Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Norman Foster Ramsey: 27 August 1915 * 4 November 2011

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Norman Foster Ramsey: 27 August 1915 * 4 November 2011

Article excerpt

NORMAN RAMSEY was a towering figure in the world of physics during the second half of the twentieth century. He was esteemed for his scientific accomplishments, his service as a statesman of science, and his role as a teacher and mentor, and for the friendships he shared with people of all ranks around the world.

Ramsey was born into a military family in Washington DC on 27 August 1915, and he died in Boston, Massachusetts, on 4 November 2011. His father, Norman Foster Ramsey, Sr., had a distinguished career in the U.S. Army, enlisting in the infantry while underage and rising through the ranks to Brigadier General. Norman's education was frequently interrupted when the family was ordered to new locations in the United States and abroad. In spite of these disruptions, Norman graduated from the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, high school at the top of his class at 15. He wanted to enter West Point or MIT but was too young. Columbia University had no such age restriction, and in 1931, Norman enrolled there as an engineering concentrator. A year later, he switched to his first love- mathematics. For his minor concentration, he chose a subject whose title was a word he had never heard before Columbia-physics.

In his senior year at Columbia, Norman was awarded a Kellett Fellowship. This fellowship was normally used to support studies in the humanities, but the committee was so impressed by Norman that they awarded it to him to study physics at Cambridge University. He arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1935, and for the next two years, he studied physics at the Cavendish Laboratory. He attended lectures by Rutherford, Dirac, and J. J. Thomson, among others, and was tutored by Maurice Goldhaber, who later became a close friend and Director of Brookhaven National Laboratory. In the fall of 1937, Norman returned to Columbia University armed with two bachelor's degrees, a graduate teaching fellowship in physics, and enough formal training to permit him to move directly into doctoral research. His experience at Cambridge, particularly Rutherford's lectures, had kindled an enthusiasm for experimental physics, and Norman applied to work in I. I. Rabi's laboratory.

Rabi's group measured properties of atomic nuclei using the molecular beams technique in which streams of atoms or molecules are deflected by strong magnetic fields as they fly through a vacuum. Rabi initially discouraged Norman because he felt that that the field was essentially exhausted. Nevertheless, Norman persisted and was permitted to join the group.

Graduate Research with Rabi

Rabi had been seriously mistaken when he spoke to Norman about the future of molecular beam research. A few months later, Rabi invented the technique of molecular beam magnetic resonance, precipitating a scientific explosion whose echoes reverberate today. Rabi's resonance concept opened the way to fundamental measurements and high precision metrology, and it helped to spark atomic clocks, lasers, optical communications, and the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Applying the new resonance technique to study the proton and deuteron was high on the agenda of Rabi's group, but the apparatus, which gave excellent results for alkali-halide molecules, refused to yield data for hydrogen and deuterium. The balky apparatus was turned over to Norman so that the rest of the group could go on to more productive research. Working alone at night, Norman got the apparatus to work and made the most important discovery yet to come from Rabi's laboratory: the deuteron is not spherical. Within a year, this discovery had stimulated 10 publications by theorists, including Hans Bethe, Eugen Wigner, and Gregory Breit. The discovery also launched Norman into a life-long study of magnetic interactions in molecules.

Norman received a Ph.D. in 1940 and accepted a fellowship at the Carnegie Institution in Washington. He switched to particle physics and worked on neutron-proton scattering using the Carnegie's one-million electron volt accelerator. …

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