Robert F. Christy
California Institute of Technology
May 14, 1916 - October 3, 2012
Election Year: 1965
Scientific Discipline: Physics
Membership Type: Member
An early participant in the Manhattan Project during World War II, Robert F. Christy played a leading role at the project’s Los Alamos, New Mexico, laboratory in developing the world’s first nuclear bomb. Although he later made contributions to non-weapons-related nuclear-physics theory and cosmic-ray studies and did important research on pulsating stars, it was his design of the “Christy gadget”—the plutonium implosion device successfully tested at the Trinity site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945—that brought him lasting recognition.
Born in Vancouver, Canada, Christy received a bachelor’s degree in 1935 and his master’s in 1937, both in physics, from the University of British Columbia. He was then accepted for doctoral research in theoretical physics by J. Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley, where Christy worked with some of the leading, and soon-to-be-leading, physicists of the time. He received his Ph.D. in 1941, with a dissertation on the spin of the mesotron, now known as the meson. He later attributed his lifetime interest in bridging theory and experiment to the cosmic-ray research that served as the template for his doctoral thesis. “My greatest strength was not in creating new theories . . . but rather in seeing how theory and experiment related,” Christy said. After a short stint at the Illinois Institute of Technology, he took a research position at the University of Chicago in 1942. There he worked with Enrico Fermi on nuclear fission and was present at the startup of the “pile”—the world’s first controlled self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. In 1943, Christy was recruited to the Manhattan Project.
After the war, in 1946, Christy joined the physics faculty of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he was based until retiring 40 years later. At Caltech his research included further studies on nuclear and cosmic-ray physics but moved far beyond those fields as well; he made significant contributions to astrophysics, for example. Christy also served the Institute as an administrator—he was chairman of the physics department, chairman of the faculty, acting president of Caltech, and (from 1970 to 1980) the provost—and he is credited with having played a vital role in Caltech’s emergence as a world leader in postwar theoretical physics. Meanwhile, Christy was an early and enduring opponent of the Cold War’s nuclear arms race, which he viewed as a serious threat to humanity’s survival.