In Memoriam: Burton Richter ’48 (1931–2018), Nobel Laureate

Lee Owen
Burton Richter ’48, who received the 1976 Nobel Prize in physics, died July 18 in Stanford, Calif. He was 87. Richter was director emeritus of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (originally the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) at Stanford University.
He was awarded the Nobel for his discovery of the psi particle (also called the J/Ψ meson), and received the honor jointly with Samuel Ting of the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. Both scientists and their teams made a concurrent discovery of the particle on opposite coasts.

Born March 22, 1931, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Richter came to Mercersburg as an 11th-grader in 1946 because he desperately wanted to earn acceptance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As such, his time at Mercersburg was a success; Richter matriculated at MIT, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and a Ph.D. in physics in 1956.

Richter spent his entire professional career at Stanford, where he worked his way up from assistant professor and associate professor to professor, and eventually held an endowed chair as the Paul Pigott Professor in the Physical Sciences. He designed the revolutionary Stanford Positron-Electron Accelerator Ring (or SPEAR) in the 1960s, and was instrumental in the construction of the Stanford Linear Collider in the 1980s.

“A Nobel Prize is like being struck by lightning—it happens sometimes, but there’s a lot of good work that’s been done and there aren’t many Nobel Prizes,” Richter said in a 2010 interview with Mercersburg magazine. “So it’s a terrific honor to have.”

In 2014, Richter received the National Medal of Science, which is the nation’s highest honor for achievement in the fields of science and engineering. Among his other laurels were the U.S. Department of Energy’s Enrico Fermi Award and Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award. He spent 13 years as a member of the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee.

As a Mercersburg student, Richter was a Commencement orator for his 1948 graduating class, as well as president of the Chess Club, a photographer for the Mercersburg NEWS and the KARUX yearbook, and a member of the football, wrestling, and tennis teams. He was an emeritus member of the Mercersburg Board of Regents and the 1990 recipient of the school’s Class of ’32 Distinguished Alumnus Award, the highest honor the Academy can bestow upon a member of its alumni body.

“Dr. Richter was one of the most distinguished members of our alumni community, and we are saddened to learn of his passing,” says Katie Titus, Mercersburg’s head of school. “We are—and will continue to be—grateful for his incredible contributions to the field of science and the ongoing process of discovery. He will continue to serve as an inspiration to our students as a lasting legacy to our Mercersburg family.”  

Richter is survived by his wife, Laurose; a son and daughter; and two grandchildren.

Read a story on Richter’s passing from the Stanford News Service.
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