Robert Henry Dicke

By Happer, W.; Peebles, P. J. E. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Robert Henry Dicke


Happer, W., Peebles, P. J. E., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


6 MAY 1916-4 MARCH 1997

BOB DICKE contributed to advances in radar; atomic physics; quantum optics; gravity physics; astronomical methods at radio, optical, and X-ray wavelengths; astrophysics; and the expanding universe. The unifying theme is his application of powerful and scrupulously controlled experimental methods to issues that really matter. Though Bob sometimes had to hide his amusement at theorists who were poorly grounded in phenomenology, he did not hesitate to explore speculative extensions of fundamental theory where the experimental ground is soft; the condition was that there had to be the possibility of a measurement that could teach us something. To this we may add Bob's many patents, from clothes dryers to lasers. In the company Princeton Applied Research he and his students packaged his advances in phase-sensitive detection in the now-ubiquitous "lock-in amplifier." With its successors, this has probably contributed as much to experimental Ph.D. theses as any device of the past generation. Here was a complete physicist at work.

Bob writes,

I was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1916 but my earliest recollections are of Washington D. C. where my father worked for the United States Patent Office as a patent examiner. Later, when my father became a patent attorney for the General Railway Signal Corp., we moved to Rochester, N. Y. It was there, at an age of 5, that I had my first contact with the fascination of science. An old spectacle lens fell into my possession and I was both fascinated and puzzled by its behavior. Later my childhood scientific interests ran the usual course-mechanical gadgets, insect collecting, electricity, chemistry via a "chemistry set," microscopy via an inexpensive Sears microscope, astronomy-and I read everything scientific I could get my hands on.

He entered the University of Rochester intending to major in engineering, it not having occurred to him that he might make a living as a physicist. He credits Lee A. DuBridge with attracting him to physics and Frederick Seitz at Rochester and E. U. Compton at Princeton University with brokering his transfer to Princeton as a junior. Bob returned to Rochester for graduate work and completed his Ph.D. research-one of the first experimental studies of inelastic scattering of protons-in the spring of 1941, and then hurried to war research at the Radiation Laboratory at MIT.

In Rochester, Bob courted Annie Currie; they married on 6 June 1942. In Cambridge, Annie was not supposed to know about Bob's classified research. She told us about a visit by Bob's cousin Tom Kuenning, a pilot in the antisubmarine warfare off the New England coast. A storm during patrol forced Tom to land away from his base, and the crew had to borrow carfare to stay with friends, Tom with the Dickes. Over breakfast Tom remarked on the marvelous effect of the radar sets from the Radiation Laboratory. That breach of security was Annie's first hint of what the laboratory was producing.

The Radiation Laboratory also was producing a brilliant crop of physicists. Bob was notable among them for his imaginative and subtly effective approach to physics. He made seminal contributions to chirped radar, coherent pulse radar, and monopulse radar, all of which came into widespread use after the war. He invented the magic tee microwave junction and the microwave radiometer, devices at the heart of radio telescopes. He was the first to make systematic and potent use of symmetry principles and scattering matrix ideas from nuclear physics to analyze waveguide junctions and other microwave devices. Bob also found time for a little pure science, using his radiometer to measure the surface temperature of the Moon and to show that the space between the stars could not be warmer than 20 degrees above absolute zero. His method now demonstrates that space is filled with thermal radiation at T = 2.725 K, a fossil from the big bang.

After the war Bob returned to the Department of Physics at Princeton University. …

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