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Sir Ralph Howard Fowler OBE FRS (17 January 1889 – 28 July 1944) was a British physicist and astronomer.


Fowler was initially educated at home but then attended Evans' preparatory school at Horris Hill and Winchester College. He won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge and read mathematics, becoming a wrangler in Part II of the Tripos.

War Service

In the First World War he obtained a commission in the Royal Marine Artillery and was seriously wounded in the shoulder at Gallipoli. The wound caused him to be introduced to Archibald Hill, who brought Fowler's abilities to the realm of physics. He worked as Hill's second in command working with the Experimental Department of HMS Excellent on Whale Island and made a major contribution on the aerodynamics of spinning shells, for which he was awarded the OBE in 1918.

Academic career

In 1919 Fowler returned to Trinity and was appointed college lecturer in mathematics in 1920. Here he worked on thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, bringing a new approach to physical chemistry. With Arthur Milne he wrote a seminal work on stellar spectra, temperatures, and pressures. In 1925 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1926 he worked with Paul Dirac on the statistical mechanics of white dwarf stars. In 1928 he published (with Lothar Nordheim) a seminal paper that explained the physical phenomenon now known as field electron emission, and helped to establish the validity of modern electron band theory. In 1932 he was elected to the Chair of Theoretical Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory.

In 1939, when the Second World War began, he resumed his work with the Ordnance Board, despite poor health, and was chosen for scientific liaison with Canada and the United States. He knew America well, having visiting professorships at Princeton and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. For this liaison work he was knighted in 1942 (see MAUD Committee). He returned to Britain later in the war and worked for the Ordnance Board and the Admiralty up a few weeks before his death in 1944.

Fifteen Fellows of the Royal Society and three Nobel Laureates were supervised by Fowler between 1922 and 1939. In addition to Milne, he worked with Sir Arthur Eddington, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Paul Dirac, Sir William McCrea. It was Fowler who introduced Paul Dirac to quantum theory in 1923. Fowler also put Dirac and Werner Heisenberg in touch with each other through Niels Bohr. At Cambridge he supervised the doctoral studies of 64 students, including John Lennard-Jones, Paul Dirac and Garrett Birkhoff.

Personal life

In 1921 he married Eileen Mary (1901-1930), the only daughter of Ernest Rutherford. They had four children, two sons and two daughters. Eileen died after the birth of their last child.


* Who was Who 1941-1950 (London, A & C Black)

E. A. Milne (1945) Ralph Howard Fowler. 1889-1966. Obit. Not. Fell. Roy. Soc. 5: 60-78.

External links

* Biography of Ernest Rutherford, with names of Ralph & Eileen's children

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