American National Biography    

   

 

Houston, William Vermillion (19 Jan. 1900-22 Aug. 1968),  physicist

and science administrator, was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, the

son of William Houston, a Presbyterian minister, and Lena Vermillion.

Houston spent much of his childhood and early years in Columbus,

Ohio, where he completed secondary school and in 1920 obtained

a B.A. and a B.S. from Ohio State University. After teaching

at the University of Dubuque for a short period, Houston undertook

graduate studies in physics at the University of Chicago. There

he studied under Robert A. Millikan and Albert A. Michelson,

two of the most prominent American physicists at the time. Both

experimentalists, they exerted a strong influence on Houston's

scientific approach and career. Houston received a master's degree

in physics at Chicago before returning to Ohio State to complete

his doctorate. He received his Ph.D. in physics in 1925 for work

conducted under the supervision of A. D. Cole in spectroscopy.

In 1924 he married Mildred White; they had one child. 

 

 In 1925, with a fellowship from the National Research Council,

Houston headed west to the California Institute of Technology,

a rising scientific center under the direction of his former

teacher Millikan. There Houston continued to work on atomic spectroscopy,

conducting experiments and teaching on the topic. In 1927 Houston,

now an assistant professor of physics at Caltech, won a Guggenheim

Fellowship, which enabled him to study with Arnold Sommerfeld

in Munich, Germany. A great authority in the field of atomic

spectroscopy, Sommerfeld was a masterful teacher to many of the

young stars of the quantum revolution in physics, such as Werner

Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli. 

 

 During his half-year stay at Munich, Houston made his best-known

scientific contribution, a quantum mechanical explanation of

electrical resistance. Deviating from his original plan to study

the theory of the spin of electrons within the atom, Houston,

at Sommerfeld's direction, investigated the mean-free path of

electrons in metals, which was a crucial indicator of a metal's

electrical conductivity. Applying the new wave mechanics, Houston

treated the electron as a wave and found not only a way to calculate

the mean-free path for electrons in metals but also, more important,

a proportional relationship between electrical resistivity and

temperature at high temperature. This work, which Sommerfeld

called "the first decent treatment of the electrical resistance

law," represented a significant step in the application of quantum

mechanics to metals and in the rise of solid-state physics. In

the spring of 1928 Houston moved to Leipzig to work with Heisenberg.

At the latter's suggestion, Houston reverted to his original

interest in atomic spectra and examined the interaction between

the spin and the orbital motion of electrons in a two-electron

atom and the resultant spectra. 

 

 Returning to Caltech in 1928, Houston resumed his experimental

work on spectroscopy while keeping an active interest in the

theoretical front of electrons in atoms and solids. He made more

precise measurements on the Zeeman effect (changes in spectra

caused by the presence of a magnetic field), which led to a correction

of the value of the ratio between the electron's electrical charge

and mass. In the field of solid-state theory, Houston continued

to work on electrical resistance. In 1929 he showed that quantum

statistics, combined with the conservation of energy, gave rise

to an electrical resistance proportional to T 5 (T stands for

temperature) at low temperature, a result independently derived

at by Houston's friend the physicist Felix Bloch. In 1931 Houston

became full professor at Caltech. Three years later, he wrote

Principles of Mathematical Physics, which was based on his popular

introductory course on the subject at Caltech and which became

a widely used text. 

 

 When World War II broke out, Frank B. Jewett, president of Bell

Laboratories and the National Academy of Sciences, persuaded

Houston to move to the Columbia University Division of War Research

to work on antisubmarine warfare. There Houston led a group in

developing a homing antisubmarine device. The device proved effective

in the battle of the Atlantic and brought Houston a Medal of

Merit from the U.S. Navy at the end of the war. The war transformed

Houston from a competent and versatile physicist into a skilled

science administrator. He was elected to the National Academy

of Sciences in 1943 and later served on its council for several

years. In 1945 he succeeded Millikan as chairman of Caltech's

division of physics, mathematics, and electrical engineering. 

 

 Houston's outstanding administrative qualities and scientific

stature at Caltech led to his appointment as the second president

of Rice University at Houston, Texas, in 1946. For the next fifteen

years, Houston oversaw a considerable expansion of the university

in both the sciences and the humanities. Among his innovations

at Rice was the development of a residential college system modeled

after those of Oxford, Cambridge, and Yale Universities. When

a serious illness in 1961 forced Houston to retire from the presidency

of Rice, he continued as professor of physics there. The next

year, he was elected president of the American Physical Society.

Before he died in Edinburgh, Scotland, Houston also received

numerous honors from a variety of academic and scholarly organizations. 

 

 As one of the few American physicists who made significant contributions

to the quantum revolution and to the development of solid-state

physics, Houston distinguished himself by his competence in both

experiment and theory. As both a major scientific organizer during

World War II and a successful university president during the

postwar period, Houston had a scientific and academic career

that reflected the increased interaction between American science

and society in the twentieth century.    

 

 

 Bibliography

 

 Houston's papers, both personal and professional, are deposited

in Rice University's Fondren Library. See Harold E. Rorschach,

"The Contributions of Felix Bloch and W. V. Houston to the Electron

Theory of Metals," American Journal of Physics 38 (1970): 897-904,

and Lillian Hoddeson et al., eds., Out of the Crystal Maze: Chapters

from the History of Solid-State Physics (1992), for discussions

of Houston's scientific work. The best obituary, by Kenneth S.

Pitzer, Houston's successor as president of Rice, and Harold

E. Rorschach, Jr., a former physics colleague, is "William Vermillion

Houston," National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs

44 (1974): 126-37, which includes a bibliography of Houston's publications.  

 

 Zuoyue Wang

 

 

 

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American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.

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