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Norman Rostoker
In Memoriam

Norman Rostoker

Professor of Physics, Emeritus

UC Irvine

Dr. Norman Rostoker, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, passed away on December 25, 2014 in Irvine, California, at the age of 89.   

Norman - a superlative storyteller (showering us with such a story as about his visit to Russia during the Cold War: In his Moscow hotel room he suspected a bugging device, which he decided to cut that night, about which he found the next morning by a complaining breakfast guest of his chandelier falling the night before), an entrepreneur and a renaissance man and an avid tennis player. Professor Norman Rostoker served as a mentor and instilled fundamental value and inspiration, incubating the burgeoning brains of more than 40 Ph.D. students from many corners of the world in his illustrious career.

While serving on UCI’s faculty, Norman incubated and co-founded Tri Alpha Energy (TAE) with prominent physicists, including Nobel Prize winner Glenn Seaborg, who served as the first Chairman of the Board of Directors of TAE, to implement his ideas to develop a clean source of fusion-based energy. Nobel Laureates Burton Richter, Arno Penzias and Sherwood (Sherry) Rowland served on the Scientific Board of TAE. His brainchild TAE remains as a perfect example of convergence of science and technology and that of academic incisiveness and industrial innovativeness.

Norman was born Aug. 16, 1925, in Toronto, Canada, and earned a master’s degree at the University of Toronto in 1947. He received a D.Sc. in 1950 from the Carnegie Institute of Technology and was on the scientific staff there until 1953, where he overlapped with Prof. W. Kohn. He subsequently worked at the Armor Research Foundation at the Illinois Institute of Technology and at General Atomics before joining the faculty at UC San Diego in 1962.  Norman moved to Cornell University in 1967 as the IBM Professor of Engineering and in 1972 joined the faculty at UCI, where he chaired the Department of Physics & Astronomy from 1973 to 1976. Among his many distinctions, he was honored with the American Physical Society’s James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics, the UCI Medal and membership in the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Norman’s research started as experimental geophysicist in developing a novel oil prospecting approach by inventing the Green’s function method of the dynamite ignition and its seismic detection as the two-point response function. He then turned to pure physics, including his important work in solid-state band structure theory known as the KKR (Korringa-Kohn-Rostoker) method, which is based on the above Green’s function method and is still used widely. (Professor Walter Kohn had become a Nobel Laureate).  He then turned to the then burgeoning field of fusion and plasma physics, in which he established its theoretical foundation. However, his most profound and lasting contribution may have been to apply theory to the reality of science and technology to create a novel vision toward the fusion reactor development. Norman was among the first generation of fusion pioneers.

As soon as such research was declassified in the late 1950s, he and other elite scientists opened laboratories and centers where fusion research began to prosper. In the field’s early phase, Norman published seminal papers that underpinned the theoretical basis of plasma physics including the same masterful mathematical skills displayed in the formation of the KKR method.

He further showed that the immense number of electromagnetic interactions in plasma – a gas of charged particles– can be greatly simplified by treating the plasma as a collection of “dressed” particles in which each individual particle is surrounded by its own “shielding cloud.”

While at UCI, Norman pursued a unique approach to fusion based on fundamental new insights quite disparate from others in the field. He conceived of utilizing collective plasma fields to accelerate ions in the plasma in a compact fashion, collective accelerators. Norman employed such accelerators as well as more conventional accelerators to merge with his vision of fusion. This is the dual disciplines of plasma based accelerators and accelerator-driven fusion reactors.  For these works he is named as an inventor on 27 U.S. patents.

In order to achieve fusion, extremely high-temperature ions would be necessary. His most important insight was that high-energy particles from accelerators can easily partake in fusion and moreover they constitute large-orbit particles that “ride over turbulent sea” and thereby overcome various plasma instabilities that may hamper other designs. Another of Norman’s goals was to develop a fusion reactor that does not suffer from degradation of its surrounding structure by the neutron bombardment.  Such a reactor is based on aneutronic fuels of protons (p) and borons (B11). Norman had a holistic approach to fusion “Begin with the End in Mind.”  Norman wanted to find the confluence of scientific validation, engineering simplicity, and commercial viability. Norman found such a design in the field reversed configuration (FRC) device powered by neutral beam injection (NBI) driven by an accelerator.  Accelerated beams readily access the higher fusion energies of pB11.  FRC is a high beta machine which means that it has a high plasma energy density comparable to the magnetic field density and NBI supplies the high-energy, large-orbit particles to “ride over and even iron out turbulence”, while the proton-boron fuel produces only few benign neutrons. FRC is a linear, cylindrical machine for simple engineering. 

Everyone that knew Norman remembers him for his selfless kindness, hospitality and generosity that made everybody feel embraced and welcome. It was this set of traits more than any other that made him such a prolific educator and allowed his students to excel and achieve to their fullest.

Norman was always environmentally conscious; founding a company whose purpose was aneutronic fuel was a long-term project, but Norman owned one of the first hybrid cars and had solar panels installed on his roof (and even on his cap) – joking that the cost of stamp to pay the electric bill is more than the bill itself. 

Norman was married for 65 years to Helen Corinne Rostoker (Norman and Helen played ping-pong in their garage), who died earlier in 2014, and is survived by their four children, Stephen Rostoker, Ruth Forton, Linda Rostoker and Rachel Uchizono, as well as grandchildren Lisa Servedio, Nolan Uchizono and Kellen Uchizono, and one great-grandchild, Sofia Servedio.

Toshiki Tajima, Adjunct Professor, Physics and Astronomy