Lyman Spitzer

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Lyman Spitzer
Lyman Spitzer.jpg
Born Lyman Strong Spitzer, Jr.
(1914-06-26)June 26, 1914
Toledo, Ohio, United States
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Princeton, New Jersey, USA
Nationality American
Fields Theoretical physics
Alma mater Phillips Academy
Princeton University (Ph.D.)
Yale University (B.A.)
Doctoral advisor Henry Norris Russell
Doctoral students John Richard Gott
Bruce Elmegreen
George B. Field
J. Beverley Oke
Trinh Xuan Thuan
Known for Research in star formation and plasma physics
Promotion of space telescopes
Notable awards Henry Draper Medal (1974)
National Medal of Science (1979)
Crafoord Prize (1985)
Spouse Doreen Canaday (1940)

Lyman Strong Spitzer, Jr. (June 26, 1914 – March 31, 1997)[1] was an American theoretical physicist, astronomer and mountaineer. As a scientist, he carried out research into star formation, plasma physics, and in 1946, conceived the idea of telescopes operating in outer space.[2] Spitzer invented the stellarator plasma device and is the namesake of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. As a mountaineer, he made the first ascent of Mount Thor, with David Morton.

Early life and education

Spitzer was born to a Presbyterian family in Toledo, Ohio, the son of Lyman Strong Spitzer and Blanche Carey (née Brumback). Through his paternal grandmother, he was related to inventor Eli Whitney.[3] Spitzer graduated from Scott High School. He then attended Phillips Academy in 1929 and went on to Yale College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1935 and was a member of Skull and Bones. During a year of study at Cambridge University, he was influenced by Arthur Eddington and the young Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Returning to the U.S., Spitzer earned his MA from Princeton University in 1937 and his PhD in 1938,[4] under the direction of Henry Norris Russell.[5]


In 1965, Spitzer and Donald Morton became the first men to climb Mount Thor 1,675 m (5,495 ft), located in Auyuittuq National Park, on Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada.[1]:347 As a member of the American Alpine Club Spitzer established the "Lyman Spitzer Cutting Edge Climbing Award" which gives $12,000 to several mountain climbing expeditions annually.[6]


Spitzer's brief time as a faculty member at Yale was interrupted by his wartime work on the development of sonar. In 1947, at the age of 33, he succeeded Russell as director of Princeton University Observatory, an institution that, virtually jointly with his contemporary Martin Schwarzschild, he continued to head until 1979.

Spitzer's research centered on the interstellar medium, to which he brought a deep understanding of plasma physics. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was among the first to recognize star formation as an ongoing contemporary process. His monographs, "Diffuse Matter in Space" (1968) and "Physical Processes in the Interstellar Medium" (1978) consolidated decades of work, and themselves became the standard texts for some decades more.

Spitzer was the founding director of Project Matterhorn, Princeton University's pioneering program in controlled thermonuclear research, renamed in 1961 as Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He was an early proponent of space optical astronomy in general, and in particular of the project that became Hubble Space Telescope.


Spitzer suddenly died on March 31, 1997 after completing a regular day of work at Princeton University. He was buried at Princeton Cemetery and was survived by wife Doreen Canaday Spitzer, four children, and ten grandchildren. Among Spitzer's four children is neurobiologist Nicholas C. Spitzer, who is currently the professor and vice chair in neurobiology at UC San Diego.



Named after him


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  3. Ancestry of Gov. Bill Richardson
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  6. Lyman Spitzer Cutting Edge Climbing Award
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External links