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Philip Morrison, 89, Builder of First Atom Bomb, Dies

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Philip Morrison, 89, Builder of First Atom Bomb, Dies

NY Times, April 26, 2005

Philip Morrison, 89, Builder of First Atom Bomb, Dies


Dr. Philip Morrison, who helped assemble the first atomic bomb with his own hands, and then campaigned for the rest of his life against weapons that could deliver such devastation, died Friday at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 89.

He died in his sleep, his family said.

In four decades as a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Morrison was known as a spellbinding speaker and an inspirational popularizer of science, the original teacher of "physics for poets." He was known to the public though his PBS series "The Ring of Truth," and for a long-running and prolific stint as the book reviewer for Scientific American.

Among his legacies is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which sprang from a short paper in Nature that he wrote in 1959 with his colleague, Dr. Giuseppe Cocconi, at Cornell.

Dr. Charles Weiner, a historian of Science at M.I.T., said, "The world has lost one of the major voices of social conscience in science."

On Dr. Morrison's 60th birthday, in 1975, Victor Weisskopf, another M.I.T. professor, said, "Nobody else has better demonstrated, or rather embodied, what it means to the human soul to perceive or recognize a new scientific discovery or a new theoretical insight."

In 1945, Dr. Morrison was among the scientists of the Manhattan Project preparing to try to detonate the world's first nuclear explosion. A lieutenant of his former graduate school teacher, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the project, Dr. Morrison rode in the back seat of a car from Los Alamos - where the physicists were working - to the Trinity test site, in Alamogordo, N.M., with the bomb's plutonium core beside him in a special carrying case studded with rubber bumpers.

A little later, when he poked his head up from behind a sand dune in time to catch sight of the explosion, he was surprised not by its brightness but by its heat, he later recalled.

Shortly afterward Dr. Morrison was one of a handful of physicists sent to the island of Tinian to assemble the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. A month later, he was part of a team that toured the city.

Conventional bombing had destroyed other Japanese cities in a checkerboard pattern, leaving red rust intermingled with gray roofs and vegetation, he recalled in an interview in The New Yorker. "Then we circled Hiroshima, and there was just one enormous flat, rust-red scar, and no green or gray, because there were no roofs or vegetation left."

He said, "I was pretty sure then that nothing I was going to see later would give me as much of a jolt."

Philip Morrison was born in 1915 in Somerville, N.J. When he was 4 he was stricken with polio, which left him partly handicapped. He grew up in Pittsburgh and attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) and then the University of California, Berkeley, where he obtained a Ph.D. in physics under Oppenheimer's tutelage.

After teaching briefly, Dr. Morrison was recruited for the bomb project and was put in charge of testing. His duties included dangerous experiments called "tickling the dragon's tail," in which scientists slipped pieces of a bomb closer and closer together to study what happened as it approached the moment when the assembly went "critical."

Although Dr. Morrison approved of building the bomb, fearing that the Germans would build one first, he was alarmed by the decision to drop it without warning.

His firsthand experience of the entire cycle of creation and apocalypse "stamped him for life," Dr. Kosta Tsipis, an M.I.T. physicist and arms control expert, said in an interview yesterday.

In 1946, Dr. Morrison left Los Alamos and joined another bomb project leader, Hans Bethe, at Cornell, where his research interests gradually shifted from nuclear physics to astrophysics and cosmic rays to cosmology.

He became a forceful advocate of international arms control, helping to found the Federation of American Scientists, writing for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, appearing at meetings and signing statements with the likes of Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson opposing militarism.

In his undergraduate years, he joined the Communist Party, and at Berkeley he was labeled a "troublemaker." In 1953, Dr. Morrison was called before the Senate Internal Security subcommittee, where he testified that while he had indeed been a Communist long before, he was not one then and had not been since he was a young man.

Cornell quickly announced that he could keep his job. His boss, Dr. Robert R. Wilson, said, "He demonstrated his patriotism by the distinguished role he played in the wartime development of the atomic bomb."

Dr. Morrison never lost his fire. At M.I.T., where he moved in 1964, he was the author or co-author of several books and studies on arms control, often in collaboration with Dr. Tsipis. The most recent was "Reason to Hope," which discussed ways to overcome the problems of war and overpopulation.

Dr. Morrison's activities as a popularizer of Science were of a piece with his work as an arms critic, said Dr. Weiner of M.I.T., who described his style as impassioned but not elitist. He began one important lecture at a symposium by walking in and dropping a big rock, a meteorite, on the stage with loud clunk. "This is my text," he started.

He helped write the script and narrated the 1977 film "Powers of Ten," also by Charles and Ray Eames, in which a camera zooms from a couple having a picnic in Chicago out to the limits of the cosmos and then back down through the woman's hand to the level of atoms and quarks. In 1992, he and his wife, Phyllis, with the Eameses, turned it into a book.

Dr. Morrison and his fast-talking raspy voice became familiar to millions of television viewers in 1987 when PBS aired his six-part series, "The Ring of Truth."

Dr. Morrison's first marriage, to Emily Morrison of Boston, ended in divorce. Phyllis, his second wife, died in 2002. He is survived by a stepson, Bert Singer, of Cambridge, and his wife, Angela Kimberk.

Dr. Morrison's interest in extraterrestrial intelligence arose from work on cosmic rays. While at Cornell, he concluded that these particles originated in cosmic cataclysms like exploding stars and even exploding galaxies.

Dr. Morrison wondered if a particular kind of cosmic ray, high-energy radiation known as gamma rays, could convey information across the universe. One day his colleague Dr. Cocconi suggested that such gamma rays would be a way for civilizations to communicate across the lonely gulfs between stars. The pair looked into it and decided that radio waves would be better still.

In a paper in Nature on Sept. 19, 1959, they suggested that radio astronomers could look for a signal. A year later, Dr. Frank Drake, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va., began the first search. He struck out. Today, thousands of stars and millions of dollars later, SETI (or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which has endured political storms, has still not hit pay dirt, but the galaxy is vastly mysterious, and the words that Dr. Morrison and Dr. Cocconi used to end their paper are still apt.

After pointing out the profound effects of discovering such a signal, they wrote, "The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero."



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