Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Taylor dies at 88

One of the pioneering particle physicists working at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Taylor carried out experiments that led to the 1990 Nobel Prize in physics for his role in the discovery of quarks.

Richard Taylor answers questions his the Nobel Prize press conference, Oct. 17, 1990.

Richard Taylor answers questions at a press conference on Oct. 17, 1990, after winning the Nobel Prize in physics. (Image credit: Chuck Painter)

Richard Edward Taylor, a professor emeritus of physics at Stanford University and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, was an early user of the 2-mile-long linear accelerator at SLAC and carried out experiments that revealed subatomic particles called quarks for the first time – a discovery that earned him the Nobel Prize in physics along with colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Taylor passed away at his home on the Stanford campus today at the age of 88.

Taylor’s discovery of the quarks set the stage for what is now known as the Standard Model in physics, which describes all the fundamental particles and forces.

“Dick Taylor has been an important presence in my life since I was a child,” said Persis Drell, Stanford University provost and former director of SLAC, who grew up on campus. “He was a towering figure – both physically and intellectually. But beneath his gruff exterior was a heart of gold. His Nobel Prize research with Jerome Friedman and Henry Kendall put SLAC on the map. They demonstrated that the proton was ‘jam’ with seeds [the quarks] rather than a smooth ‘jelly’ of charge.”

“Dick Taylor was a driving intellectual force at SLAC from its earliest days,” said SLAC Director Chi-Chang Kao. “His Nobel Prize-winning work in particle physics is an enduring part of our pride and legacy.”

Interests shaped by war

Taylor was born Nov. 2, 1929, in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. The small town was transformed during the Second World War by its dual roles as a training site for the British Royal Air Force and as a camp for Axis prisoners of war. Toward the end of the war, Medicine Hat also became a research center for biological and chemical warfare run by the Canadian Defense Research Board.

“That was the first time I ever saw a PhD,” Taylor recounted in a video produced by the Nobel Prize Committee. “It was just a completely different kind of culture altogether.”

It was after the atomic bomb blasts of 1945 that Taylor chose to pursue physics. In high school, Taylor was, by his own admission, not a good student. He failed Latin and never graduated but proved adept enough at science and math that a teacher was able to secure him a place at the University of Alberta at Edmonton. There he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics and developed an interest in experimentation.

Drawn to accelerators

Taylor came to Stanford for his doctoral work in 1952, a time when he described the physics department as “exciting beyond description.” He soon joined the High-Energy Physics Lab (HEPL) and began work on accelerators. In 1958, he set his doctoral thesis aside to spend three years in France at the École Normale Supérieure helping to build an accelerator in Orsay.

In 1961, he returned to California to work at the Lawrence Radiation Lab in Berkeley, but was drawn back to Stanford one year later with a role at what was then the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, at first to help establish the accelerator, then as a faculty member performing experiments as part of a collaboration. In that same year, 1962, Taylor completed his long-delayed dissertation and earned his doctorate.

It was his early adventures colliding an electron beam into a proton target – in what was then known as elastic and inelastic scattering experiments – that would lead to the collaboration’s groundbreaking work and, eventually, to Taylor’s Nobel Prize. Those experiments indicated the proton itself, once thought a fundamental and indivisible atomic particle, was in fact composed of smaller particles. The discovery of those particles, now known as quarks, launched the Standard Model in physics.

“Before that time, we had this vast collection of particles and did not know how they were put together,” said high-energy physicist and SLAC Professor Martin Breidenbach, who participated in the experiments as a graduate student at MIT. “The Standard Model was a way of basing all the hadronic particles we knew about, including protons and neutrons, on more fundamental particles called quarks, and once that was clear, this whole big mess fell away. The model provided predictions for what other quarks there were and for the Higgs boson. Basically, for anything under its purview, the Standard Model has been correct, and the SLAC-MIT experiment was the underpinning of all of that.”

Les Cottrell, now manager of computer networking at SLAC, began working with Taylor in 1967 on his experiments that led to the quark discovery. “The thing that always impressed me about him was that he was an integral part of the experiment, not just the boss,” Cottrell said. “He would show up at 5 in the morning to take his shift, and he would be there in the evening when the lab director, Pief Panofsky, came to check on how things were going.”

Taylor shared the Nobel Prize with Jerome I. Friedman and Henry W. Kendall of MIT. At a celebration the day the Nobel was announced, Taylor thanked some 30 people saying, “I’m here because I’m probably the oldest and loudest of the group.”

Self-deprecating humor

In addition to his facility with physics, Taylor was a quick wit with a self-deprecating streak. At his Nobel banquet speech, Taylor was challenged “to be witty.” Examining the object of his crowning achievement, the quark, he was flummoxed.

“After a great deal of reflection, I have decided that quarks are just not funny. They are too small. Most of the time not much happens to a quark, and if something does, it is more likely to be catastrophic than amusing. … Quarks just don’t care.”

In the end, however, he was circumspect about his life’s work: “The quarks and the stars were here when you came, and they will be here when you go. They have no sense of humor so, if you want a world where more people smile, you will have to fix things yourselves.”

Taylor was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1990. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London. In 2005, he received the Order of Canada, an honor granted to Canadians that recognizes outstanding lifetime achievement and service to the country or humanity at large.

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