial will be private, and a memorial service will be planned for later this spring.

NOTE: A photograph of Lyman Spitzer, Jr. can be obtained from Princeton University's web site,