Norman F Ramsey The Nobel Prize in Physics


Norman Ramsey has seen too much history to risk predicting the future, especially for the intervening weeks until his Feb.26 Fermilab Colloquium presentation on “Scientists in Times of War.”

“The circumstances surrounding my giving the talk may be rather different by then,” he said, as February opened with tensions unresolved over weapons inspections in Iraq. Whatever the circumstances,the talk will not be an academic exercise for Ramsey. Before chairing the advisory committee that recommended establishing a national accelerator laboratory; before serving as the first president of Universities Research Association,Inc., the consortium contracted to run the laboratory;before having Fermilab’s Ramsey Auditorium named for him; before winning the 1989 Nobel Prize in physics for developing the maser, used in atomic clocks; before launching his decades-long search for an electric dipole moment in the neutron...

That’s a lot of history right there,but even earlier than all those achievements, Norman Ramsey played a significant role in history when the world was at war and scientists were needed to develop weapons and defenses. Before the U.S. formally entered World War II, Ramsey headed the group developing three-centimeter radar at the MIT Radiation Laboratory —and radar was regarded as the decisive factor for the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. Ramsey joined the Manhattan Project in 1943 and served as Head of the Delivery Group at Los Alamos when the first atomic bomb was built and tested.

“In World War II, it was clear who were the good guys and who were the bad guys,” Ramsey, now 87, said from his home in Boston.“I think there’s rarely been a war for which the distinctions were so clear — who started it, what aggressions preceded it. This is a moral help to scientists or anyone else in a war, because there are so many terrible aspects. It’s worth spending a great deal of effort on that moral distinction. One of the worries in the present situation may be that it [the moral distinction] is not quite so clear. It poses a dilemma in a certain sense.The problem is not that the applications of science aren’t effective.On the contrary, they are very effective. That means killing a lot of people. That’s very difficult to have on your conscience,at the time and subsequently.”

In his talk, Ramsey will touch on the play,“Copenhagen,” and the book,“Tuxedo Park,” both achieving popularity with their themes of science and scientists in times of war. “Copenhagen” explores the relationship between atomic scientists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg,and the issue of whether Heisenberg helped or hindered the atomic bomb program of Nazi Germany. “I knew Heisenberg only slightly, but I knew Bohr well,” Ramsey said.“Bohr was a very fine person.”

And then there’s the story of shadowy financier and amateur scientist Alfred Lee Loomis,who helped establish the MIT laboratory,built his own science enclave in Tuxedo Park,New York,then applied his wealth and political connections to nudging the U.S.effort to build the first atomic bomb. “I think the book exaggerates his technical expertise,” Ramsey said,“but he did a lot to get the [radar] project moving rapidly through the government.He also did a lot to get nuclear weapons work going.He had very strong judgment, he was very vigorous in pushing things,and he had money.He had a lot of money.Those were the days before rental cars,and in every city he went to,he had a limousine and a driver.” Ramsey has also done his share of moving projects along.He was instrumental in founding Brookhaven National Laboratory,headed the physics department at Harvard University,and in 1962 was tapped to chair a committee to formulate recommendations on the future of U.S.high-energy physics over the next decade.

The report of his group,and of a subsequent design committee from Berkeley Lab,pointed the way to establishing a national accelerator laboratory operated by a consortium of universities. The original group of 30 universities formed a board of scientists and non-scientists,then formed a smaller board that could work more effectively — the smaller group including Ramsey and Robert Rathbun Wilson of Cornell University. “The board of trustees was mainly worried about the selection of a director,and was compiling a list during the site selection process,”Ramsey recalled.“When the Illinois site was finally selected, the Berkeley people were very disappointed,and one of their guys turned it down.Bob Wilson was on the board,but he was regarded as ineligible. He was finishing up the Cornell accelerator lab, and the trustees felt that if he abandoned that project,he wasn ’t responsible enough to be a good director.Well,typical of Bob Wilson,he finished the Cornell project a year ahead of schedule.So he was available.I was chosen as the first president of URA,and Bob and I worked very well together.”

Ramsey continues to work at Harvard,on the goal he has pursued for more than four decades: finding an electric dipole moment in the neutron.

Norman Ramsey was born in 1915 in Washington, D.C. He received his A.B. and M.A. from Columbia University and similar degrees from Cambridge University. In 1940 he received a Ph.D. from Columbia University for molecular beam studies with 1. 1. Rabi. He was awarded an Sc.D. by Cambridge University in 1954 and by Oxford University in 1973 as well as honorary D.Sc.'s from Middlebury, Lake Forest and Carleton Colleges and from Case Western Reserve, Rockefeller, Chicago, Houston and Michigan Universities. After temporary periods at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the University of Illinois, the MIT Radiation Laboratory and Los Alamos, he became an Associate Professor at Columbia University. He was Executive Secretary of the group scientists who established Brookhaven National Laboratory and was the first Chairman of its Physics Department. Since 1947 he has been at Harvard University where he is Higgins Professor of Physics. My early interest in science was stimulated by reading an article on the quantum theory of the atom. But at that time I did not realize that physics could be a profession. My parents presumed that I would try to follow my father's footsteps to West Point, but I was too young to be admitted there. I was offered a scholarship to Kansas University but my parents again moved - this time to New York City. Thus I entered Columbia College in 1931, during the great depression. Though I started in engineering, I soon learned that I wanted a deeper understanding of nature than was then expected of engineers so I shifted to mathematics. By winning yearly competitive mathematics contests, I was honored in my senior year by being given the mathematics teaching assistantship normally reserved for graduate students. At the time I graduated from Columbia in 1935, I discovered that physics was a possible profession and was the field that most excited my curiosity and interest.

Columbia gave me a Kellett Fellowship to Cambridge University, England, where I enrolled as a physics undergraduate. The Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge was then an exciting world center for physics with a stellar array of physicists: J.J. Thomson, Rutherford, Chadwick, Cockcroft, Eddington, Appleton, Born, Fowler, Bullard, Goldhaber and Dirac. An essay I wrote at Cambridge for my tutor, Maurice Goldhaber, first stimulated my interest in molecular beams and in the possibility of later doing my Ph. D. research with I.I. Rabi at Columbia. After receiving from Cambridge my second bachelors degree, I therefore returned to Columbia to do research with Rabi. At the time I arrived Rabi was rather discouraged about the future of molecular beam research, but this discouragement soon vanished when he invented the molecular beam magnetic resonance method which became a potent source for new fundamental discoveries in physics. This invention gave me the unique opportunity to be the first graduate student to work with Rabi and his associates, Zacharias, Kellogg, Millman and Kusch, in the new field of magnetic resonance and to share in the discovery of the deuteron quadrupole moment. Following the completion of my Columbia thesis, I went to Washington, D.C. as a Carnegie Institution Fellow, where I studied neutron-proton and proton-helium scattering.

In the summer of 1940 I married Elinor Jameson of Brooklyn, New York, and we went to the University of Illinois with the expectation of spending the rest of our lives there, but our stay was short lived. World War II was rampant in Europe and within a few weeks we left for the MIT Radiation Laboratory. During the next two years I headed the group developing radar at 3 cm wavelength and then went to Washington as a radar consultant to the Secretary of War. In 1943 we went to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to work on the Manhattan Project. As soon as the war ended I eagerly returned to Columbia University as a professor and research scientist. Rabi and I immediately set out to revive the molecular beam laboratory which had been abandoned during the war. My first graduate student, William Nierenberg, and I measured a number of nuclear magnetic dipole and electric quadrupole moments and Rabi and I started two other students, Nafe and Nelson, on a fundamental experiment to measure accurately the atomic hydrogen hyperfine separation. During this period Rabi and I also initiated the actions that led to the establishment of the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York, where in 1946 I became the first head of the Physics Department.

In 1947 I moved to Harvard University where I taught for 40 years except for visiting professorships at Middlebury College, Oxford University, Mt. Holyoke College and the University of Virginia. At Harvard I established a molecular beam laboratory with the intent of doing accurate molecular beam magnetic resonance experiments, but I had difficulty in obtaining magnetic fields of the required uniformity. Inspired by this failure, I invented the separated oscillatory field method which permitted us to achieve the desired accuracy with the available magnets. My graduate students and I then used this method to measure in many different molecules a number of molecular and nuclear properties including nuclear spins, nuclear magnetic dipole and electric quadrupole moments, rotational magnetic moments of molecules, spin-rotational interactions, spin-spin interactions, electron distributions in molecules, etc. Although we studied a wide variety of molecules we concentrated on the diatomic molecules of the hydrogen isotopes since these molecules were most suitable for comparing theory and experiment. During this period I also consulted with various groups that were applying the separated oscillatory field method to atomic clocks and I analyzed the precautions which must be taken to avoid errors. Although our original molecular beam research was only with the magnetic resonance method, we later built a separated oscillatory fields electric resonance apparatus and used it to study polar molecules. In an effort to attain even greater accuracy and to do so with atomic hydrogen, the simplest fundamental atom, Daniel Kleppner, a former student, and I invented the atomic hydrogen maser. We then used it for accurate measurements of the hyperfine separations of atomic hydrogen, deuterium and tritium and for determining the extent to which the hyperfine structure was modified by the application of external electric and magnetic fields. We also participated with Robert Vessot and others in converting a hydrogen maser to a clock of unprecedented stability. While these experiments were being carried out with some of my graduate students, I worked with other students and associates to apply similar precision methods to beams of polarized neutrons. At the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, France, we measured accurately the magnetic moment of the neutron, set a low limit to the electric dipole moment of the neutron as a test of time reversal symmetry and discovered and measured the parity non-conserving rotations of the spins of neutrons passing through various materials.

Concurrently with my molecular and neutron beam research, I was also teaching and involved with other scientific activities. I was director of the Harvard Cyclotron during its construction and early operation and participated in proton-proton scattering experiments with that cyclotron. I was later chairman of the joint Harvard-MIT committee managing the construction of the 6 GeV Cambridge Electron Accelerator and used that device for various particle physics experiments including electron-proton scattering. For a year and a half I was on leave from Harvard as the first Assistant Secretary General for Science (Science Advisor) in NATO where I initiated the NATO programs for Advanced Study Institutes, Fellowships and Research Grants. For sixteen exciting years I was on leave half time from Harvard as President of Universities Research Association which exercised its management responsibilities for the construction and operation of the Fermilab accelerator through two outstanding laboratory directors, Robert R. Wilson and Leon Lederman. Although I am primarily an experimental physicist, theoretical physics is my hobby and I have published several theoretical papers including early discussions of parity and time reversal symmetry, the first successful theory of the NMR chemical shifts, theories of nuclear interactions in molecules and the theory of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics at negative absolute temperatures.

I officially retired from Harvard in 1986, but I have remained active in physics. For one year I was a research fellow at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics at the University of Colorado and I now periodically revisit JILA as an Adjunct Research Fellow. Subsequent to our year in Colorado, I have been visiting professors at The University of Chicago, Williams College and the University of Michigan. I continue writing and theoretical calculations in my Harvard office and with my collaborators we are continuing our neutron experiments at Grenoble. After Elinor died in 1983, I married Ellie Welch of Brookline, Massachusetts and we now have a combined family of seven children and six grandchildren. We enjoy downhill and cross country skiing, hiking, bicycling and trekking as well as musical and cultural events.

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