Robert A. Gross (1927-2018)

Percy K. and Vida L.W. Hudson Professor Emeritus of Applied Physics; Dean Emeritus, Faculty Engineering/Applied Science

Applied Physics





B.S. 1949, University of Pennsylvania

M.S. 1950 / Ph.D. 1952, Harvard


Robert Gross was the Percy K. and Vida L.W. Hudson Professor of Applied Physics and former dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

He served as dean of the engineering school from 1981 to 1989 and proposed the $80 million Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research, which was completed in 1992. On arrival at the University in 1961, the Columbia scientist also founded the Plasma Physics Laboratory, now one of the nation's principal university laboratories dedicated to fusion energy research. He was founding chairman of Columbia's Department of Applied Physics and Nuclear Engineering (currently Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics) and became a leading authority in plasma shock phenomena and in the equilibrium and stability of high-pressure magnetized plasmas. He has served on several high-level advisory committees to the U.S. Department of Energy on fusion power.

Gross has been doctoral adviser to 25 Columbia Ph.D. recipients. His excellence in the classroom was recognized by the Great Teacher Award from Columbia's Society of Graduates. His textbook, Fusion Energy, was based on the course he taught at Columbia for many years, and it has been used in similar courses around the country.

Gross graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1949 and earned the Ph.D. in applied physics from Harvard in 1952. He joined Columbia's faculty after six years as an engineer at Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corp., where he became a world-renowned expert in supersonic combustion and received the Waverly Gold Medal.

He has received numerous honors, including the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Fulbright-Hays Fellowship twice. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He was honored for his life's work by Fusion Power Associates in 1993.

Memberships & Awards

Fellow, American Physical Society

Fellow, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

AAIA Pendray Award for outstanding contributions to aerospace literature, 1976

Great Teacher Award, Columbia University 1975

Fulbright-Hays Senior Fellow, Australia, 1973-1974

Research Statement (1995)

"My professional fields of interest are fusion energy, plasma physics, and high temperature gas dynamics. My research has been focused on high-beta tokamak physics, wall-confined fusion, very strong shock wave physics, chemical and nuclear detonations and supersonic combustion.

The attainment of fusion as a practical new major source of energy is one of mankind's most important and difficult challenges. It involves a complex and interesting combination of science and engineering. My colleagues and I are engaged in both experimental and theoretical programs directed towards developing a high-engery density fusion plasma toroidal confinement concept called a high-beta tokamak.

I am also interested in an alternate approach to achieving fusion, wall-confined fusion. If successful, it can lead to rather small and compact energy sources. In this approach, hot plasma is physically confined by metal walls. The extreme energy transfer rates to these walls are reduced to practical levels by employing modest magnetic fields, parallel to the walls and in the plasma. An understanding of the physics of the thermal boundary layer is crucial to the success of this concept.

The nuclear fuels to be burnt in first generation fusion reactors will be deuterium and tritium. There are significant advantages to be achieved by using advanced fuels such as D-3He, 3He-3He, p-6Li, and D-D. To burn such fuels requires very high temperatures (300-900 keV) which are generated by special techniques. I am very interested in the physics of advanced fuel fusion cycles and their extreme physical states.

I am intrigued by very strong shock wave physics. These waves, that occur in supernova and stellar phenomena, may be produced by very high-powered, short pulse-length laboratory experiments and by nuclear explosives. I also have a long time interest in chemical and nuclear detonation waves and in supersonic combustion. My research bridges both theory and experiment, encompassing studies of practical applications of these physical phenomena for the production of electrical power, propulsion, and other commercial and defense applications.

Selected Publications

Fusion Engergy, John Wiley & Songs, New York, 1984.

"Survey of Reactor Aspects of Compact Fusion Concepts," Nuclear Techn/Fusion, 4. 305, 1983.

"Physics of a Wall-Confined Fusion System," Nuclear Fusion, 15, 729, 1975.

"Thermonuclear Detonation Wave Structure," with A. Fuller, Phys. Fluids, 11, 534, 1968.

"Strong Ionizing Shock Waves," Reviews of Modern Physics, 37, 724, 1965.

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