Frederick K Lamb

Research Professor


Frederick K Lamb
237B Loomis Laboratory


Professor Fred Lamb is a Research Professor of Physics, a core faculty member in the Program on Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security, and Brand and Monica Fortner Endowed Chair of Theoretical Astrophysics Emeritus. He has made seminal contributions to atomic physics and high-energy and relativistic astrophysics, and has played important roles in addressing a variety of national security challenges.

Physics and Astronomy

Professor Lamb initially pioneered the application of modern quantum field-theory methods to understanding resonant scattering of light by atoms and molecules, and he developed the first theoretical description of the production of polarized light in the atmospheres of white dwarf stars with mega-gauss magnetic fields. He then turned his attention to the newly-discovered X-ray emitting neutron stars, analyzing their emission and proposing what is now the standard model of X-ray pulsars and the accepted model of X-ray burst sources.

Recognizing that further progress in understanding X-ray emitting neutron stars and black holes would require a space astronomy mission specifically designed to study them, in 1978 Lamb began advocating for such a mission. He played a leading role in the conception, design, development, and operation of NASA's highly successful Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer mission, serving on the scientific panels that guided the mission during its 16 years of successful operation, and chairing the satellite’s Users Group from 1997 to 2008.

Lamb’s analysis of X-ray pulsars showed how the characteristics of their X-ray emission can be used to explore their properties and the nature of the ultradense matter in their cores. His modeling of their high-frequency periodic and quasi-periodic X-ray oscillations is making possible accurate and precise measurements of their masses and radii, interesting constraints on the properties of the matter in their interiors, and exploration of general relativistic effects in the strong-field regime.

Lamb is now a key member of the Science Team of NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) mission, which is currently returning science data on neutron stars and black holes from its position on the International Space Station. The NICER mission has already made the first precise, simultaneous measurements of the mass and radius of a neutron star, and is expected to make precise measurements of the masses and radii of several more neutron stars. These measurements are making possible the most precise astrophysical measurements so far achieved of the properties of ultradense dense matter.

International Security and Arms Control

For more than forty years, Professor Lamb has devoted a substantial fraction of his time to advancing national and international security. He is an expert on space policy, military uses of space, ballistic missiles, missile defenses, anti-satellite weapons, and the technical aspects of nuclear test bans, verification of arms control agreements, and nuclear nonproliferation.

During this period, Lamb has served as an advisor on international security and arms control questions to the Department of Defense, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, and various Congressional committees, as well as the Institute for Defense Analyses and a variety of national laboratories, and has served on numerous U.S. government panels concerned with national security issues. He is currently providing advice on questions related to North Korean ballistic missiles, defenses against long-range ballistic missiles, and the Iran Nuclear Deal.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Lamb helped develop verification methods for underground nuclear explosions and became one of the lead scientists for the U.S. test ban verification effort. During 2001–2003, he co-chaired a national study of boost-phase missile defense that was sponsored by the American Physical Society (APS). He is currently chairing a new study of missile defense and national security being sponsored by the APS Panel on Public Affairs.

For the last four decades, Lamb has devoted substantial time and energy to informing students, the public, and decision makers about nuclear weapons and national security, and advocating for better policies. In 1981, he initiated an undergraduate course titled “Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear War, and Arms Control”, which is still being taught every year. Approximately 3,000 students have completed the course. During the 1980s, he helped found, and later led, the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Nuclear War, a public organization that advocated measures to reduce the nuclear threat. Since 1982, Lamb has been a core faculty member in the University of Illinois Program on Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security (ACDIS), now the Program in Arms Control and Domestic & International Security, and has served on its executive committee.

Lamb has given numerous public lectures, lectures at universities and defense and public policy institutes, and briefings to congressional committees, and is a founding member of the new APS-sponsored Physicists Coalition for Reducing the Nuclear Threat.

In 2005, Lamb shared the Leo Szilard Award of the American Physical Society for his leadership of the 2003 APS study of boost-phase missile defense.


Professor Lamb received his bachelor's degree in physics with honors from the California Institute of Technology in 1967, and his D.Phil. in theoretical physics from Oxford University in 1970. He was a research fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1970 to 1972, when he joined the physics faculty at the University of Illinois as an assistant professor. He became a professor in 1978 and accepted an additional appointment as a professor of astronomy in 1980.

In 1998 Lamb was chosen as the inaugural holder of the Brand and Monica Fortner Endowed Chair in Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Illinois, and was appointed director of the Center for Theoretical Astrophysics at Illinois in 1999.

Research Statement

Professor Lamb’s current astrophysical research focuses on determining the radii and masses of neutron stars and the equation of state of the matter in their interiors, using Bayesian analyses of the soft X-ray pulse waveforms of rotation-powered pulsars observed with the NICER instrument on the International Space Station.

Research Honors

  • Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2005)
  • Leo Szilard Award of the American Physical Society (2005)
  • Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1985)
  • Carnegie Foundation Science Fellowship in Arms Control (1985)
  • Fellow, American Physical Society (1974)
  • Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship (1974)
  • National Science Foundation Fellowship (1969–1970)
  • Marshall Scholar, Oxford University (1967–1969)

Semesters Ranked Excellent Teacher by Students

Fall 2001PHYS 498
Spring 2001PHYS 180
Spring 2000PHYS 382

Selected Articles in Journals

Related news

  • In the Media

More than 90 top American experts in atomic sciences, including a designer of the hydrogen bomb, publicly threw their weight behind the Iran nuclear agreement on Monday, exhorting Congress to preserve the accord in the face of President Trump’s disavowal of it.
In a letter to Senate and House leaders of both parties that emphasized the “momentous responsibilities” Congress bears regarding the agreement, the scientists asserted that the accord was effective in blocking Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.

  • In the Media

As NASA prepares for this evening’s launch of the NICER space astronomy mission, Emeritus Professor of Physics Fred Lamb of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is at the Kennedy Space Center, as a member of three of the mission’s Science Working Groups. The launch from the world-famous Pad 39A is scheduled for 5:55 P.M. EST.

Lamb, who continues to hold a post-retirement research appointment at Physics Illinois, is a world-recognized expert on the U.S. ground-based missile defense system. He served as co-chair of the American Physical Society’s Study Group on Boost-Phase Intercept for National Missile Defense, which published its report in July 2003. He has been fielding questions from the media on Tuesday's successful interception of an interncontinental ballistic missile during the latest test of its ground-based intercept system, as reported by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

Tuesday's ground-based interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California just after 3:30 p.m. EST. A little more than one hour later, the Pentagon confirmed it had successfully collided with an ICBM-class target over the Pacific Ocean, which had been launched from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, 4,200 miles away.

In this Q&A, Lamb briefly turns his attention away from the pending NICER launch to answer a few questions on the current status of the U.S. Ground-Based Missile Defense System.