Richard E. Taylor


Richard E. Taylor

Medicine Hat is a small town in Southwestern Alberta founded just over 100 years ago in a valley where the Canadian Pacific Railway crossed the South Saskatchewan River. I was born there on November 2, 1929 and raised in comfortable if somewhat Spartan circumstances. My father was the son of a Northern Irish carpenter and his Scottish wife who homesteaded on the Canadian prairies; my mother was an American, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants to the northern United States who moved to a farm in Alberta shortly after the first World War. During my early years our family of three was part of a large family clan headed by my Scottish grandmother. I attended schools named after English Generals and Royalty – Kitchener, Connaught, Alexandra.

Although I read quite a bit and found mathematics easy, I was not an outstanding student. In high school I did reasonably well in mathematics and science thanks to some talented and dedicated teachers.

I was nearly ten years old when World War II began. That conflict had a great effect on our town, and on me. In rapid succession the town found itself host to an R.A.F. flight training school, a prisoner of war camp and a military research establishment. The wartime glamor of the military, the sudden infusion of groups of sophisticated and highly-educated people, and new cultural opportunities (the first live symphonic music I ever heard was played by German prisoners of war) all transformed our town and widened the horizons of the young people there. I developed an interest in explosives and blew three fingers off my left hand just before hostilities ended in Europe. The atomic bomb that ended the war later that summer made me intensely aware of physicists and physics.

Higher education was highly prized in the society of a small prairie town and I was expected to continue on to university. After some difficulties over low grades in some high school subjects, I was admitted to the University of Alberta in Edmonton. I registered in a special program emphasizing mathematics and physics and gradually became interested in experimental physics, continuing my studies towards a Masters degree at the same institution. My thesis research was a rather primitive effort to measure double b-decay in an aging Wilson cloud chamber. Between sessions at the University, I spent two summers as a research assistant at the Defense Research Board installation near Medicine Hat working with Dr. E.J. Wiggins, who encouraged me to continue my studies either in eastern Canada or in the United States.

Those were interesting years, and during this time I met, courted and married Rita Bonneau – a partnership which has enriched my life in every way. Together we decided to try California, and I was accepted into the graduate program at Stanford, while she found work teaching in a military school in order to support us both. The first two years at Stanford were exciting beyond description – the Physics Department at Stanford included Felix Bloch, Leonard Schiff, Willis Lamb, Robert Hofstadter, and W.K.H. (Pief) Panofsky who had just arrived from Berkeley. I found that I had to work hard to keep up with my fellow students, but learning physics was great fun in those surroundings. At the end of the second year I joined the High Energy Physics Laboratory where the new linear accelerator was just beginning to do experiments. My thesis work was accomplished there under Prof. Robert F. Mozley, on a rather difficult experiment producing polarized g-rays from the accelerator beam and then using those g-rays to study p-meson production.

In 1958 I was invited to join a group of physicists at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris who were planning experiments at an accelerator (similar to the linac at Stanford) which was under construction in Orsay. I stayed in France for about three years working on the experimental facilities for the accelerator, and then participated in some electron scattering experiments. My wife began a new career there as a librarian at the Orsay laboratory, a career which was interrupted for a while when our son, Ted, was born in 1960. We returned to the United States in 1961 but a continuing connection to French physics and physicists has been a significant element in my life since that time – including a Doctorate (Honoris Causa) very kindly conferred upon me in 1980 by the Université de Paris-Sud.

Upon our return to the United States, I joined the staff of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory at the University of California. After less than a year in Berkeley, I moved back to Stanford where work on the construction of Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) was just beginning. At SLAC, I started working on the design of the experimental areas for the new accelerator. By 1963 I had joined the group considering the requirements for electron scattering apparatus in the larger of two experimental areas. I worked closely with Pief Panofsky, and with collaborators from the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I spent the next decade helping to build equipment and taking part in various electron scattering experiments, a number of which are the subject of the 1990 Nobel lectures. This was a period of intense activity, but also one of intense enjoyment for me. I was surrounded by people I liked and admired, and deeply involved in experiments which generated interest in laboratories and universities all over the world. I count myself extremely fortunate to have been at SLAC at that time.

I became a member of the SLAC faculty in 1968. In 1971, I was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and spent an interesting sabbatical year at CERN, where I was impressed by the great progress that European science had made in the decade since I had worked in France.

Well before my trip to CERN, colleagues in the group at SLAC had become interested in testing some of the invariance properties of the electromagnetic interaction, a field which would absorb our efforts for most of the 1970s. When Charles Prescott joined the group in 1970, he began a serious study of ways to test parity conservation in the interaction between an electron and a nucleon. The electroweak theories of Weinberg and Salam predicted levels of nonconservation that looked extremely hard to measure. We attempted an experiment with the existing Yale polarized source, but the measurements did not reach the desired level of sensitivity. I was not very encouraging to my colleagues who wished to pursue the experiment to higher levels of accuracy. After the theoretical work of Veltman and van’t Hooft and the discovery of neutral currents at CERN (during the year I was there) and at NAL (now Fermilab), the interest in experiments on parity conservation greatly intensified. In 1975 a new method for producing polarized electrons was discovered by a group in Colorado which included E.L. Garwin of SLAC. In 1978, after building a source for the linac based on the new method, we were able to demonstrate a violation of parity in close agreement with the electroweak predictions.

After the parity experiments, our group presented two proposals for large experimental facilities at PEP, the e+e collider then being built at SLAC. Both those proposals were rejected. The group was finally successful in proposing a relatively small PEP detector, but I did not take part in that experiment.

In 1981, I received an Alexander von Humboldt award which allowed me to spend most of the 1981-82 academic year at DESY in Hamburg. In 1982 I returned to SLAC as Associate Director for Research, a post I held until 1986 when I resigned to return to research. Since that time I have spent quite a bit of time in Europe and I am presently playing a very small role in the H1 detector preparations at HERA.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1990, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1991

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

Richard E. Taylor died on 22 February 2018.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1990

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