Search form

Philip Morrison (1915 - 2005)

Philip Morrison died on Friday the 22nd of April 2005.

Philip Morrison, who died 22 April 2005 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was born in Somerville, New Jersey on 7 November 1915 to Moses and Tilly (née Rosenbloom) Morrison. Early childhood polio confined him for extended periods, during which he apparently developed his remarkable skill at speed reading. Speed writing (leading to a bibliography of more than 600 items) came later, and his memory must always have been exceedingly retentive.

Morrison went on from the public and private schools of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to receive a BS in physics from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) in 1936. At the University of California, Berkeley, he joined the Young Communist League and later the Communist Party, letting his membership lapse in the early 1940s when work and war came to seem more important. He was officially the student of J. Robert Oppenheimer and worked also with postdocs Robert Serber and Leonard Schiff and with a number of his fellow Oppenheimer students (a spectacular crew, which included Robert Christy, Sidney Dancoff, Bernard Peters [born Pietrkowski], Hartland Snyder, Joseph Weinberg, Dale Corson, Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz, David Bohm, and Eugene Cooper).

Following his 1940 PhD, Phil (his preferred signature) taught for a year at San Francisco State and then at University of Illinois (where he replaced Dancoff, who had gone on to a year at Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton). From Illinois, Morrison was recruited to the Metallurgy Lab (uranium project) at the University of Chicago by Christy in 1942. There he worked on the design for the Hanford Reactor, the main source of plutonium for the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs. He seems to have been sensitive to human relationships even in that context and was the author of a "Dear Opje" letter to Oppenheimer pointing out that the lack of cooperation between management and the scientists was getting in the way of the project.

Morrison's early research was largely in theoretical nuclear physics-e.g., an abstract-paper pair with Dancoff on internal conversion coefficients, and another pair with Cooper on internal scattering of gamma rays. An isolated 1939 abstract dealt with the zero-point fluctuations of the electromagnetic field and reads as if he might have been sneaking up on the Casimir effect. His first astrophysics paper, on electron capture in the interior of white dwarfs, came in 1941.

At Los Alamos, Morrison and Marshall Holloway were largely responsible for the final readiness and assembly of the plutonium bombs. He escorted the first "Fat Man" core out to the Trinity test site and observed the explosion from a distance at which the most overwhelming feature was the heat. Morrison was on Tinian in the South Pacific to help assemble the Nagasaki bomb and was part of the group of US physicists who first flew over and then visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki a month later. His formal and informal reports make clear that the damage was overwhelming, that he found it a devastating experience, and that his easily-recognizable writing style was already in place.

From then onward, Morrison was in the vanguard of the "no third bomb" movement. Indeed he had been the leader of a group of young Los Alamos physicists who favored a public demonstration of the bomb prior to any use in Japan. Oppenheimer firmly discouraged them. After WWII, Morrison became a founder of the Federation of American Scientists (chair 1973-76) and of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, both entities strongly opposed to nuclear war and indeed war in general.

Morrison's post-war careers in science, education, and much else took place first at Cornell University (1946-65), which firmly supported him against an ouster effort during the McCarthy era, and later at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1965 to official retirement in 1986). The switch was associated with the break-up of his first (1938) marriage to Emily Kramer, and remarriage in 1964 to Phylis Singer, who predeceased him in 2002. Emily had been a collaborator on a few magazine articles and so forth. Phylis became a full partner on several of his books and television programs, and, most charmingly, on an annual set of Christmas reviews of books for children.

Morrison the educator appears first as co-author with Hans Bethe of the text Elementary Nuclear Physics in 1952. A subset of other achievements in this territory include: (a) co-authorship of the Physical Sciences Study Committee text for high school physics in 1962 (prepublication versions existed in 1960); (b) the film, Powers of Ten, produced by Charles and Ray Eames in 1979, narrated by Phil, and seen by a large fraction of all the students in "astronomy for poets" classes since; (c) television programs including Whisper from Space (Nova, 1977, on the microwave background) and the six-part series Ring of Truth (PBS, 1987, on scientific method); and (d) literally hundreds of book reviews written for Scientific American from 1965 into the late 1990s, in every one of which you can hear his voice, in contrast to frequent Scientific American editorial practice. He produced a few late reviews and commentaries for American Scientist, but was not entirely pleased with the relationship. Among his graduate students who remained in cosmic-ray and astrophysics were Howard Laster, Kenneth Brecher, James Felten, Robert Gould, Leo Sartori, Alberto Sadun, and Minas Kafatos. Several of them describe Phil as a very "hands off" advisor, who would suggest a project and leave them to get on with it, which was rather different from the Oppenheimer style.

A 1959 paper by Guiseppe Cocconi and Morrison was the first suggestion that one might communicate with extraterrestrial civilizations using radio waves close to the 1421 GHz (21 cm) frequency of neutral hydrogen, though he had thought even earlier about gamma rays for this purpose. Phil was a SETI optimist from the beginning, writing and participating in conferences on the subject for many years (somehow often as the conference summarizer). He was an early exponent of the idea of convergent evolution, meaning that structures (including intelligence) with similar functions might arise from very different beginnings.

Morrison thought and wrote (often with students) about an enormous range of topics in astrophysics. This list, in fairness, includes both some successes and some false starts: (1) predictions of gamma ray emission from active galaxies, supernova remnants, and the general interstellar medium (long before any extra-solar gamma rays had been seen); (2) cooling of stellar remnants by neutrino emission (with Hong Yee Chiu); (3) possible X-ray emission mechanisms for clusters of galaxies (with James Felten); (4) a fluorescent theory of supernova light emission (akin at least to the current Ni-56 decay scenario); (5) the inevitable "Are quasars giant Crab Nebulas?" question; (6) a suggestion (with Ken Brecher) that the emission from gamma-ray bursts must be beamed into a narrow cone (now known to be true); (7) the association of a subset of active galaxies (including M82) with star formation fueled by recent infall of new gas rather than with a central black hole; (8) prediction of X-ray emission from the Crab Nebula and radio galaxies (later seen, though the mechanism is probably different); and (9) a shadowing mechanism to account for the jet found to be sticking out of the edge of the Crab Nebula in the 1980s.

Like any charismatic scientist, he was surrounded by a "cloud" of Morrison stories, many included on the web sites, so here are only four "micros:" (a) about the discovery of gamma ray bursters with the Vela (bomb test monitoring) satellites and the evidence for plate tectonics from underground test monitoring seismometers, he said: "Well, it's hard to waste 108 dollars;" (b) explaining why it was okay to pretend to confuse the real and dummy bomb cores en route to the Trinity test site: "The real one was warm;" (c) concerning the enormous extent of the facilities at Los Alamos: "They won't need a heating system. If it gets cold, they can just burn part of it down;" and (d) because his book reviewing resulted in an enormous accumulation of unreviewed books in his downstairs library-study, such that anyone who visited the Morrisons had to take at least one volume away: "Do you like books?" he would ask ingenuously.

To the end, Morrison maintained his hopes for the future of humanity (the last book, with Kostas Tsipis, was Reason Enough to Hope, a nominee for the Phi Beta Kappa writing award), his interest in the science of the future (including a special enthusiasm for the planet-finding mission "Kepler"), and his gift for friendship and willingness to accept and offer affection. Very near the end of his life, Phil joined with Robert Christy to sponsor an Oppenheimer lecture, which will take place at the April 2006 meeting of the American Physical Society. His favorite holiday was the winter solstice. He received a handful of honorary degrees, was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and won prizes from Sigma Xi, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and a number of other organizations.

[Technical articles on Philip Morrison will appear in the "Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomy" (forthcoming 2006, ed. T.A. Hockey, et al.) and the "Biographical Memoires of the National Academy of Sciences". Additional, informal information appears on the web sites http://www.memoriesofmorrison.org/ and http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2005/morrison.html.]

Affiliations: 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Obituary Written By: 
Virginia Trimble (University of California-Irvine)
BAAS: BAAS, 2005, 37, 1552
DOI: 
BAASOBIT2005008