Saturday, April 12, 2008

Philip Morrison...physicist

Philip Morrison
1915 to 2005

So many scientists/science educators have passed away recently [Hans Bethe, Jack Kilby, Don Herbert, Hermann Bondi, Edward Teller] and including Philip Morrison. For me, Philip Morrison was a powerful mentor in the 1960's as was his late wife Phylis Morrison who spirited my interest and fascination with crystals. Yes, Philip Morrison was bound to the technology of the Manhattan Project complete with questionable and arguable global politics involving nuclear weapons deployment. But that is not relevant here. I eagerly waited for the next issue of Scientific American for his monthly column "Wonders", thoroughly enjoyed his PBS series "The Ring of Truth", and the book Powers of Ten. Not so spectacular to me was his involvement with SETI. His last years were spent as Professor Emeritus at MIT. obituary:

"Bomb builder turned critic passes away"


Peter Rodgers

April 26th, 2005

Editor of Physics World

Philip Morrison, one of a generation of physicists who built the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, only to spend the rest of their careers campaigning against nuclear weapons, has died at the age of 89. Morrison spent most of his career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was appointed Institute Professor, the highest honour awarded by MIT, in 1973.

Born in New Jersey in 1915, Morrison caught polio as a child which left him partly handicapped for the rest of his life. He obtained his first degree from the California Institute of Technology and his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, where his supervisor was Robert Oppenheimer, who went on to lead the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos during the second world war. Morrison was one of a small team of physicists who travelled to the island of Tinian to assemble the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, and later was part of the team that surveyed the devastation caused by the bomb.

In 1946 Morrison left Los Alamos to join Hans Bethe -- who died last month aged 98 -- at Cornell University, where his interests shifted from nuclear physics to astrophysics and cosmology, and where he also became a vocal critic of nuclear weapons. In 1959 he wrote a paper with Giuseppe Cocconi that is widely credited with starting the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

In 1964 Morrison moved to MIT where he also became a noted popularizer of science through various books, the film "Powers of Ten", and his book reviews in Scientific American.

"Phil was a great physicist. His field was astrophysics, but he was interested in all of physics," said Marc Kastner, head of the physics department at MIT "Despite his physical disabilities, he would come to seminars on many different subjects and always had insightful comments. He was also deeply committed to education, both at the undergraduate level and for younger students, and was spectacular at explaining physics to the public."

"The world has lost one of the major voices of social conscience in science," said Charles Weiner, emeritus professor of the history of science at MIT. "For more than 50 years, since his involvement in the development of the first atomic bomb, Philip Morrison has been a leading participant in the efforts to control and eliminate nuclear weapons."

The New York Times obituary:

"Philip Morrison, 89, Builder of First Atom Bomb, Dies"


Dennis Overbye

April 26th, 2005

The New York Times

Dr. Philip Morrison, who helped assemble the first atomic bomb with his own hands, and then campaigned for the rest of his life against weapons that could deliver such devastation, died Friday at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 89.

He died in his sleep, his family said.

In four decades as a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Morrison was known as a spellbinding speaker and an inspirational popularizer of science, the original teacher of "physics for poets." He was known to the public though his PBS series "The Ring of Truth," and for a long-running and prolific stint as the book reviewer for Scientific American.

Among his legacies is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which sprang from a short paper in Nature that he wrote in 1959 with his colleague, Dr. Giuseppe Cocconi, at Cornell.

Dr. Charles Weiner, a historian of science at M.I.T., said, "The world has lost one of the major voices of social conscience in science."

On Dr. Morrison's 60th birthday, in 1975, Victor Weisskopf, another M.I.T. professor, said, "Nobody else has better demonstrated, or rather embodied, what it means to the human soul to perceive or recognize a new scientific discovery or a new theoretical insight."

In 1945, Dr. Morrison was among the scientists of the Manhattan Project preparing to try to detonate the world's first nuclear explosion. A lieutenant of his former graduate school teacher, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the project, Dr. Morrison rode in the back seat of a car from Los Alamos - where the physicists were working - to the Trinity test site, in Alamogordo, N.M., with the bomb's plutonium core beside him in a special carrying case studded with rubber bumpers.

A little later, when he poked his head up from behind a sand dune in time to catch sight of the explosion, he was surprised not by its brightness but by its heat, he later recalled.

Shortly afterward Dr. Morrison was one of a handful of physicists sent to the island of Tinian to assemble the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. A month later, he was part of a team that toured the city.

Conventional bombing had destroyed other Japanese cities in a checkerboard pattern, leaving red rust intermingled with gray roofs and vegetation, he recalled in an interview in The New Yorker. "Then we circled Hiroshima, and there was just one enormous flat, rust-red scar, and no green or gray, because there were no roofs or vegetation left."

He said, "I was pretty sure then that nothing I was going to see later would give me as much of a jolt."

Philip Morrison was born in 1915 in Somerville, N.J. When he was 4 he was stricken with polio, which left him partly handicapped. He grew up in Pittsburgh and attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) and then the University of California, Berkeley, where he obtained a Ph.D. in physics under Oppenheimer's tutelage.

After teaching briefly, Dr. Morrison was recruited for the bomb project and was put in charge of testing. His duties included dangerous experiments called "tickling the dragon's tail," in which scientists slipped pieces of a bomb closer and closer together to study what happened as it approached the moment when the assembly went "critical."

Although Dr. Morrison approved of building the bomb, fearing that the Germans would build one first, he was alarmed by the decision to drop it without warning.

His firsthand experience of the entire cycle of creation and apocalypse "stamped him for life," Dr. Kosta Tsipis, an M.I.T. physicist and arms control expert, said in an interview yesterday.

In 1946, Dr. Morrison left Los Alamos and joined another bomb project leader, Hans Bethe, at Cornell, where his research interests gradually shifted from nuclear physics to astrophysics and cosmic rays to cosmology.

He became a forceful advocate of international arms control, helping to found the Federation of American Scientists, writing for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, appearing at meetings and signing statements with the likes of Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson opposing militarism.

In his undergraduate years, he joined the Communist Party, and at Berkeley he was labeled a "troublemaker." In 1953, Dr. Morrison was called before the Senate Internal Security subcommittee, where he testified that while he had indeed been a Communist long before, he was not one then and had not been since he was a young man.

Cornell quickly announced that he could keep his job. His boss, Dr. Robert R. Wilson, said, "He demonstrated his patriotism by the distinguished role he played in the wartime development of the atomic bomb."

Dr. Morrison never lost his fire. At M.I.T., where he moved in 1964, he was the author or co-author of several books and studies on arms control, often in collaboration with Dr. Tsipis. The most recent was Reason to Hope, which discussed ways to overcome the problems of war and overpopulation.

Dr. Morrison's activities as a popularizer of science were of a piece with his work as an arms critic, said Dr. Weiner of M.I.T., who described his style as impassioned but not elitist. He began one important lecture at a symposium by walking in and dropping a big rock, a meteorite, on the stage with loud clunk. "This is my text," he started.

He helped write the script and narrated the 1977 film "Powers of Ten," also by Charles and Ray Eames, in which a camera zooms from a couple having a picnic in Chicago out to the limits of the cosmos and then back down through the woman's hand to the level of atoms and quarks. In 1992, he and his wife, Phylis, with the Eameses, turned it into a book.

Dr. Morrison and his fast-talking raspy voice became familiar to millions of television viewers in 1987 when PBS aired his six-part series, "The Ring of Truth."

Dr. Morrison's first marriage, to Emily Morrison of Boston, ended in divorce. Phylis, his second wife, died in 2002. He is survived by a stepson, Bert Singer, of Cambridge, and his wife, Angela Kimberk.

Dr. Morrison's interest in extraterrestrial intelligence arose from work on cosmic rays. While at Cornell, he concluded that these particles originated in cosmic cataclysms like exploding stars and even exploding galaxies.

Dr. Morrison wondered if a particular kind of cosmic ray, high-energy radiation known as gamma rays, could convey information across the universe. One day his colleague Dr. Cocconi suggested that such gamma rays would be a way for civilizations to communicate across the lonely gulfs between stars. The pair looked into it and decided that radio waves would be better still.

In a paper in Nature on September 19th, 1959, they suggested that radio astronomers could look for a signal. A year later, Dr. Frank Drake, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va., began the first search. He struck out. Today, thousands of stars and millions of dollars later, SETI (or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which has endured political storms, has still not hit pay dirt, but the galaxy is vastly mysterious, and the words that Dr. Morrison and Dr. Cocconi used to end their paper are still apt.

After pointing out the profound effects of discovering such a signal, they wrote, "The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero."

By the way, I am reminded that Philip Morrison with Robert Karplus, Jerrold Zacharias, and Francis Friedman developed the first radical approach to new teaching methods of physics in high school in the early 1960's with the introduction of PSSC Physics [Physical Science Study Committee].

Robert Karplus, Jerrold Zacharias, Francis Friedman, and Philip Morrison

PSSC Physics


Anonymous said...

I met Philip Morrison and his gracious wife in Portland, Oregon, when I was in high school participating in an extracurricular science program. I got to help demonstrate something on stage for him during a speech.

Afterwards, I wrote him a letter asking for his perspective on the role of atomic weapons in World War Two. His response was kind and descriptive, and also had a kind word or two from his wife in the margins.

Since then I also like reading his columns and some of his work. I didn't make a career in physics, but he's always been the kind of teaching thinker that I try to emulate to my own lesser abilities.

Anonymous said...

An obit on Guiseppie Cocconi, which includes his pioneering SETI work with Morrison:

Anonymous said...

A detailed look at Cocconi’s science work, including his famous SETI paper
with Philip Morrison, in this online article of the CERN Courier: