Lyman Spitzer, Jr.

Lyman Spitzer, Jr.


Date of Birth
June 26, 1914
Date of Death
March 31, 1997

Lyman Spitzer, Jr. studied at Yale and the University of Cambridge and earned his Ph.D. under Henry Norris Russell at Princeton University. Following research at Harvard, teaching at Yale, and war work in New York, he succeeded Russell as professor and observatory director at Princeton in 1947. He promptly hired Martin Schwarzschild, and the two built a major research department. Spitzer worked in many areas of theoretical astrophysics, including spectral line formation, the dynamical evolution of star clusters, and star formation. His most important work was on the physics of the interstellar medium. He showed that there must be at least two phases—high temperature clouds around hot stars and cooler intercloud regions. He led in studies of interstellar dust grains and magnetic fields. He was the first to propose a large telescope in space (in 1946), and he was analyzing data from the Hubble Space Telescope the day he died. He led the development and operation of the ultraviolet astronomy satellite Copernicus. An early leader in attempts to harness controlled thermonuclear fusion on earth, he was the founder and first director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (originally called Project Matterhorn). He wrote important books on ionized gases, the physics of the interstellar medium, and the dynamical evolution of globular clusters. Several of his graduate students became leaders in astrophysical research.

Presentation of Bruce medal

Weymann, Ray J., Mercury 2, 4, 4-6 (1973).

Other awards

American Astronomical Society, Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, 1953.
American Philosophical Society, Benjamin Franklin Medal, 1991.
American Physical Society, James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics, 1975.
Astronomische Gesellschaft, Karl Schwarzschild Medal, 1975.
Franklin Institute, David Rittenhouse Medal, 1957; Franklin Medal, 1980.
National Academy of Sciences, Henry Draper Medal, 1974; National Medal of Science, 1979.
National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Jansky Prize, 1974.
Royal Astronomical Society, Gold medal, 1978, presented by A.H. Cook, QJRAS 20, 1-2 (1978).
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Crafoord prize, 1985.
Société Astronomique de France, Janssen Prize, 1980.

Some offices held

American Astronomical Society, President, 1960-62.

Biographical materials

American Museum of Natural History, Lyman Spitzer and the Space Telescope
Copernicus mission archives
Morton, Donald C., “Lyman Spitzer: Astronomer, Physicist, Engineer, and Mountaineer,” in L. Armus & W.T. Reach, The Spitzer Space Telescope: New Views of the Cosmos ASP Conference Series, Volume 357, proceedings of the conference held 9-12 November, 2004 in Pasadena, California, USA (Astronomical Society of the Pacific, San Francisco, 2006), pp. 1-6.
Ostriker, Jeremiah P., Biographical Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society 150, 505-16 (2006).
Ostriker, Jeremiah P., Biographical Memoir of the National Academy of Sciences, 2007.
Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “Dreams, Stars, and Electrons,” Ann. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 27, 1-17 (1989).
Spitzer Space Telescope


Bahcall, John N. & Jeremiah P. Ostriker, Physics Today 50, 10, 123-24 (1997).
Dressler, Alan, “Four Stars of the Cosmos (Martin Schwarzschild, Eugene Merle Shoemaker, Lyman Spitzer Jr., Clyde W. Tombaugh),” The New York Times Magazine Jan 4, 1998, p 44 col 2.
Field, George B., PASP 110, 215-22 (1998).
Field, George B. & John N. Bahcall, Nature 387, 244 (1997).
Hazeltine, R.D., Solar News, 16 April 1997.
King, Ivan R., Bull. Am. Astron. Soc. 29, 1489-91 (1997).
Mestel, Leon, Bull. Astr. Soc. India 25, 281-83 (1997).
Princeton University.
Copernicus Mission Archive.


AIP Center for History of Physics (many)
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Spitzer Space Telesope
Princeton University (large version)

Named after him

Spitzer Space Telescope (formerly SIRTF)
Minor Planet #2160 Spitzer
Lyman Spitzer Building at PPPL


Papers, etc.

Spitzer’s papers are at the Princeton University Library. There are 1977, 1978, and 1991 oral history interviews at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives.

Other References: Historical

Search ADS for works about Spitzer

Alves, João & Virginia Trimble, “Star Formation from Spitzer (Lyman) to Spitzer (Space Telescope) and Beyond: a summary of JENAM 2008 Symposium 9 Star Formation from Spitzer (Lyman) to Spitzer (Space Telescope) and Beyond, held in Vienna, 10-12 September 2008,” PASP 121, 433-35 (2009).

Bishop, A.S. Project Sherwood (Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1958).

Bromberg, J.L., Fusion: Science, Politics and the Invention of a New Energy Source (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1982).

Elmegreen, Bruce G., “The Early Years: Lyman Spitzer, Jr. and the Physics of Star Formation,” in Siegfried Roser, ed., Formation and Evolution of Cosmic Structures: Reviews in Modern Astronomy, Volume 21 (Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim, 2009), pp. 157-182 [arXiv:0912.1001v1].

Hanle, Paul A., “Astronomers, Congress, and the Large Space Telescope,” Sky & Telescope 69, 300 (1985).

Smith, Robert W., The Space Telescope: A Study of NASA, Science, Technology, and Politics (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK & NY, 1989).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “History of the Space Telescope” QJRAS 20, 29-36 (1979).

Spitzer, L., Jr., “Ultraviolet Spectra of the Stars,” in Space Science Comes of Age: Perspectives in the History of the Space Sciences; Proceedings of the Symposium, Washington, DC, March 23, 24, 1981 (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1981), p. 2-13.

Zimmerman, Robert, The Universe in a Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It (Princeton Univ. Press, 2010).

Other References: Scientific

Search ADS for works by Spitzer

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., & Jeremiah P. Ostriker, eds., Dreams, Stars, and Electrons: Selected Writings of Lyman Spitzer, Jr. (Princeton University Press, 1997) .

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “Impact Broadening of Spectral Lines,” Phys. Rev. 58, 348-56 (1940).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-terrestrial Observatory," RAND report, 1946, reprinted with commentary in Astronomy Quarterly 7, 131-42 (1990) and also in NASA SP-4407, 2001 Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program. Volume V: Exploring the Cosmos, pp. 546ff. [This is the paper that ultimately led to the Hubble Space Telescope.]

Cohen, Robert S., Lyman Spitzer, Jr. & Paul McR. Routly, “The Electrical Conductivity of an Ionized Gas,”Phys. Rev. 80, 230-38 (1950).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr. & Richard Härm, “Transport Phenomena in a Completely Ionized Gas,” Phys. Rev. 89, 977-81 (1953).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “Behavior of Matter in Space,” Ap.J. 120, 1-17 (1954) [Henry Norris Russell Lecture].

Oort, Jan H. & Lyman Spitzer, Jr., “Acceleration of Interstellar Clouds by O-Type Stars,” Ap.J. 121, 6-23 (1954).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., Physics of Fully Ionized Gases (Interscience, NY, 1956, 1962).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “Disruption of Galactic Clusters” Ap.J. 127, 17-27 (1958).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr. & Richard Härm, “Evaporation of Stars from Isolated Clusters” Ap.J. 127, 544-50 (1958).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “Problems in Magneto-Fluid Dynamics,” Rev. Mod. Phys. 32,696-700 (1960)

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr. & William C. Saslaw, “On the Evolution of Galactic Nuclei,” Ap.J. 143, 400-19 (1966).

Jones, R. Victor & Lyman Spitzer, Jr., “Magnetic Alignment of Interstellar Grains,” 147, 943-64 (1967).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., Diffuse Matter in Space (Interscience, NY, 1968).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “Astronomical Research with a Large Orbiting Telescope,” in Singer, Fred S., ed., Manned Laboratories in Space, Proceedings of the 2nd International Orbital Laboratory Symposium, org. by the International Academy of Astronautics at the 19th International Astronautical Congress, New York, October 18th, 1968 (Reidel, Dordrecht, 1969), p.88.

Bahcall, John N. & Lyman Spitzer, Jr., “Absorption Lines Produced by Galactic Halos,” 156, L63-L65 (1969).

Purcell, Edward M. & Lyman Spitzer, Jr., “Orientation of Rotating Grains,” Ap.J. 167, 31-62 (1971).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., & Trinh X. Thuan, “Random Gravitational Encounters and the Evolution of Spherical Systems. IV.,” Ap.J. 175, 31-61 (1972)

Ostriker, Jeremiah P., Lyman Spitzer, Jr., & Roger A. Chevalier, “On the Evolution of Globular Clusters,” Ap.J. 176, L51-L56 (1972)

Rogerson, J.B. et al., “Spectrophotometric Results from the Copernicus Satellite. I. Instrumentation and Performance,” Ap.J. 181, L97-L102 (1973).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., William D. Cochran, & Alan Hirshfeld, “Column Densities of Interstellar Molecular Hydrogen,” Ap.J. Supp., 28,373-89 (1974)

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr. & Edward B. Jenkins, “Ultraviolet Studies of the Interstellar Gas,” Ann. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 13, 127-64 (1975).

Tremaine, Scott D., J.P. Ostriker, & Lyman Spitzer, Jr., “The Formation of the Nuclei of Galaxies. I. M31,” Ap.J. 196, 407-11 (1975).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., & Winifred A. Morton, “Components in Interstellar Molecular Hydrogen,” Ap.J. 204, 731-49 (1976).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “Interstellar Matter Research with the Copernicus Satellite,” Mit. AG 38, 27-39 (1976) [Karl Schwarzschild lecture].

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., Physical Processes in the Interstellar Medium (Wiley, New York, 1978).

Bohlin, R.C., et al, “A Survey of Ultraviolet Interstellar Absorption Lines,” Ap.J. Supp. 51, 277-308 (1983).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “Dynamics of Globular Clusters,” Science 225, 465-72 (1984).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “Spectroscopy with Copernicus and the Edwin P. Hubble Observatory,” Vistas in Astronomy 29, pt. 2, 143-50 (1986).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., Dynamical Evolution of Globular Clusters (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1987).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “Theories of the Hot Interstellar Gas,” Ann. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 28, 71-83 (1990).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., Physical Processes in the Interstellar Medium (Wiley,1998) .

Fitzpatrick, Edward L. & Lyman Spitzer, Jr., “Composition of Interstellar Clouds in the Disk and Halo. IV. HD 215733,” Ap.J. 475, 623-41 (1997).

Welty, Daniel E., L.M. Hobbs, James T. Lauroesch, Donald C. Morton, Lyman Spitzer, & Donald G. York, “The Diffuse Interstellar Clouds toward 23 Orionis,” Ap. J. Supp. 124, 465-501 (1999).

Other Works: Popularizations, Fiction, etc.

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “The Formation of Stars,” Physics Today 1, no. 5, 6-11 (1948).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “The Formation of Stars,” ASP Leaflets 5, 336 (1949).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “The Stellarator,” Scientific American 199, no. 4, 28-35 (1958).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “The Space Telescope,” American Scientist 66, 426-31 (1978). [abstract]

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., K.S. de Boer, & B.D. Savage, “Hot Gas Halos around Galaxies,” Sky & Telescope 60, 189 (1980).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., Searching Between the Stars (Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT, 1982) .

Bahcall, John N. & Lyman Spitzer, Jr., “The Space Telescope,” Scientific American 247, 40-51 (1982).

Spitzer, Lyman, Jr., “Interstellar Matter and the Birth and Death of Stars,” Mercury 12, 5, 142 (1983).