May 3, 2005

C.U. Remembers Morrison

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Famous astrophysicist Philip Morrison died at age 89 on Friday, April 22, at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During his early days, the MIT professor was one of the youngest physicists to contribute to the Manhattan project. He oversaw the assembly of the plutonium bomb, nick-named “Fat Man,” which destroyed Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, and witnessed the devastation caused by both bombs during a trip to Japan soon after the war. The sight, which he described as “matchless in human misery,” prompted him to spend much of the rest of his life advocating nuclear disarmament.

A year later, in hopes of avoiding political tensions at the University of California at Berkeley, where Morrison had studied under the guidance of Robert Oppenheimer, Morrison joined the Cornell physics department. His staunch opposition to atomic warfare and his pre-war involvement with communism attracted attention from the FBI and prompted criticism from various McCarthy supporters.

Even “McCarthy made bad remarks and him,” said Prof. Edwin Salpeter, physics, a colleague of Morrison at the time. “They used to have closed door meetings before him.”

In 1952, after favorably reviewing Fear, War and the Bomb by P.M.S. Blackett for the Herald Tribune, Morrison was called before a congressional anti-communist investigating committee.

In September of 1959, Morrison and physicist Giuseppe Cocconi published a paper in Nature titled “Searching for Interstellar Communications,” in which they examined the utility of electromagnetic radiation in interstellar communications.

“Interstellar communication across the galactic plasma without dispersion in direction and flight-time is practical, so far as we know, only with electromagnetic waves,” the paper stated.

The paper also urged the scientific community to analyze the electromagnetic background radiation in an effort to identify extraterrestrial communication and its sources.

“The probability of success is difficult to estimate, but if we never search, the probability of success is zero,” Cocconi and Morrison said in their paper.

Other suggestions made in the Morrison-Cocconi paper, such as the assumption that any cosmic signal would suffer a Doppler drift and that certain frequencies would be more likely used than others, have all been adapted in most of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence projects.

In addition to political activism and research in astrophysics and extraterrestrial communication, Morrison was involved in other slightly unpopular endeavors.

“At a time when biophysics was not at all fashionable, he had a weekly seminar on viruses,” Salpeter said.

After Morrison suggested UN mediated peace talks with Russia in October of 1962, Cornell students threw stones at him while he stood on the steps of Willard Straight Hall.

“[I] gave half-an-hour to the idea that instead of discussing nuclear war or bombing Russia or Cuba, we should ask first for the state leaders, Kennedy and Khrushchev, to meet with the secretary general of the United Nations to arrange for some sort of stop to the process,” Morrison said in an interview for the Chronicle of Higher Education in April of 2003. “It wasn’t all the students. It was only a few. But it made an impression on me.”

In 1964, Morrison left Cornell and became a professor at MIT where he continued research in high-energy astrophysics, the origin of cosmic rays, quantum electrodynamics, radiology and certain areas of cosmology. Morrison also devoted his life to popular science, staring in the PBS TV series Ring of Truth and publishing The Powers of Ten, a book that explores the universe at different scales.

“The world has lost one of the major voices of social conscience in science,” said Prof. Charles Weiner, MIT, in a press release.

Morrison was born in New Jersey in 1915 and grew up just outside of Pittsburgh. He contracted polio at an early age and was left with a slight limp for the rest of his life. Before the war, he studied under Robert Oppenheimer at UC Berkeley and collaborated with Enrico Fermi, co-developer of the Fermi-Dirac statistics governing fermion particle states, while they worked to perfect plutonium production techniques.

In 1945, Morrison rode Los Alamos to the New Mexico testing site in the backseat of a Dodge sitting next to a plutonium core bomb. He witnessed the world’s first nuclear detonation four days later.

Archived article by David Andrade
Sun Staff Writer