Robert Hofstadter Biography

Robert Hofstadter was an American physicist famous for his research in protons and neutrons. This biography of Robert Hofstadter provides detailed information about his childhood, life, achievements, works & timeline.

Robert Hofstadter
Quick Facts

Birthday: February 5, 1915

Nationality: American

Famous: Physicists Astrophysicists

Died At Age: 75

Sun Sign: Aquarius

Also Known As: Хофштадтер, Роберт

Born in: New York City

Famous as: Physicist


Spouse/Ex-: Nancy Givan

father: Louis Hofstadter

mother: Henrietta Koenigsberg

children: Douglas Hofstadter, Laura Hofstadter, Molly Hofstadter

Died on: November 17, 1990

place of death: Stanford

City: New York City

U.S. State: New Yorkers

More Facts

education: 1938 - Princeton University, 1935 - City College of New York, 1938 - Princeton University, 1939 - University of Pennsylvania

awards: 1961 - Nobel Prize in Physics
1958 - Guggenheim Fellowship for Natural Sciences
US & Canada

1987 - Dirac Medal for the Advancement of Theoretical Physics
1986 - National Medal of Science for Physical Science

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Robert Hofstadter was an American physicist famous for his discoveries concerning the structure of nucleons. His in-depth investigation of electron scattering in atomic nuclei led to the determination of the size and shape of the proton and the neutron, and earned him a share of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physics which he was jointly awarded with Rudolf Mössbauer. Born into a Jewish family in New York, he grew up to be a brilliant student who excelled in the sciences and mathematics. He graduated magna cum laude from the City College of New York and was awarded a Charles A. Coffin Foundation Fellowship to attend graduate school at Princeton University. Armed with a doctorate degree by the time he was 23, he served as a physicist at the National Bureau of Standards during World War II before embarking on an academic career. He worked for a while at the Princeton University where he carried out research on crystal conduction counters, on the Compton effect. After leaving Princeton, he moved to Stanford University where he focused his efforts on electron-scattering measurements. In the later stages of his career he grew interested in astrophysics and played a major role in the development of the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.

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Robert Hofstadter
Childhood & Early Life
  • Robert Hofstadter was born on February 5, 1915, in New York to Polish immigrants, Louis Hofstadter, a salesman, and his wife, Henrietta Koenigsberg. His family was Jewish.
  • After attending elementary and high schools in New York City, he enrolled at the City College of New York, graduating with a B.S. degree magna cum laude in 1935. An excellent student, he became the recipient of the Kenyon Prize in Mathematics and Physics.
  • He was also awarded the Coffin Fellowship by the General Electric Company which enabled him to attend graduate school at Princeton University where he studied physics. He received both the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in 1938 from that institution.
  • Upon completing his doctorate degree by the age of 23, he was awarded a Procter Fellowship at Princeton University for postdoctoral work in 1938-39. During this time he began the study of photoconductivity in willemite crystals which laid the foundation for his future works.
  • In 1939, he received the Harrison Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania where he continued his postdoctoral work. There he met L. I. Schiff who became his friend for many years. It was at Pennsylvania that he helped to construct a large Van de Graaff machine for nuclear research.
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  • During the World War II he served as a physicist at the National Bureau of Standards. There he was pivotal in developing the proximity fuse, an anti-aircraft weapon used to detonate anti-aircraft and other artillery shells. He also worked at the Norden Laboratory Corporation during the war years.
  • He embarked on an academic career once the war ended. He joined the faculty of Princeton in 1946 where he primarily dealt with the study of infrared rays, photoconductivity, and crystal and scintillation counters. He filed a patent for thallium-activated sodium iodide gamma ray detector in 1948.
  • In 1950, he left Princeton to join the Stanford University as Associate Professor of Physics. There he initiated research on electron-scattering and continued working on scintillation counters and developed new detectors for neutrons and X-rays.
  • From 1953 onwards, he focused mainly on electron-scattering measurements. Working together with his students and colleagues, he studied the charge distribution in atomic nuclei and made the use of the linear electron accelerator to measure and explore the constituents of atomic nuclei.
  • In 1956, he published a paper ‘Electron Scattering and Nuclear Structure’ in ‘Reviews of Modern Physics’ journal in which he coined the term “Fermi”, symbol “fm” in honor of the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, one of the founders of nuclear physics. The term is widely used by nuclear and particle physicists.
  • He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1958-59, and spent one year at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, on sabbatical leave. He retired from Stanford in 1985.
  • During the final years of his life, he developed a deep interest in astrophysics and was instrumental in the design and development of the EGRET gamma-ray telescope of the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.
Major Works
  • Robert Hofstadter is best remembered for his research in electron scattering in atomic nuclei. He not only discovered that protons and neutrons—the fundamental constituents of the nuclei of atoms—have a definite size and form, but also determined that precise size of the proton and neutron. He also provided the first "reasonably consistent" picture of the structure of the atomic nucleus.
Awards & Achievements
  • Robert Hofstadter received a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1961 "for his pioneering studies of electron scattering in atomic nuclei and for his thereby achieved discoveries concerning the structure of the nucleons."
  • He was honored with the National Medal of Science in 1986.
Personal Life & Legacy
  • Robert Hofstadter married Nancy Givan in 1942. The couple had three children. His son, Douglas, is a Pulitzer Prize winner.
  • He died of a heart attack on November 17, 1990, in Stanford, California, at the age of 75.

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Last Updated
- November 06, 2017
Robert Hofstadter

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