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Philip Morrison

March 24, 2016

The expression, "clear as a bell," is a popular idiom. There's something about the anharmonic timbre of a bell that catches one's attention. That's why town criers, the news announcers of yesteryear, used a bell to signal their presence; why an electromechanical bell was used for nearly a century as an attention-getter on telephones; and why churches use bells to summon worshipers.

Another idiom about bells is the idea of something "ringing true." A bell rings true when it's tuned to its correct pitch. From this idea we get the concept that an explanation that rings true is an explanation that's correct or believable. An explanation that your dog ate your homework doesn't ring true if the teacher knows that you don't have a dog. That's why younger siblings are at times useful.

When a scientist hits upon a particularly beautiful way to explain an experiment or an observation, he says that his theory has "the ring of truth." The Ring of Truth was the title of six-part series of physics-themed television shows aired on public television in 1987 and its accompanying book.[1-2] These were authored by the preeminent physicist, Philip Morrison, and his wife, Phylis.

Physicist, Philip MorrisonPhysicist, Philip Morrison (November 7, 1915 – April 22, 2005), as shown in a 1976 photo.

(NASA photo of Philip Morrison and his signature, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Morrison is one of the few physicists to have his own page on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)[3] (some others being Carl Sagan[4] and Stephen Hawking[5]). Morrison's first didactic film piece was a short 1972 documentary on the mechanism of the Polaroid SX-70 instant camera.[6] His last film appearance was in a 2002 documentary about the Manhattan Project.[7]

Cover - Ring of TruthThe cover of "The Ring of Truth" by Philip Morrison and Phylis Morrison.

This book was first published in October, 1987. I purchased my copy for $6.99.

(Scan of my copy)

Morrison's appearance on this Manhattan Project documentary was a consequence of his having been both long-lived, and one of the youngest members of the Project team. This was a consequence of his being a student of Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley, and obtaining his physics Ph.D. in 1940. He started work on the Manhattan Project with Eugene Wigner at the The University of Chicago in 1942, but moved to Oppenheimer's Los Alamos laboratory in 1944 to work on the explosive lens design. He also calculated the mass of plutonium needed for a bomb.[8]

Morrison was born in Somerville, New Jersey, just a half-hour's drive from Tikalon's home base. His family moved to Pittsburgh when he was two, hence his enrollment at local Carnegie Tech. Morrison was originally interested in electrical engineering, but he switched to physics, getting his B.S. degree in 1936. From age four, as a consequence of contracting polio, Morrison needed to wear a brace on one leg.[8]

World War II is known as the "physicist's war," but physicists continued with a different war after 1945, when it appeared that governments had become too enamored with their new weapon of mass destruction. As Robert Oppenheimer expressed it, it was also an atonement for their "sin."[9] Morrison became an advocate for nuclear nonproliferation, helping to found the Federation of American Scientists and writing articles for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The United States just after World War II was a different place than it is today. Morrison's anti-nuclear weapons efforts earned him a place in Life magazine's 1949 gallery of "America's 50 most eminent dupes and fellow travellers."[8] Adding to his troubles, he was a member of three groups that were added to a list, created by the US Attorney General, of allegedly subversive organizations.[8] Morrison was a professor at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) at the time, and with the help of Cornell colleague, Hans Bethe, he was able to keep his university position, but only after curtailing his public political activities.[8]

Morisson's research interests changed from nuclear physics to astrophysics in the 1950s. One of his last nuclear physics projects was co-authoring the 1952 textbook, "Elementary Nuclear Physics," with Bethe. His move away from nuclear physics was seen as his rejection of the government bureaucracy that's an essential part of "Big Science."[8] Morrison joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964, where he eventually attained the rank of Institute Professor. The title of Institute Professor is explained as follows in his MIT obituary.[10]
"The title is reserved for those who have demonstrated exceptional distinction by a combination of leadership, accomplishment and service in the scholarly, educational and general intellectual life of the Institute or wider community."
Morrison's paper, "On gamma-ray astronomy," appeared in Il Nuovo Cimento in 1958, and it's considered the start of gamma ray astronomy.[11] He co-authored on early paper on SETI with Giuseppe Cocconi.[12] Morrison summarized his opinion on SETI as follows:
"The probability of success is difficult to estimate, but if we never search, the chance of success is zero."[8]
Morrison co-authored a 1963 paper with James Felten, one of his students, on the importance of the inverse Compton effect on the origin of high energy cosmic radiation.[8] With his first wife, Emily, he authored a 1956 book on Charles Babbage.[13] As a high school student, I learned physics from the 1962 Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) textbook, Physics, containing several sections authored by Morrison.[8] Morrison was responsible for nearly 1500 book reviews in Scientific American.[8] I don't think that I've read that many books in my lifetime; but, perhaps, the Internet is to blame for that.

Morrison was chairman of the Federation of American Scientists from 1973 to 1976, a fellow of the American Physical Society, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and the International Astronomical Union, among other organizations. Among his many awards, Morrison was the recipient of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Westinghouse Science Writing Award, the American Institute of Physics Andrew Gemant Award, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific Klumpke-Roberts Award.[8]

One interesting Morrison anecdote involves his work on the Manhattan Project. He carried the plutonium core of the Trinity test bomb in his lap in its transit from Los Alamos to the Alamogordo test site. He said that the "core felt slightly warm, like a small cat."[8] Such radioisotope generators have now progressed from lap warmers to power supplies for spacecraft to Pluto.


  1. Video clips from "The Ring of Truth" series by Philip and Phylis Morrison, YouTube, April 21, 2014.
  2. Philip Morrison and Phylis Morrison, "The Ring of Truth: An Inquiry into How We Know What We Know," Random House, October 12, 1987, 307 pp., ISBN-13, 978-0394556635 (via Amazon).
  3. Philip Morrison on the Internet Movie Database.
  4. Carl Sagan on the Internet Movie Database.
  5. Stephen Hawking on the Internet Movie Database.
  6. SX-70 (Documentary, 1972) on the Internet Movie Database.
  7. The Manhattan Project, Modern Marvels, Season 8, Episode 20 (June 4, 2002). Listed as Season 9, Episode 21 on Wikipedia.
  8. Leo Sartori and Kosta Tsipis, "Philip Morrison 1915—2005, A Biographical Memoir," National Academy Of Sciences, 2009 (0.5 MB PDF File).
  9. J. R. Oppenheimer, "Physics in the Contemporary World," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 4, no. 3 (March, 1948), p. 66, as quoted in James A. Hijiya, "The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer," Proceedings of The American Philosophical Society, vol. 144, no. 2 (June, 2000), p. 128.
  10. Elizabeth A. Thomson, "Institute Professor Philip Morrison dies at 89," MIT Press Release, April 25, 2005.
  11. P. Morrison, "On gamma-ray astronomy," Il Nuovo Cimento, vol. 7, no. 6 (March, 1958), pp 858-865.
  12. P. Morrison and G. Cocconi, "Searching for interstellar communication," Nature, vol. 185, no. 4690 (September 19, 1959), pp. 844-846.
  13. Philip Morrison and Emily Morrison, "Charles Babbage and His Calculating Engines," Dover Publications (1961), 400 pp., ISBN-13, 978-0486200125 (Via Amazon).

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