Skip to main content# Douglas H. Sampson (1925–2002)

Published onDec 01, 2003

Douglas H. Sampson (1925–2002)

Douglas H. Sampson, a renowned theoretical atomic physicist and a professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at The Pennsylvania State University, passed away on 8 December 2002, in State College, Pennsylvania, of a hemorrhagic stroke. He had retired in 1997 after 32 years of service to the University and had maintained an active research program up to the day of his death.

Doug, as he was universally known to his friends and colleagues, was born in Devils Lake, North Dakota on 19 May 1925. His parents, Abner and Mabel Sampson, were farmers. He was raised without running water or electricity on a farm, homesteaded by his ancestors in Edmore, North Dakota. He was one of two children in his class at a two-room rural elementary school and graduated as valedictorian from Edmore High School in 1944. No physics classes or advanced mathematics classes were offered in his small high school. In 1956, he was married to Carlyn Grutzner.

During Doug Sampson's military service in the United States Army from February 1945 until December 1946, he was selected as a MP (Military Policeman) in the Philippines. His military experience provided him with the opportunity to attend college under the GI Bill. Because he had to work on the family farm, he started college a month later every fall and took exams a month earlier each spring. Nevertheless, Sampson graduated as co-salutatorian from Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota in 1951 with a BA degree with majors in physics and mathematics. Afterwards he received his MS and PhD degrees in theoretical physics from Yale University in 1953 and 1956 under the guidance of Henry Margenau. Sampson then became a staff member of the Theoretical Division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory until 1961. While there he performed calculations of fundamental atomic cross sections used in the determination of opacities for radiation transport simulations. The calculation of high quality atomic data would end up being a life long pursuit.

During this period he was also a visiting staff member in the Theoretical Division, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. During the interval 1961--1964, he worked at the Valley Forge Space Center of the General Electric Company, where he became leader of the atomic and radiation physics group. While working there, he took advanced courses in relativistic quantum mechanics and field theory at the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the faculty of Penn State in 1965 as an associate professor in the recently created department of astronomy and became a full professor in 1969. During his career at Penn State, he contributed a substantial share toward the unprecedented growth in the intellectual stature of the department.

Doug's research at Penn State focused on developing theory and corresponding computer programs for calculating cross sections or rates for various atomic processes in very high-temperature gases, or plasmas, which commonly occur in astrophysics, fusion-energy research, and X-ray lasers. The atomic data for these processes help scientists understand high-temperature plasmas and predict the spectra that emerge from them. His early work primarily involved electron-impact processes for nonrelativistic ions. A goal of this research was to perform large-scale, computer-intensive calculations of the fundamental cross sections, and then fit these results to various functional forms so the data could be obtained quickly and accurately by plasma modelers. Doug had noted that for a hydrogenic ion, the relevant matrix elements used in the calculation of cross sections for excitation, scale with the nuclear charge. He realized that it would be possible to obtain quite accurate cross sections for more complex ions by scaling the hydrogenic results by an effective charge. Furthermore, he worked out angular algebra coupling for complex ions with many bound electrons and included the effects of configuration and intermediate coupling mixing in the target states. In this way, he was able to generate cross sections for iso-electronic sequences with affordable computational time. He applied this method to both electron-impact excitation and ionization. This important work took place when computational power was a small fraction of current standards and it allowed relatively massive amounts of cross section data to be calculated for a variety of ions with application to astrophysics and fusion research.

By 1985 Doug turned his attention to treating the electron-ion collision problem in a fully relativistic manner, in support of X-ray laser research. He and his research group developed an approach and associated computer programs, including an atomic structure program and electron-impact excitation and ionization programs that were based on solving the Dirac equation. His efforts were also devoted to making the computer codes very efficient so they could rapidly produce large amounts of data. At this time supercomputers were becoming more accessible, which provided much-needed computer power for a fully relativistic treatment of heavier elements. However, a brute force approach was still not feasible and Doug was able to apply a number of numerical procedures that greatly reduced the required computing time while preserving the accuracy of the calculations. This sustained effort (spanning about 17 years) resulted in a suite of robust codes that can be used to determine fundamental atomic cross sections or rates for a wide variety of plasma modeling applications. In addition, Sampson applied the fitting procedures to vast quantities of these relativistic data, making them readily available to a broad audience of researchers.

Both of these non-relativistic and fully relativistic approaches, along with the associated computer codes, are currently in use at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Naval Research Laboratory to model the high-temperature plasmas produced there. Although his major efforts were directed toward the rapid production of large amounts of atomic data, Doug had always been a serious researcher, verifying the calculations against experimental data whenever possible.

In the course of his work Doug guided a number of PhD students through the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department and the Physics Department. He was always available for discussions of all aspects of the work and willing to listen to his students. A lasting legacy of his work was the care he took in ensuring the accuracy of each step, down to careful reading of the gallery proofs from the journals. He emphasized that even if one had the best theory, but made an error in computer coding, or in producing a table, the resulting incorrect data were of no value. This emphasis on accuracy and faithful reproduction of the theory in the application to a plasma modeling calculation has served his students well. At least three of these students went on to work on data applications at Los Alamos National Laboratory, continuing the tradition of careful application of atomic theory to plasma modeling.

Doug was an active graduate and undergraduate teacher, developing a number of upper-level courses in astrophysics, and serving as chairman or member of many departmental and university committees. Undergraduate students invariably commented on his accessibility, patience and human warmth. Sampson presented papers and seminars at numerous conferences and institutions in the United States and abroad, and authored or coauthored over 110 research papers in refereed journals. He was also the author of a book, "Radiative Contributions to Energy and Momentum Transport in a Gas", published by Wiley-Interscience. He consulted with Gulf General Atomic Incorporated; Systems, Science, and Software; the Los Alamos National Laboratory; and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and a member of the American Astronomical Society and the International Astronomical Union. He spent his last sabbatical leave before his retirement at The Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford. At the time of his death he was working on a manuscript for Physics Reports, summarizing his research in relativistic atomic theory.

Doug had an unobtrusive but keen sense of humor, as well as a positive outlook on life, and remained physically active throughout his life. His colleagues will remember him for his willingness to listen and to help, as well as for his strong sense of pioneer values and humanity. His hobbies included the study of American history and the history of Western Civilization. He is survived by his wife Carlyn, their four children and ten grandchildren.