In 1983 he and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar were awarded the Nobel Prize
for Physics for their work on the life cycle of stars and the origin
of chemical elements.
Fowler was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and obtained his bachelor's
degree in physics from Ohio State University 1933. He attended the California
Institute of Technology, gained a PhD, and became a Research fellow
there 1936. He spent his entire career at Caltech, rising from Assistant
Professor to Professor and, in 1970, Instructor Professor.
Fowler concentrated on research into the abundance of helium in the
universe. The helium abundance was first defined as the result of the
'hot Big Bang' theory proposed by US physicist Ralph Alpher, Hans Bethe,
and George Gamow 1948. In its original form, the Big Bang theory accounted
only for the creation of the lightest elements, hydrogen and helium.
In their classic paper 1957, Fowler, Hoyle, and the Burbages described
how, in a star like the Sun, two hydrogen nuclei, or protons, combine
to create the next heavier element, helium, thus generating energy.
Over time, more and heavier elements are produced until, after millions
of years, the star finally explodes into a supernova, scattering its
material across the Universe.
Fowler and Hoyle published an even more complete exposition of stellar
nuclear synthesis in 1965 and completed the work two years later with
R Wagoner. Taking into account all the reactions that can occur between
the light elements, and considering the build-up of heavier elements,
they were able to calculate helium abundance in the Universe to 1%.