NEW YORK — Richard E. Taylor, a Canadian-born experimental physicist who shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of quarks, one of the fundamental particles in the universe, died Feb. 22 in Stanford, Calif. He was 88.
Stanford University, where he worked, announced his death but did not cite a cause.
The discovery of quarks, in the late 1960s, was a ground-shaking event in physics. It paved the way for the development of the Standard Model, the classification system for all known elementary particles and forces.
Before their discovery, “we had this vast collection of particles and did not know how they were put together,” Martin Breidenbach, a professor of high-energy research at Stanford, told The Stanford News. Among these were composite particles called hadrons.
The Standard Model that resulted, he said, “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 discovery of quarks was unexpected, though the experiments by Dr. Taylor and others that revealed them were built on previous research, particularly that of Dr. Robert Hofstadter, another Stanford physicist and Nobel laureate.
Hofstadter’s research, like that of physicists before and since, was designed to explore the inner workings and architecture of the subatomic world, which had first been revealed by Ernest Rutherford in the early 20th century.
Rutherford had discovered that the nucleus of atoms contained positively charged particles that he called protons. He and physicists who came after him assumed that they were elementary, or fundamental, particles. Hofstadter wanted to measure their size, to understand the internal structure of nuclei. He did so by aiming electrons at the nucleus of a hydrogen atom and measuring the angles at which they were deflected. The experiment was known as elastic scattering, because the kinetic energy of the electrons was conserved in the interactions. Hofstadter was awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize in physics for his research.
But to continue the investigation into the fundamental nature of matter and particles, more powerful equipment was needed, so Stanford, with the federal government’s backing, built the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, known as SLAC. When it was finished, in 1966, it had 2 miles of equipment and was the world’s most powerful electron accelerator.
Among other things, Dr. Taylor assembled SLAC’s two-story tall spectrometer, a device that identifies particles and atoms based on their mass, momentum, and energy, and tracks their trajectories in the accelerator.
Persis Drell, a former director of SLAC and now the provost of Stanford, told The Stanford News that the experiments by Dr. Taylor and his colleagues had shown that the proton was like “jam, with seeds” [the quarks], rather than like “a smooth ‘jelly’” of electrical charge. Before these experiments, it was generally assumed that protons and neutrons were elementary particles — that is, that they were nondivisible. “I don’t think anyone was seriously questioning the elementary character of the proton at that time,” Dr. Taylor said in his Nobel lecture. Dr. Taylor shared the 1990 Nobel with two physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jerome I. Friedman and Henry W. Kendall, who had also worked on the experiments at SLAC alongside Dr. Taylor.
Richard Edward Taylor was born in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
When he was young, Richard wanted to be a surgeon, but while in high school he lost the forefinger and parts of the middle finger and thumb on his left hand after accidentally blowing up a chemistry lab in his basement at home. He recalled that a surgeon said to him at the time, “’People aren’t going to come to a surgeon without fingers.’ So I had to give that up.” He switched to science.
Though he did not get his high school degree — he failed Latin — he was admitted to a four-year honors program in physics at the University of Alberta. But at the end of the third year he became ill, was hospitalized, and was dropped from the program. He received a non-honors Bachelor of Science degree and then a master’s.
During his time at the university Dr. Taylor married Rita Bonneau. He leaves his wife and their son, Ted. Information about other survivors was not available.