Robertson, H. P. (Howard Percy), 1903-1961

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1903-01-27
Death 1961-08-26
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

Physicist (mathematical physics). California Institute of Technology.

From the description of Papers, 1925-1980, (bulk 1936-1966) (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 82303212

Biography

Howard Percy Robertson, known to colleagues and friends as Bob, was born in Hoquiam, Washington, on January 27, 1903. He was educated in Montesano, Washington schools, and later at the University of Washington, where he received his bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1922 and his master's in mathematics and physics in 1923. While at the university, Robertson came under the influence of the mathematician E. T. Bell. Impressed with his mathematical abilities, Bell encouraged Robertson to pursue graduate work at Caltech. (Bell himself was later hired to teach at Caltech by Robert A. Millikan.) Robertson completed his PhD at Caltech in mathematics and physics in 1925 under Harry Bateman, with the dissertation, "On Dynamical Space-Times Which Contain a Conformal Euclidean 3-Space."

Upon graduation from Caltech, Robertson was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship for study at the Universities of Göttingen, Munich and Princeton, where he came into contact with a number of outstanding mathematicians and physicists. He went on to serve as professor at Princeton from 1929 to 1947, where he also worked with Albert Einstein and his collaborators at the Institute for Advanced Study.

By 1939 Robertson had become involved in national defense work on the urging of his Caltech colleague Richard C. Tolman. He was to stay connected with these activities for the rest of his life. During World War II he served in numerous advisory capacities to various military units, including the London mission of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. He was also liaison officer to several intelligence-gathering units on enemy (German) secret weapons. For his war work he received the Medal for Merit in 1946.

In 1947 Robertson accepted a professorial position in mathematical physics at Caltech, which he held until his death. He continued to be active in governmental affairs; the list of his affiliations is long. During his later years he was scientific advisor to SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Power Europe, 1954-1956), chairman of the Defense Science Board under the Department of Defense (1957-1961) and a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC, 1957-1961). In 1958 he was elected foreign secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, but his term of office was cut short by his untimely death.

Robertson's scientific work centered on relativity. Jesse Greenstein writes, "Robertson's scientific contributions were largely derived from his interest and ability in differential geometry and group theory, which he applied to atomic physics, quantum physics, general relativity, and cosmology" [National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs 51:346]. For a thorough discussion of Robertson's scientific work, the reader is referred to Greenstein's Memoir. A more condensed but informative article on Robertson by Joseph D. Zund appears in American National Biography, vol. 18 (Oxford, 1999).

In 1923 Robertson married Angela Turinsky; the couple had two children. Robertson died unexpectedly in Pasadena on August 26, 1961, of a pulmonary embolism following an automobile accident.

From the guide to the H. P. Robertson Papers, 1922-1980, (California Institute of Technology. Caltech Archives)

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Subjects:

  • Relativity (Physics)
  • National security
  • Military research--Documentation
  • Cosmology
  • Mathematical physics
  • Learned institutions and societies
  • Physics
  • Scientists in government

Occupations:

  • Physicists
  • Mathematicians

Places:

  • United States (as recorded)