Philip Morrison: From A Bombs to Burnt Doughnuts

pmorrisonFirst published in Carnegie Mellon Magazine

“One nuclear war is plenty,” says Philip Morrison, who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. He conducted uranium experiments that led to creation of the atom bomb. But the killing power of the bomb deeply disturbed him. After the war he turned to theoretical questions about the nature of the universe.

But his past remained vivid. And in the late 1970s, Morrison (S’36) formed the Boston Study Group of scientists and professionals committed to averting nuclear war and reducing military spending. Together they wrote “The Price of Defense: A New Strategy for Military Spending” in 1979. Adopted by The Nation as a gift to new subscribers, the book became a cult classic of the left and a leading text in the argument against nuclear proliferation.

Now a professor emeritus of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology living in Cambridge, Mass., Morrison has enjoyed a long career as a theoretical physicist and science educator. He identified, and Nature published as a conjecture, his and colleague Giuseppe Cocconi’s identification of the 21 cm wavelength of neutral atomic hydrogen as the best place to look for transmissions from intelligent extraterrestrial life. He co-authored “Powers of Ten: About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe,” which uses pictures ranging from galactic clusters to the interior of a carbon atom. He reviewed books for Scientific American for 30 years and, in the 1980s hosted a television series, “Ring of Truth,” that educated the public about science. On one program, he made a bonfire of dried-out doughnuts and compared the energy output to the work put out in a day by cyclists in the Tour de France. Since the series is still used in science education, Morrison sometimes has kids come up to him and inquire, “Hey, are you the guy who burned up the doughnuts?”

Among his friends were visionaries of the 20th century: He lunched with Albert Einstein, compared notes with Niels Bohr, and worked with Enrico Fermi.

Morrison, who grew up in Wilkinsburg, Pa., contracted polio as a child, and his father, worried about the housebound boy, bought him a crystal radio set. Later, Morrison built his own radio, volunteered at a radio station and earned a broadcasting license at the age of 12. By high school, he says, “I was a serious radio enthusiast.”

During the height of the Depression, he entered Carnegie Tech on a scholarship, determined to become a radio engineer. His choice of majors was not practical: “Nobody had a job…the issue of getting a job was moot. Might as well do what you liked,” he explains. Living at home and commuting to campus by streetcar, Morrison discovered in his first semester that physicists asked more questions than engineers. He changed his major to physics.

At Carnegie Tech, Morrison first encountered Einstein. In the winter of 1933 Morrison learned that the legendary physicist would talk to the American Association for the Advancement of Science on campus. The talk was open only to AAAS members. Morrison’s friends in the Drama Department unlocked the theater and let him and several other eager students sneak in. They perched on scaffolding above the stage and only managed to see the top of Einstein’s head. He gave a proof of conservation of momentum using relativity and wrote the formulae on a blackboard. “We couldn’t see the blackboard at all,” says Morrison. “We couldn’t hear very well. But we were there!”

Morrison went on to study theoretical physics under J. Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California at Berkeley. After the war he taught physics at Cornell University. During this period, he visited Einstein in his home and enjoyed a real exchange of ideas. He then joined the faculty at MIT.

At MIT in 1961 he met and married his second wife, Phylis Singer, a woman whose talent for everything from bread making in the Amazon to growing brightly colored salt crystals, inspired him to see art and creativity as inherent in science. “She noticed the nuances,” says Morrison of Phylis, who died in July 2002. “We worked together, we wrote together. She found everything in the world interesting.”—Jennifer Margulis

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