Physicist, Educator Philip Morrison Dies

After his work on the Manhattan Project, Morrison came out against militaristic use of nuclear energy.
After his work on the Manhattan Project, Morrison came out against militaristic use of nuclear energy. (By Donna Coveney -- Mit)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Philip Morrison, 89, the American physicist who was one of the youngest participants in the Manhattan Project and then withdrew from weapons research to focus on a prolific writing and teaching career, died of respiratory failure April 22 at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was professor emeritus at MIT.

A protege of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who recruited him to the atomic bomb project, Dr. Morrison worked on the bomb's plutonium core and witnessed its destruction of Nagasaki, Japan. What he saw changed the course of his career.

"There was just one enormous, flat, rust-red scar, and no green or gray," he told the New Yorker magazine in 1946, "because there were no roofs or vegetation left. I was pretty sure then that nothing I was going to see later would give me as much of a jolt. The rest would be just a matter of details."

He spent the rest of his life campaigning against militaristic use of nuclear energy.

Dr. Morrison was a dynamic figure in the scientific community as well as a popularizer of science for a mass audience.

He was comfortable whether writing for an elementary-age audience or working with Nobel laureate Hans Bethe on the scientific text "Elementary Nuclear Theory" (1956). He also was a book critic for Scientific American during the magazine's heyday and narrated the science-museum short film "Powers of Ten" (1977), which tracks a journey from points of light in the universe to subatomic particles in a man's hand.

With his second wife and frequent collaborator, Phylis, he wrote and hosted the PBS television series "The Ring of Truth" (1987), which presented accessible views of abstract concepts. For example, he used a bonfire of 32 jelly doughnuts to show how much energy a Tour de France rider expends daily.

"Kids still come up to me in the airport and say, 'Hey, you are the guy who burned up the doughnuts!' " he told a reporter.

Among his contributions to science was what many considered a credible, early paper on using radio signals to communicate with extraterrestrials. While no aliens were contacted, Dr. Morrison kept a hopeful outlook. He once wrote: "If after considerable search we do not find that our counterparts exist somewhere else, I cannot think that would be wrong either, because that would give us even a heavier responsibility to represent intelligence in this extraordinarily large and diverse universe."

Dr. Morrison was born Nov. 7, 1915, in Somerville, N.J., and raised near Pittsburgh, where his father was a retail merchant.

Stricken with polio as a child, he cultivated an interest in science while housebound. One of his early gifts was a crystal radio set with which he could listen to the first commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh. He received a broadcasting license when he was 12.

He graduated in 1936 with a physics degree from the Carnegie Institute of Technology and enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied atomic electrodynamics under Oppenheimer. He received his doctorate in 1940 in theoretical physics and had a brief teaching career before joining the Manhattan Project. He saw his work as an effort to stop the German war machine.

Initially assigned to the metallurgical laboratory at the University of Chicago, he later went to Los Alamos, N.M. Decades later, he remembered the trip to the desert testing site: sitting in a Dodge sedan as he protected his back-seat passenger, the core of the so-called "Fat Man" bomb.

Later, he went to Tinian Island in the North Pacific to prepare the detonation device for the bomb run over Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. An earlier bomb drop over Hiroshima had not made the Japanese surrender.

After the war, he advocated the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes only. At one meeting with U.S. government officials, he likened the bomb to using an entire electrical system to juice an electric chair. His outspokenness -- and a prewar membership in the Communist Party -- led to an appearance before a congressional panel reviewing alleged "subversive" activities among Los Alamos scientists. He was not deemed a threat to national security.

In the late 1940s, he turned down an invitation to teach in Berkeley's physics department, opting for Cornell University out of political concerns at the dawn of the Cold War.

"I knew that Berkeley was going to be one of the most vulnerable of places," he told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2003. "A state university can't stand out against a majority opinion, even if it is weak and poorly supported."

With Cornell colleague Giuseppe Cocconi, he began exploring a distinctive approach to confirming extraterrestrial life. Their findings, published by Nature magazine in 1959, received great attention.

Although Dr. Morrison considered using cosmic rays to send signals a great distance, his interest in radio led him to calculate that it would be far more efficient to beam information tens of trillions of miles into space on the right radio frequency, said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the California-based SETI Institute, which conducts radio searches for signals from extraterrestrial sources.

Dr. Morrison and Cocconi suggested that the proper frequencies centered around 1420 megahertz because it was the frequency radiated by the hydrogen atom, the most plentiful element in the universe.

He was recruited to MIT in 1964 and conducted notable research into supernovas, cosmic X-rays, neutrinos, quasars and black holes.

His books included "The Price of Defense" (1979), which argued for massive military cuts. He elaborated in an interview at the time: "The history of previous wars . . . shows very clearly: to induce fear is the worst possible way of averting conflict."

His marriage to Emily Kramer Morrison ended in divorce. His second wife, Phylis Hagen Morrison, whom he married in 1965, died in 2002.

Survivors include a stepson, Bert Singer of Cambridge.

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