Nobel-Winning Physicist

Burton Richter

September 2018

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Nobel-Winning Physicist

Photo: Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

In a career that ranged from discovering the subatomic “charm quark” to analyzing Earth’s destiny as climate change loomed, Burt Richter recalibrated science and pondered the planet’s fate. When his physicist son voiced concern that his father’s pro-nuclear power stance would provoke criticism, Richter was undeterred. “I’m doing it for your kids,” he said.

Burton Richter, the winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in physics; the Paul Pigott Professor in the Physical Sciences, Emeritus; and the former director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, died July 18 at Stanford Hospital. He was 87 and suffered from heart failure.

On November 11, 1974, Richter, then head of SLAC, and Samuel Ting of the Brookhaven National Laboratory jointly announced they had independently identified a new particle. The breakthrough helped establish the Standard Model and was considered so important for physics that its discovery and the quick scientific progress thereafter became known as the November Revolution, echoing the Bolsheviks’ 1917 October Revolution.

Richter was a canny investigator of reality’s deepest secrets. He was a theoretician with the rare ability to design and build his own instruments, massive colliders that whirled minute fractions of matter at warp speed to force impacts he could autopsy for the data he needed to validate his theoretical work.

When Richter the designer saw his Stanford Positron Electron Accelerating Ring produce an offbeat blip of data that signaled a new and relatively long-lived subatomic particle, Richter the theoretician immediately recognized its import. “Nothing so strange and unexpected had happened in particle physics for many years,” he recounted in his Nobel lecture.

Richter wanted to name the particle SP for the SPEAR accelerator; colleagues talked him out of it. So he came up with the Greek letter psi, which contains his preferred initials reversed. Ting called the particle J, and the title J/psi has endured.

Richter scaled up his curiosity from the subatomic to the planetary. In 2010 he published Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century, a concise, well-received account of the settled science and practical solutions addressing global warming. One way out, he firmly believed, involved the very atoms he used to smash, harnessed as nuclear energy.

“He was always open to data-driven decisions,” says son Matthew Richter, PhD ’93. “Physicists are sometimes accused of being arrogant because we’re strong-willed. He was rigorous and consistent in his principles.”

In a 2011 interview, Richter excoriated official inaction in the face of onrushing climate catastrophe. He noted that physicists envy those in their ranks whose names adorn basic truths. So to Newton’s laws of motion he counterposed sardonically Richter’s laws of government inertia. Among them: “Short-term pain drives out any long-term gain.” 

Survivors include Matthew; wife Laurose (Becker, ’51); and daughter Elizabeth, ’83, MA ’84.

John Roemer is a freelance writer based in Sausalito, Calif. 

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