Arthur Compton

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Arthur Holly Compton
Arthur Compton.jpg
Born (1892-09-10)September 10, 1892
Wooster, Ohio, USA
Died March 15, 1962(1962-03-15) (aged 69)
Berkeley, California, USA
Nationality United States
Alma mater College of Wooster
Princeton University
Known for Compton effect
Compton length
Compton scattering
Compton wavelength
Compton shift
Awards Nobel Prize for Physics (1927)
Franklin Medal (1940)
Scientific career
Fields Physics
Institutions Washington University in St. Louis
University of Chicago
University of Minnesota
Forman Christian College
Doctoral advisor H. L. Cooke
Doctoral students Winston H. Bostick
Robert S. Shankland
Compton is the son of Elias Compton, brother of Wilson Compton and Karl Taylor Compton, and father of John Joseph Compton.

Arthur Holly Compton (September 10, 1892 – March 15, 1962) was an American physicist and Nobel laureate in physics for his discovery of the Compton effect. He served as Chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis from 1945 to 1953.


Early years

Arthur Compton and Werner Heisenberg
in 1929 in Chicago

Arthur Compton was born in Wooster, Ohio in 1892 to Elias and Otelia Compton. They were an academic family. His father Elias was dean of Wooster University (later The College of Wooster), which Arthur attended, and also became a member of the Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity. His eldest brother Karl also attended Wooster University, became a physicist, and was later president of MIT. His second brother Wilson Martindale Compton also attended Wooster University and became a diplomat and president of the State College of Washington, later Washington State University. All three brothers earned their Ph.D. degrees from Princeton University.[1]

Around 1913, Arthur Compton devised a demonstration method for the Earth's rotation[2]. In 1918, he began studying X-ray scattering. In 1922, while on faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, Compton found that X-ray wavelengths increase due to scattering of the radiant energy by "free electrons". The scattered quanta have less energy than the quanta of the original ray. This discovery, known as the "Compton effect," or "Compton scattering" demonstrates the "particle" concept of electromagnetic radiation and earned Compton the Nobel Prize in physics in 1927. Compton developed the method for observing at the same instant individual scattered X-ray photons and the recoil electrons (developed with Alfred W. Simon). In Germany, Walther Bothe and Hans Geiger independently developed a similar method.

Wartime activities

In 1941, along with Vannevar Bush, head of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), and Ernest Lawrence, the inventor of the cyclotron, Compton helped to take over the then-stagnant American program to develop an atomic bomb. Compton was placed in charge of the OSRD's S-1 Committee charged with investigating the properties and manufacture of uranium. In 1942, Compton appointed Robert Oppenheimer as the Committee's top theorist. When the Committee's work was taken over by the Army in the summer of 1942, it became the Manhattan Project.

Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Compton gained support for consolidating plutonium research at the University of Chicago and for an ambitious schedule that called for producing the first atomic bomb in January 1945, a goal that was missed by only six months. "Metallurgical Laboratory" or "Met Lab" was the "cover" name given to Compton's facility. Its objectives were to produce chain-reacting "piles" of uranium to convert to plutonium, find ways to separate the plutonium from the uranium and to design a bomb. In December 1942, underneath Chicago's Stagg Field, a team of Met Lab scientists directed by Enrico Fermi achieved a sustained chain reaction in the world's first nuclear reactor. Throughout the war, Compton would remain a prominent scientific adviser and administrator. In 1945, he served, along with Lawrence, Oppenheimer, and Fermi, as part of the Scientific Panel which advised for the military use of the atomic bomb against Japanese cities.[3]

Arthur Holly Compton on the cover of Time Magazine on January 13, 1936

Washington University in St. Louis

Compton returned to Washington University in St. Louis, where he had served as Head of the Department of Physics from 1920 to 1923, when he was inaugurated as the university's ninth Chancellor in 1946.

During Compton's time as Chancellor, the university formally desegregated its undergraduate divisions in 1952, named its first female full professor, and enrolled a record number of students as wartime veterans returned to the United States. His reputation and connections in national scientific circles allowed him to recruit many nationally renowned scientific researchers to the university. Despite Compton's accomplishments, he was criticized then, and subsequently by historians, for moving slowly toward full racial integration, making Washington University the last major institution of higher learning in St. Louis to open its doors to African Americans.[4]

Compton resigned as Chancellor in 1953, but remained on the faculty until his retirement from the full-time faculty in 1961.

Personal details

Along with being an academic his father was a Presbyterian clergyman. At least for a time Arthur Compton was a deacon at a Baptist church. He also played the mandolin and was a scientific glassblower.[5]


Compton is buried in the Wooster Cemetery in Wooster, Ohio. The crater Compton on the Moon is co-named for Arthur Compton and his brother Karl. The physics research building at Washington University in St Louis is named in his honor. The University of Chicago Residence Halls remembered Compton and his achievements by dedicating Compton House in his honor. Compton also has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

The Arthur H. Compton House in Chicago is listed as a National Historic Landmark.

Compton also invented a more gentle, elongated, and ramped version of the speed bump called a "Holly hump," many of which are on the roads of the Washington University in St. Louis campus.

NASA's Compton Gamma Ray Observatory was named in honor of Compton. The Compton effect is central to the gamma ray detection instruments aboard the observatory.

Free Will

Compton was one of a handful of scientists and philosophers to propose a two-stage model of free will. Others include William James, Henri Poincaré, Karl Popper, Henry Margenau, and Daniel Dennett.

In 1931, Compton championed the idea of human freedom based on quantum indeterminacy and invented the notion of amplification of microscopic quantum events to bring chance into the macroscopic world. In his somewhat bizarre mechanism, he imagined sticks of dynamite attached to his amplifier, anticipating the Schrödinger's cat paradox.[6]

Reacting to criticisms that his ideas made chance the direct cause of our actions, Compton clarified the two-stage nature of his idea in an Atlantic Monthly article in 1955. First there is a range of random possible events, then one adds a determining factor in the act of choice.

A set of known physical conditions is not adequate to specify precisely what a forthcoming event will be. These conditions, insofar as they can be known, define instead a range of possible events from among which some particular event will occur. When one exercises freedom, by his act of choice he is himself adding a factor not supplied by the physical conditions and is thus himself determining what will occur. That he does so is known only to the person himself. From the outside one can see in his act only the working of physical law. It is the inner knowledge that he is in fact doing what he intends to do that tells the actor himself that he is free.[7]


  • Compton, Arthur (1918). "American Physical Society address (Dec 1917)", Physical Review, Series II.
  • Compton, Arthur (1923). "A Quantum Theory of the Scattering of X-Rays by Light Elements", Physical Review, 21(5), 483 – 502.
  • Compton, Arthur (1935). The Freedom of Man, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Compton, Arthur (1940). The Human Meaning of Science, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Compton, Arthur (1956). Atomic Quest, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Compton, Arthur (1967). The Cosmos of Arthur Holly Compton, New York: Alfred A. Knopf; edited by Marjorie Johnston
  • Compton, Arthur (1973). Scientific Papers of Arthur Holly Compton, Chicago: University of Chicago Press; edited by Robert S. Shankland.

Works on Compton

  • Cristofv, Cristjo (1954). The real meaning of the Compton effect.


  1. The Compton Brothers.
  2. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1 at line 746: Argument map not defined for this variable.
  3. Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons. (1945-06-16)
  4. Amy M. Pfeiffenberger, "Democracy at Home: The Struggle to Desegregate Washington University in the Postwar Era," Gateway-Heritage (Missouri Historical Society), vol. 10, no. 3 (Winter 1989), pp. 17–24.
  5. Time Magazine: January 13, 1936
  6. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1 at line 746: Argument map not defined for this variable.
  7. "Science and Man’s Freedom", in The Cosmos of Arthur Holly Compton, 1967, Knopf, p. 115

External links