Fusion Veteran Bob Taylor Passes, Age 84

May 16, 2019

Robert (Bob) Taylor, a veteran fusion scientist who made path-breaking contributions to fusion research and basic plasma physics, passed away on May 13, 2019 after a decade-long battle with various health problems. He was 84.

Taylor was born in Hungary where he excelled in mathematics at an early age and self-taught electronics by building and repairing radio equipment as a youngster. He continued to hone his skills in cutting-edge electronics until his last days. After completing secondary education, Taylor escaped the communist regime and found his way to the U.S. where he attended San Diego State University and earned a B.S. degree in physics. After graduation he joined the army as a radio technician. In this capacity he operated the radio communications aboard a ship off-shore from the Bay of Pigs during the failed invasion of Cuba in 1961. After completing his army duty he was employed by the aerospace and defense company TRW, where he worked in various classified projects. Yearning for bigger challenges and opportunities to display his technical ingenuity, Taylor became a graduate student at UCLA, where in 1970 he completed a Ph.D. in plasma physics under the mentorship of the late Prof. Ken MacKenzie. As a graduate student Taylor made major contributions to basic plasma physics. He invented the Double-Plasma device (DP), a relatively inexpensive, large volume plasma chamber in which an immersed grid separating two quiescent, collisionless plasmas, can be biased to generate various flow configurations.

Soon after receiving his Ph.D. he was recruited by Prof. Bruno Coppi as an assistant professor of physics at MIT. The institutional challenge at that time was to get the Alcator tokamak properly running. The machine eventually achieved world records in peak density-confinement product, and identified a new physics regime for tokamak operation in which the confinement time increases with density, known as 'Alcator scaling'. In 1984 Bob Taylor, Bruno Coppi, and Ron Parker received the APS Excellence Award in Plasma Physics for this accomplishment. After 4 years at MIT, he returned to UCLA in 1975 where he remained until his retirement.

At UCLA he built a sequence of tokamak devices of increasing sophistication and size: microtor, Macrotor, bicycle-tire tokamak, CCT, ET. In the process of building and operating these devices he perfected a methodology for preserving the paramount cleanliness of the wall exposed to the energetic plasma. The method is widely used and known by the acronym 'TDC' for 'Taylor Discharge Cleaning'. Perhaps the most impactful result emerging from these devices was the achievement of H-mode confinement due to radial currents generated by in-situ thermionic emission, although many other discoveries related to ICRF heating and the role of magnetic fluctuations in energy transport are noteworthy accomplishments. Simultaneously with the UCLA-based research, he developed a private operation in which he built research tokamaks on request. This activity not only brought him financial security, but also had a major impact in launching new research programs throughout the world. The so-called 'Taylor tokamaks' spawned fusion research in various countries including South Africa, Spain, Belgium and at some U.S. companies and research labs. A large cadre of scientists who had their first exposure to fusion research through these machines thought of Taylor as their mentor, and continued to rely on his technical advice for many years.

Ron Parker, long-time leader of the Alcator and MIT programs, commented "Bob was unique within the fusion community, one whom I always thought of as being a kind of Edisonian genius. He made many invaluable contributions to Alcator A in the early days, and deserves much of the credit for its success. As we all know, his ideas about theory were colorful, to say the least, but his experimental capabilities were extraordinary. I never took too much of what he said about theory seriously, but I always paid careful attention to what he did experimentally. He was always fun and stimulating to be around. I haven't kept in touch with him in the last several years, but I do miss the stimulation and excitement that he generated particularly while he was at MIT.

Remembrances and condolences may be sent to:

Troy Carter, tcarter@physics.ucla.edu
Director, Basic Plasma Science Facility
Director, Plasma Science and Technology Institute
Professor, Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, UCLA