Norman Rostoker

UC Irvine professor Norman Rostoker, the father of breakthrough clean nuclear fusion energy techniques via plasma-based accelerators, died on Christmas Day in Irvine, Calif. He was 89.

Rostoker cared deeply about using clean fusion as a source of almost unlimited, nonpolluting energy for human development. As soon as he had established the theoretical foundation for the technology, he turned his attention to its realization.

“Professor Norman Rostoker was a creative, brilliant thinker. He has created a legacy that will impact humanity far into the future,” said Kenneth Janda, UCI physical sciences dean and professor. “At UC Irvine, he led the Department of Physics & Astronomy into a position of leadership in fusion research and was an inspiration and mentor to many dozens of students who are today’s leaders in applied physics and technology.”

In addition to serving on UCI’s faculty, Rostoker co-founded Tri Alpha Energy with prominent physicists, including Nobel Prize winner Glenn Seaborg, to implement his ideas to develop a clean source of fusion-based energy. His colleagues have subsequently shown the value of many of his notions. According to Michl Binderbauer, a former student and chief technology officer at TAE, Rostoker had an unusual ability to reverse-engineer a problem, leading to innovative insights and novel concepts for their implementation. “He also excelled at the ‘never surrender’ notion,” Binderbauer noted. “Without his steadfastness and strength of conviction, our vision would have remained on paper, and we would not have been able to conclusively demonstrate the merits of some of Norman’s groundbreaking ideas in fusion research.”

Arno Penzias, who won the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics and whose research helped establish the Big Bang theory of cosmology, said, “In my mind – as well as a global plasma physics elite that includes Russia’s Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics – this is the most fruitful scientific endeavor in fusion research anywhere in the world.”

Rostoker was born Aug. 16, 1925, in Toronto, Canada, and earned a master’s degree at the University of Toronto in 1947. He received a D.Sc. in 1950 from the Carnegie Institute of Technology and was on the scientific staff there until 1953. He subsequently worked at the Armour Research Foundation at the Illinois Institute of Technology and at General Atomics before joining the faculty at UC San Diego in 1962.

Rostoker moved to Cornell University in 1967 as the IBM Professor of Engineering and in 1972 joined the faculty at UCI, where he chaired the Department of Physics & Astronomy from 1973 to 1976. Among his many distinctions, he was honored with the American Physical Society’s James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics, the UCI Medal and membership in the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Rostoker’s research started with pure physics, including his important work in solid-state physics theory known as the KKR (Korringa-Kohn-Rostoker) method, which is still used widely. However, his forte was applying theory to physics and engineering technology at the forefront of fusion reactor development. Rostoker was among the first generation of fusion pioneers.

As soon as such research was declassified in the late 1950s, he and other elite scientists opened laboratories and centers where fusion research began to prosper. In the field’s early phase, Rostoker published seminal papers that underpin the theoretical foundations of plasma physics by applying the same masterful mathematical skills displayed in the formation of the KKR method.

He showed that the immense number of interactions in plasma – a gas of charged particles– can be greatly simplified by treating the plasma as a collection of “dressed” particles in which each individual particle is surrounded by its own “shielding cloud.”

While at UCI, Rostoker pursued a unique approach to fusion based on fundamental new insights quite disparate from others in the field. He conceived of utilizing collective plasma fields to assist in the acceleration process. Rostoker employed such accelerators to move toward the realization of plasma-based fusion reactors, for which he’s named as an inventor on 27 U.S. patents.

In order to achieve fusion, extremely high-energy ions would be necessary. His most important insight was that high-energy, large-orbit particles like those in accelerators are able to “ride over turbulence” and thereby overcome various plasma instabilities that hamper other designs. Another of Rostoker’s goals was to develop a fusion reactor that does not suffer from degradation of its surrounding structure by neutron capture.

“I am forever grateful for his kind tutelage,” said Toshiki Tajima, a former student who currently holds the Norman Rostoker Professorship in UCI’s Department of Physics & Astronomy and is Chief Science Officer at TAE. “He instilled in me his vision that plasma and beams can marshal collective fields to realize accelerators out of plasma, while accelerators can drive plasma to be more robust and to fusion conditions.”

Another of Rostoker’s early students, Shimon Eckhouse, who went on to found a number of companies and is currently chairman of the board at Syneron Medical Ltd., commented: “Professor Norman Rostoker was one of the most important pioneers in the theory and understanding of general plasma physics and controlled thermonuclear fusion; his contribution to kinetic plasma theory created the basis of our understanding of modern plasma physics. In addition to his outstanding academic career in plasma and solid-state physics, he was a tenacious entrepreneur, pushing the envelope of technology frontier in the areas of high-power accelerators and clean fusion energy generation. Professor Rostoker was a great teacher and raised generations of graduate students in his field who have continued contributing to the development of science and technology.”

Rostoker was married for 65 years to Helen Corinne Rostoker, who died earlier in 2014, and is survived by their four children, Stephen Rostoker, Ruth Forton, Linda Rostoker and Rachel Uchizono, as well as grandchildren Lisa Servedio, Nolan Uchizono and Kellen Uchizono and one great-grandchild, Sofia Servedio.

A memorial service is being planned for Saturday, January 24, 2015 between 1-4p.m. at the Beckman Center of the National Academies (100 Academy Drive, Irvine, CA 92617). UCI colleagues including faculty and staff are welcome to attend. 

For more information contact Tatiana Arizaga, 949-824-0218,


Ramanad Singh
Staff member

Working as Safety Coordinator of the Physical Sciences for many years I had close interaction with Dr. Rostoker, especially during the years when his research moved out of UC Irvine campus into a Lake Forest facility. Giant as he was as a scientist in his field I never found a faculty of his stature with such childlike simplicity and humility. He was always approachable with both arms open. He is resting in great peace, will be missed tremendously, and his legacy will flourish in decades to come. Humality is the sign of a great man and he lived it effortlessly. 

Gregory Benford
faculty member

Norman was my mentor. He was my thesis professor at UCSD, a bright mind indeed. He helped me get my PhD in 1.5 years of intensive theory, guiding my ideas masterfully. After I went to UCI in 1971, in 1972 I proposed getting Norman to move there from Cornell (where his wife hated the weather; they were both Canadians, too!).  Norman and I and several others set up the High Energy Density lab at UCI in the basement of Engineering in 1974-onward, with a $1 million grant. That gave us the ability of do our own experiments. That in turn led to the Physics Department program of bringing in Israeli students for 3 year PhDs, fully funded by Israel, who were marvelous students--mature, focused. That era, leading up to the 1990s beginning of Trialpha Energy, was a happy convergence of many people, different energies. Norman was a true innovator. Trialpha he founded to pursue a new method of fusion power (which seems to be working!). His many other ideas live on and will benefit the entire fusion effort. I will miss him.

Toshiki Tajima
his former student, holder of Norman Rostoker Chair Professorship of UCI

 It is hard to accept this news, particularly when we just saw him at Atria his nursing home, singing Onward Christian Soldiers and cracking jokes just on Dec. 19, so joyful with five oncoming visitors on that day. I should feel that it was my high honor to have seen him so close to his last stand. Now I remember that my mother sang her last song when she went into her last surgery 30 years ago.

        I have known him since September 1973, when an unknown Japanese student landed on John Wayne Airport, greeting me in a sun-glassed Aloha shirts style.  I have been forever grateful for his kind humanly reception of me at Irvine, his rigorous training of me, his instilling into me his fundamental value, and keeping mentorship and friendship with me over 40 years. His fundamental ideas are broad and deep, ranging from geophysical earth prospect, solid state band theory (KKR), the foundation of plasma physics. But he delved into most important societal tools that a physicist can contrubute, i.e. fusion and accelerators.  In fact he integrated these two fields: he introduced 'collective acceleration' in which plasma with a beam helps accelerate particels in a compact way, while he invented a compact plasma fusion device that is stabilzed and driven by accelerators. Short sentences cannot carry my flooded thoughts. 

  「恩師逝く  祈りむなしく
     熱き価値  孤高歩むも  命繋がる」
        (基督の生誕日のロストーカ先生の昇天に直面し、 田島俊樹  12/26/14)

     "Our mentor passed 'way
                 Prayers have gone unanswered
                             Value unflagging
                                          Lofty solitude withstands
                                                         Handed over to new lives"

                 (on the occasion of Professor Rostoker having gone home on the day of Christ's birth,   Toshi Tajima 12/26/14)


Alison Lara

Dr. Rostoker was an inspiration, and I was honored to be able to support him, and to be considered his friend. 

Sheila Bedi
Administrative Assistant

Dr. Rostoker was an inspiration to all who came in contact with him.  I was honored to support him during my 29 years at  UCI.   'Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away'.

Don V Black
Student, Admirer, Colleague

Dr. Rostoker's contibutions to fusion research, the energy industry, and interplanetary transportation, will immortalize him.   He will be remembered.  He will be missed.

David Hammer
Former graduate student, friend and colleague

It was really difficult to come to terms with the losing Norman Rostoker considering all of the contributions he made, and was continuing to make up until about a year ago, to the field of plasma physics.  He certainly played a very important role to many of us as individuals over the years as well.  However, for no one was he more important than for his children, and so I first want to express my sincere condolences to Stephen, Ruth, Linda and Rachel, as well as to their families, on the loss of their father, especially in light of their loss of Corinne earlier in 2014. 

For me, Norman was a long time mentor, friend and colleague. I was honored that, upon his arrival at Cornell in 1967, already a leader in the field of plasma physics, Norman chose me to be “his theory student” and occasional tennis opponent.  Almost 4 decades later, I was even more honored that he thought me worthy of working with him again as a member of the Tri Alpha Energy Science Advisory Panel. In between, we enjoyed a lot of conversations on physics in many places, we played a few more tennis games in some of those places and, regardless of where we were, I could always expect to learn something – not always of great philosophical importance but always valuable.  For example, Dipu Sudan, wife of the late Ravi Sudan, just reminded me that one of Norman’s favorite pieces of advice to any and all friends and colleagues who would listen was to be sure to take toilet paper if you are going to Russia.  A more serious and less well known piece of advice was given to a few of us at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in about 1971 to repeat the exploding wire experiments done with 1 microsecond rise-time capacitor banks in the late 1950’s with our 100 nanosecond, million-ampere pulsed-power machines at NRL.  This led to the experiments of David Mosher and a whole new subfield of plasma physics followed. 

Returning to the time when we worked together at Cornell, Norman seemed to be happy when he could be fully engaged in physics, whether involved in research, teaching classes or working with graduates students.  By contrast, he was annoyed by the need to manage people, and he was unhappy that members of his family were not happy living in Upstate New York.  To the benefit of the University of California, Irvine, Norman dealt with the latter problem by leaving Cornell in 1972.  My most vivid memory of Norman from Cornell is a toast that Norman offered at a wedding shower held for my wife-to-be and me in 1968.  He has undoubtedly used this toast many times since 1968, and I’ll bet he followed it every time with the same famous Rostoker laugh as if he were using it for the first time:  “As you slide down the bannister of life together, may the splinters all be aimed in the right direction.” I understand that Norman was still telling jokes, and laughing at them himself the same way as in 1968, just a few days before he died.  It is great to know that this creative physicist, this wonderful colleague, this national resource for the scientific community, could still enjoy a good laugh as he faded away.  

Ron Armale
Ph.D. Student 1994

Norman was my mentor and Ph.D. dissertation advisor at UCI in 1994. He was focused, brilliant, and driven. But that is not why I liked him. It was because he was funny. I recall him saying: “Grant money is like manure, spread it around and things will grow.” Picture him saying that while wearing one of his many bolo ties. So on behalf of your many students, I say thanks Norman for all your support, and for making physics fun.

Jerry Simmons
Friend and business associate

Since I was not a scientist, family member, or student, I knew Norman Rostoker simply as a great friend. We also had a business relationship, as two of the co-founders of Tri Alpha Energy. Interestingly, though he was the impetus and one of the main contributors to TAE’s technology, he chose not to participate as a member of the board of directors. This was so like him, as his views in regard to involvement with TAE were to let the business experts handle the business while he stuck to the science. Pure Professor Rostoker.

 After I left TAE as a director, our friendship continued, and every Friday for several years Norman and I would meet for lunch. I would drive to TAE headquarters, and he would then drive us to an Italian restaurant. A scientist with a special understanding of environmental issues, I remember how proud he was of owning a hybrid car. At lunch, we usually split a bowl of spaghetti, while our conversations touched on a wide variety of subjects that interested him. I had been involved with promotional activities surrounding the Apollo 11 anniversary, and he was naturally interested in the space program. In fact, the Apollo 11 lapel pin he is wearing in his memorial photograph is one I gave him.  

 All my memories of Norman are of a kind, brilliant, and generous man who never spoke ill of another person. If there was ever anything he could do to help someone in need, or to advance their career, Norman was always there for them. I personally know of a number of occasions when he took the time to speak to someone or went out of his way to write letters of recommendation to support a student or friend with their academic progress. Norman had many friends, both inside and outside the world of science and academia, and the man I knew always did everything within his power to mentor each and every one.

 Norman Rostoker was a role model, not only for his high degree of uncompromising integrity, but also for his loyal friendship and wonderful sense of humor.  I consider it a great privilege to have known him, and he will be missed by everyone whose life he touched.

Debbie Margarit
Co-Worker, Friend & Fan

I was priviledged to have worked with Norman at TAE and to support him while at TAE. I will always treasure his quick wit and his great smile when he knew he was being witty. I was one of five that visited Norman days before his passing what a delight to have shared in his world if only just for a short time. We will miss him!!

Sam Armstrong
Tri Alpha Energy employee and friend

His efforts have given me the best years of my life.  I've learned more in the last 14 years of my Technician job at Tri Alpha Energy than in the previous 40 years.   One time I told him that I was fortunate and grateful to be at Tri Alpha. (an understatment)  He then replied "I feel the same way too".  Real humility and then some.   His bolo ties were all ugly, but easy to accept.  I can still see him grinning at us with a briefcase in one hand and a tennis racket in the other.


Vitaly Bystritskii

I knew Norman for forty years starting from the first meeting at  Novosibirsk  Akademgorodok international school of plasma physics. It became a start of long life contacts and collaboration. Actually Norman Rostoker changed my life. His invitation to his lab in 1991 opened for me an opportunity to work abroad, and our collaboration lasted to the end of his life. It was Life with big L, in which he fulfilled his destiny by making a significant contribution to our future. No doubt, memory of him will outlive us. And I am deeply grateful to him for everything. Thank you so much, Norman.

Carsten Czerny

To the highest heavens, Mr. Rostoker! I want to thank you most heartfeltly for all your good and desperately needed work. I don't understand much physics, I understand only Olduvai theory.

Henk Monkhorst
colleague, friend, student in plasma physics

Before I met Norman for the first time in 1994, I knew of his reputation in solid-state theory as the third person in the famous KKR method for electronic  states. Its formulation lent itself to deal with impurity states as well, and it has found a large number of applications. Even though that field had been of my interest and research for many years, I contacted Norman in September of 1994 for his other reputation: as one of the founding fathers of theoretical plasma Physics.

My road into fusion physics came from muon catalyzed fusion, a fascinating topic involving many subfield in physics. But I had come to a point on  that road becoming convinced, and in fact having helped to show that it can not produce net power.

I lost interest, but it had planted a bug in my brain: are there other, more  promising routes to net fusion power? So it was quite natural to contact Norman with some of my, rather uncooked ideas; who else was unorthodox, independent and open-minded enough to listen to some far-out ideas?

Our phone chat did not go very well because I was too green in the language and issues in plasma physics. But he urged me to come to a meeting in Washington, DC and discuss my ideas again. I did, we met, talked, and I would say the rest is history. Michl Binderbauer, then still a student, was also present, and we all hit it off, ever since.

I learned a lot from Norman--plasma fundamentals, style, physics intuition, and enjoyment of research, all the while also brushing off critiques of some of our ways. We laughed a lot, and I fondly remember our naive, and vain attempts at raising money, but we had a lot of fun.

Over the years, as I visited Tri Alpha Energy from Florida, I made the point to go out for dinner with Norman and Corrinne. They always knew of some good restaurant to sample. Sadly, that routine has now come to a close. But my memories are filled with respect, and gratitude for all they have brought to my life.

Kwo Ray Chu

Norman was my PhD thesis advisor at Cornell from 1968 to 1972. From him I have learned so much, especially on how to be an independent researcher.

I handed him my thesis before his departure to UC Irvine and drove my $150 car from NY to follow him to Irvine. The first thing he said was my thesis was done and quickly got me a job at the Naval Research Laboratory. So I drove my car back to the east again. The 6,000-mile drive was well worth it because in the short stay at Irvine, he became my friend as well as an advisor. 

I was deeply saddened to learn the news of his passing away. I will forever remember him as my mentor, a great scientist, and a truly colorful individual. May he rest in peace in Heaven.

Miriam Rauch (formerly Gersten)

Norman and I worked together at Maxwell Technologies on x-ray simulators. I was a young scientist and program manager and Norman was a consultant on my programs. He was always full of ideas and energy and although he was a well known scientist and a respected professor at UCI and I was early in my career, he was always interested in my ideas and gave me a lot of encouragement. We remained in touch over the years and I always considered him one of my dearest friends. I am greatly saddened by his death. However, with all the students, friends, and family, he will be living in our hearts forever and his vision and wisdom will be inspiring us in our work.

Miriam Rauch/Gersten

CEO, Nu-Trek, Inc.

Frank Cannonito
Faculty Member

Norman and I served as outside members of a PhD qualifying committee someime in the early 1970s. The student was very weak and we, the outside members, were asked to decide the candidate's fate. Both Norman and I were agast; why couldn't the student's faculty make the decision, which in all probability we would concur? Walking back to Physical Sciences  Norman and I shared our disbelief at what had just transpired and eventually we had a good laugh together at the experience. I immediately liked Norman for I was meeting him for the first time.


I'm sorry to hear that Don has passed. He was a great educator and visionary, we all owe him so much thanks.


Mike Smith

President - NCCI Codes

Post Remembrance

Please note that your email will not be published.
(Family member, friend, faculty member, staff member, student, colleague/peer, acquaintance, fan, other)

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Please note that comments will not post automatically, they will be approved and posted within 24 hours.