Compton, Arthur Holly

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Compton, Arthur Holly,

1892–1962, American physicist, b. Wooster, Ohio, grad. College of Wooster (B.S., 1913), Ph.D. Princeton, 1916. He was professor and head of the department of physics at Washington Univ., St. Louis (1920–23), and professor of physics at the Univ. of Chicago (1923–45), where he helped to develop the atomic bomb. He returned to Washington Univ. where he was chancellor (1945–53) and professor (from 1953). For his discovery of the Compton effectCompton effect
[for A. H. Compton], increase in the wavelengths of X rays and gamma rays when they collide with and are scattered from loosely bound electrons in matter.
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 he shared with C. T. R. Wilson the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics. In addition to his work on X rays he made valuable studies of cosmic rays. His writings include X Rays and Electrons (1926; 2d ed., with S. K. Allison, X-Rays in Theory and Experiment, 1935), The Human Meaning of Science (1940), and Atomic Quest (1956).


See his Cosmos of Arthur Holly Compton, ed. by M. Johnston (1968) and Scientific Papers, ed. and with an introd. by R. S. Shankland (1973).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Compton, Arthur Holly


Born Sept. 10, 1892, in Wooster, Ohio; died Mar. 15, 1962, in Berkeley, Calif. American physicist. Member of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

Compton received an M.A. degree from Princeton University in 1914. He was a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., from 1920 to 1923 and at the University of Chicago from 1923 to 1945. From 1945 to 1953 he held the chancellorship of Washington University, where he was a distinguished service professor of natural philosophy from 1954.

In 1920 at the Cavendish Laboratory (Cambridge, England), Compton began studying X-ray scattering and absorption. In 1922 he discovered the change in the wavelength of X rays when scattered by electrons (see COMPTON EFFECT) and formulated a theory for it based on the concept of light as a stream of photons (Nobel Prize, 1927). He discovered the phenomenon of total internal reflection of X rays from a mirror surface of glass and metals. Compton also developed a method for computing the distribution of electron density in crystals and some atoms. In the 1930’s he was involved in studying cosmic rays and discovered the latitudinal effect, which demonstrates the corpuscular nature of primary cosmic rays. From 1941 to 1945 he worked on the development of the atomic bomb.


“A Quantum Theory of the Scattering of X-rays by Light Elements.” Physical Review, 1923, vol. 21, no. 5, pp. 483–502.
“The Total Reflexion of X-rays.” Philosophical Magazine, 1923, vol. 45, no. 270, pp. 1121–31.
Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative. London [and elsewhere] 1956.
In Russian translation:
Rentgenovskie luchi. Teoriia i eksperiment. Moscow-Leningrad, 1941. (With S. Allison.)


Allison, S. K. “Arthur Holly Compton.” In Biographical Memoirs, vol. 38. New York-London, 1965.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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For helpful comments on Compton's position, see Fred Guyette, "Theological Ethics after Hiroshima: Comparing Arthur Compton and Dale Aukerman," Didaskalia 17, no.
(14) According to his son, Arthur Compton's religious beliefs quite naturally evolved away from Elias' Christian orthodoxy and philosophical idealism, but kept their moral and ethical core.
With characteristic candor, Arthur Compton had answered his son's question directly.
Blackwood, "Arthur Compton's Atomic Venture," American Presbyterians 66, no.
DEVELOPMENT: The Trent Road site where 36 apartments look set to be built (above) and (inset) Trent Road resident Arthur Compton, who says he is worried about the parking situation.
Thus science, his chosen field of endeavor, was ultimately a spiritual enterprise for Arthur Compton.
Blackwood, The House on College Avenue: The Comptons at Wooster, 1891-1913 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1968), offers an insightful picture of his immediate family, though little on Arthur himself; Blackwood's essay, "Arthur Compton's Atomic Venture," American Presbyterians 66.3 (Fall 1988): 177-93, complements his book nicely.
Shankland agrees that Arthur Compton probably arrived at his conclusions "by a different route, namely, from the classical electrodynamics that he had learned so thoroughly at Princeton ..." Scientific Papers of Arthur Holly Compton, xix.