Morrison, Philip

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(b. Somerville, New Jersey, 7 November 1915; d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 22 April 2005),

nuclear physics, quantum electrodynamics, cosmic radiation, theory of quasars, high-energy astrophysics and cosmology, science education.

Morrison was one of the most fascinating and colorful characters in twentieth-century physics. Historical accident brought him into the development of the atomic bomb in the United States. He became centrally involved in the project and saw firsthand the devastation it caused in Japan. This experience led him to become a fervent opponent of any further development of atomic weapons. He was a founding member of the Federation of American Scientists, and throughout his life was an eloquent spokesman for international arms control. From 1946 to 1964 he was a physics faculty member at Cornell University, with a specialization in nuclear physics. He also began working in astrophysics; in this connection he helped originate the search for radio communications from distant civilizations—the project that became known as SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). In 1965 he joined the Physics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and remained with that department until his death. Morrison was an inspiring and creative teacher of university students, but, beginning in the 1960s, he also became deeply involved in precollege science education, especially for young children and the general public. He used film and television in addition to his unique talents as speaker and writer. Besides these manifold activities he served for nearly twenty years (beginning in 1966) as the book review editor for Scientific American magazine. Morrison was married twice: in 1938 to Emily Kramer (divorced, 1961) and in 1964 to Phylis Singer, who died in 2002.

Early Years . When Morrison was two years old his family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His childhood education began at home, because at the age of about three he contracted poliomyelitis. His exceptional talents soon became evident. According to a personal memoir, his ability to read was self-taught. In 1920, shortly before he was five, his father, a retail merchant, brought home a crystal radio, which inspired the young Morrison with a love of more general scientific tinkering, although still with a big emphasis on radio. At age eight he entered second grade in the city schools and remained in that system through high school. In 1932 he entered the Carnegie Institute of Technology as a prospective radio engineer, but he found physics and physicists to be more congenial, and in 1936, after his BS degree, he entered the University of California at Berkeley as a graduate student in theoretical physics. He obtained his PhD in 1940 under the supervision of J. Robert Oppenheimer; his thesis was in the field of electrodynamics. The United States was still in the throes of the Great Depression, and jobs in academia for new graduates were hard to find. For Morrison, always an activist, the situation was not made easier by his leadership of fellow graduate students in a campaign for better pay. He did, however, obtain teaching positions, first for two years at San Francisco State College and then for a shorter period at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign).

But great events—the discovery of nuclear fission and the onset of World War II—changed Morrison’s life decisively. He has described how, in the summer of 1939, he and his fellow graduate students at Berkeley began sketching on the blackboard their conceptions of the possible design of a fission bomb. Independently of them, their senior colleagues, headed by Oppenheimer, were professionally engaged in studying these same possibilities. Morrison soon became directly involved.

The Manhattan Project . The Manhattan Project was the name given to America’s atomic bomb program when it was officially established in August 1942 under the direction of U.S. Army Lieutenant General Leslie R. Groves. In late 1942 Morrison was invited to join the project by Robert F. Christy, previously a fellow graduate student at Berkeley. Christy himself had been recruited to work in the project as a theoretical nuclear physicist in the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, where the world’s first nuclear reactor achieved criticality under the direction of Enrico Fermi in December of that year.

Morrison was quickly persuaded to join the effort, his first task being to experiment with subcritical assemblies that would guide the design of the major power reactors that would produce plutonium for bombs. He continued to work at the Chicago laboratory as a self-styled “neutron engineer” for more than a year. He also spent some time at the Argonne Park Laboratory near Chicago, where Fermi built the first high-power reactor, paving the way for the major plutonium plants at Hanford, Washington.

While at Argonne, Morrison and a colleague (Karl Cohen) wrote letters proposing ways of learning whether plutonium production might be going on in Germany. They thought that clues to the existence of reactors might exist in slight temperature rises in rivers used to provide their cooling water, or in weak radioactivity from the water. These proposals reached General Groves, and he enlisted Morrison as a kind of informal advisor on technical intelligence. The result was that Morrison made a number of visits to Groves’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he helped in the analysis of information being collected in Germany by the Alsos scientific mission that accompanied the American forces as they moved eastward.

In the spring of 1943 the laboratory that became the scientific headquarters of the Manhattan Project had been set up at Los Alamos, New Mexico, under Oppenheimer. Morrison was one of a number of people who were added to Los Alamos in the summer of 1944, following a crisis that had just arisen. The crisis was the discovery that plutonium made in the big reactors had a very high rate of spontaneous fission, due to the accumulation of the plutonium isotope Pu-240. This invalidated the assumption that a plutonium bomb could be like the simple gun design adopted for a uranium-235 bomb. The firing of one lump of plutonium into another along a gun barrel was far too slow; neutrons liberated through spontaneous fission during this process would probably cause a premature detonation resulting in a feeble explosion (a “fizzle”). A completely different plan was needed. The solution was an implosion device, in which a core of plutonium was surrounded by an array of chemical explosives that would violently compress the fissile material for a few millionths of a second. During this brief time an “initiator” would supply a burst of neutrons to detonate the nuclear explosion. A special subgroup, composed of Morrison and his partner, Marshall Holloway, was given the task of designing the plutonium core of the bomb (“the pit”) and had the responsibility of procuring, fabricating, and testing all the components inside this volume except for the initiator itself.

The resulting plutonium bomb was tested in July 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Morrison acquired some renown as the person who took care of the precious sphere of plutonium as it was transported from Los Alamos to Alamogordo. (He famously described the plutonium sphere, with its internally generated warmth from alpha-particle radioactivity, as feeling rather like a small cat.) He also took part in the final assembly of the test bomb on its tower in the New Mexico desert.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and After . Morrison was a member of the small group that traveled to Tinian Island in the Marianas (which had been captured from the Japanese in 1944) to prepare two bombs for delivery: the “Little Boy” (uranium) and the “Fat Man” (plutonium). Morrison’s responsibility was with the latter, which was dropped on Nagasaki. He helped assemble it, and three days later he flew over the ruined city. On 6 September he walked through Hiroshima and spoke with Japanese officials and with some old professional colleagues. Then, in December 1945, he testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy (chaired by Brien McMahon) and presented an unforgettable picture of the devastating effects of atomic warfare. One of the committee members remarked: “I should like to say to … Mr. Morrison that he is the most eloquent witness that I have ever heard since I have been around Congress” (p. 249).

In August 1945, just after the end of World War II, Morrison helped found the Association of Los Alamos Scientists, which was formed to promote international control of atomic energy. Early in 1946 the group published an influential book, One World or None, a collection of essays by leading scientists. It had a foreword by Niels Bohr, and the first main article was by Morrison, describing the total helplessness of Hiroshima in face of the overwhelming force of one atomic bomb, and the imagined situation if New York City were to suffer a similar fate. In the same year Morrison drafted the aims of the recently established Federation of American Scientists, and served as its first president until 1949. He and his colleagues were deeply concerned about the failure of the public and public officials to understand the immensity of the challenge that nuclear weapons had brought to world politics.

With his passionate concern for world peace and his energy and skill as a communicator, Morrison worked tirelessly on behalf of nuclear disarmament. In the process he ran afoul of some hostile reactions, especially in the Joseph McCarthy era of American politics. In 1938 he had joined the Young Communist League and in 1939 the Communist Party of the United States. Like many idealistically minded people with leftist leanings he later severed his connection with communism. In 1953, however, he was called before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, where he readily admitted his early Communist Party membership but declined to name anyone else. This occurred during his time at Cornell University, where two successive presidents of that institution, in part because of pressure from influential persons, asked him to tone down his activism. Although he complied, his concern for the issues was unabated; it continued throughout the Cold War, and was revived in the 1970s after his move to MIT. Its last major expression was in the book Reason Enough to Hope, coauthored with Kosta Tsipis and published in 1998.

Physics Research . Despite the many other claims on his time and energy, Morrison maintained an active commitment to research through most of his career. Before joining the Manhattan Project he already had a strong preparation in theoretical physics with an initial concentration on nuclear physics. This carried into his early years at Cornell University and, by his own estimation in later life, one of his best research projects (conducted with his student Jerome Pine) was an experimental investigation of the radiogenic production of helium isotopes in rocks. Soon, however, a special interest in high-energy particles led him into astrophysics. In 1954 he coauthored a paper on the origin of cosmic rays, a subject on which he wrote an article for Reviews of Modern Physics (1957) and a similar but much longer review published in Handbuch der Physik in 1961. Until this time he had published mainly in Physical Review; thereafter his papers were to be found mostly in such publications as the Astrophysical Journal. Between 1954 and 1996 he wrote about fifty articles, many of them in collaboration with students or colleagues, including Kenneth Metzner, Hong-Yee Chiu, James Felten, Leo Sartori, Kenneth Brecher, Franco Pacini, Mineas Kafatos, William Ingham, Alberto Sadun, Munib Abdulwahab, and Dana Roberts. The topics ranged widely, but many were concerned with the generation or scattering of electromagnetic radiation by astronomical objects. In these fields, Morrison valued most highly his papers on the connection between cosmic-ray intensity and solar activity, and on his calculation that neutrinos play a much bigger role in taking energy away from hot degenerate objects than do electrons.

Morrison and Science Education . In 1956 Professor Jerrold Zacharias at MIT proposed a project to revolutionize the teaching of high school physics by reducing rote learning and giving students a better insight into how one learns firsthand about the physical world. He brought together a group of college and high school teachers to address the problem; the group was named the Physical Science Study Committee. Morrison was one of the first to join this effort, and wrote the first drafts for important parts of the resulting textbook. Soon, however, he transferred his main attention to presecondary science education. In 1960 he was one of the organizers of what became known as the Elementary Science Study (ESS) and he became the chairman of its steering committee. The target population consisted of children and teachers at the elementary school level; the primary emphasis was on observation and experiment. The center of the project was the Education Development Center (originally Educational Services Inc.) in Watertown, Massachusetts, but participant teachers came from across the United States.

In 1965 the reach of ESS became international in two different respects. That year marked the beginning of a

collaboration with the U.S. Peace Corps program; the ESS provided training for Peace Corps instructors who worked with elementary schools in several foreign countries. Also, a more specific collaboration was set up with the African Primary Science Program, which was started in 1965. Morrison helped to advance this program by attending a meeting in Ghana. He and his wife Phylis also participated in a workshop in Ghana in 1967.

At this period of his life Morrison became quite a world traveler in the cause of general science education. One contribution, aimed specifically at young people, was his series of Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution, London, in 1966, with the title “Gulliver’s Laws: The Physics of Large and Small.” A special mark of Morrison’s international influence was the hanging of a portrait at the Science Center in New Delhi, recognizing his role in stimulating the establishment of science centers throughout India.

Of course, at both Cornell University and MIT Morrison was involved in the teaching of normal undergraduate and graduate courses, but he had a special interest in the introductory level. At Cornell, together with Professor Donald F. Holcomb, he created a general physics course that evolved into a textbook: My Father’s Watch (1974). At MIT he joined Professor John G. King in teaching an electromagnetism course based on take-home experiment kits. This, too, led to a lively book: Zap!: A Hands-on Introduction to Electricity and Magnetism (1991).

SETI . This biography is not the place to attempt a detailed account of the SETI project, but Philip Morrison’s own role in it demands attention, for it was the fundamental one of proposing the project in the first place (together with his partner Giuseppe Cocconi). Their seminal letter in Nature in 1959 explored the feasibility of detecting possible transmissions from planets of other solar systems. The background to it was a paper “On Gamma-Ray Astronomy” that Morrison published in the journal Nuovo Cimento in 1958. Morrison and Cocconi were not radio astronomers, and they first considered making observations at gamma ray wavelengths. But they came quickly to the conclusion that microwaves would be a much more practical choice, with the famous hydrogen line at 1,420 megahertz as the logical vehicle for transmission by a scientifically sophisticated civilization elsewhere in the galaxy. Morrison was clear that the emphasis should be on “listening”; transmission from Earth was far beyond the available resources.

In 1960 the radio astronomer Frank Drake began a search of his own using the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Morrison himself did not take part in any observations, but twenty years later, and again forty years later, he reviewed the state of the search, which by the year 2000 involved very large numbers of “listeners”—without, as yet, any signals.

Morrison as Writer and Public Educator . Morrison’s extraordinary talent for communication, both written and oral, made him an ideal person to interpret science for the general public. One of his major contributions to this was his long service as reviewer for the Scientific American. During those twenty years he wrote close to 1,500 reviews and read several times that number of books. The collection Philip Morrison’s Long Look at the Literature (1990) contains a hundred pieces chosen by him, and attests to his ability to present and explain the essence of a multitude of different scientific topics.

In 1968, in collaboration with the architect and designer Charles Eames, he made a short film titled Powers of Ten. This was inspired by a small book, Cosmic View: The Universe in Forty Jumps, created by a Dutch teacher, Kees Boeke, in 1957. The film was remade in a much more refined form in 1977 and was followed in 1982 by an illustrated book enriched with many details, with text written jointly by Philip and Phylis Morrison.

In 1987 Philip Morrison presented a six-part national television series, The Ring of Truth, about the bases of human scientific understanding of the universe. The essential content of the series was captured and preserved in a lavishly and imaginatively illustrated book of the same title, written (like Powers of Ten) by Philip and Phylis Morrison working as a team.

Philip Morrison’s last major work (1995) of scientific popularization was a collection of his earlier articles dealing with basic scientific theories, astronomy, SETI, education, the nuclear age and its politics, and a final section, “Friends and Heroes.” He titled the collection Nothing Is Too Wonderful to Be True—a remark taken directly from the notebooks of the great nineteenth-century physicist Michael Faraday.

Inspiring Eloquence and Intellect . The above bare account does not adequately recognize the immense personal impact that Morrison made on thousands of individuals. He inspired audiences around the world with his eloquence, and was treasured by his numerous friends. At a symposium held at MIT in 1976 to celebrate his sixtieth birthday, the eminent physicist Victor Weisskopf said of him: “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.” That quality pervaded his approach to all of his interests and survived until the end of his days.

Honors and Awards . Morrison’s achievements and his varied contributions to science, education, and society were recognized in many ways. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1964 he was given the Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers for his outstanding contributions to physics education. In 1985 he received MIT’s Killian Faculty Achievement Award, and in 1987 the Andrew Gemant Award of the American Institute of Physics “for his contributions to the cultural, artistic or humanistic dimension of physics.” In 1988 he received the AAAS-Westinghouse Award for his contributions to the public understanding of science.


Valuable biographical information can be found in transcripts of oral interviews conducted by Owen Gingerich and Robert Norris under the auspices of the Center for History of Physics (American Institute of Physics), archived at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD. Personal memoirs collected by Herbert Lin in September 2005 following a Morrison memorial symposium at MIT are available at


“If the Bomb Gets Out of Hand.” In One World or None, edited by Dexter Masters and Katherine Way. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1946.

With Jerome Pine. “Radiogenic Origin of the Helium Isotopes in Rock.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 62 (1955): 69–92.

With Hans A. Bethe. Elementary Nuclear Theory. New York: Wiley, 1956.

“On Gamma-Ray Astronomy.” Nuovo Cimento 7 (1958): 858–865.

With Giuseppe Cocconi. “Searching for Interstellar Communications.” Nature 184 (1959): 844–846.

“The Origin of Cosmic Rays.” In Handbuch der Physik [Encyclopedia of physics]. Vol. 46.1, Kosmische Strahlung I [Cosmic rays I], edited by Siegfried Flügge. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1961.

With Emily Morrison, eds. Charles Babbage and His Calculating Engines. New York: Dover Publications, 1961.

“Resolving the Mystery of the Quasars?” Physics Today 26 (March 1973): 23–29.

With Donald F. Holcomb. My Father’s Watch. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

With Phylis Morrison and the Office of Charles & Ray Eames. Powers of Ten. New York: Scientific American Books, 1982.

With Phylis Morrison. The Ring of Truth. New York: Random House, 1987. Companion book to their television series, The Ring of Truth. 6 videocassettes. Alexandria, VA: PBS Video, 1987.

Philip Morrison’s Long Look at the Literature. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1990.

With Phylis Morrison and John G. King. Zap!: A Hands-on Introduction to Electricity and Magnetism. Woolwich, ME: KT Associates, 1991.

Nothing Is Too Wonderful to Be True. Woodbury, NY: AIP Press, 1995. Thanks are due to Elizabeth Cavicchi for locating the source of this title in entry no. 10040 (19 March 1849), Faraday’s Diary, vol. 5, edited by Thomas Martin. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1934.

“Recollections of a Nuclear War.” Scientific American 273 (August 1995): 42–46.

With Kosta Tsipis. Reason Enough to Hope. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.


Boeke, Kees. Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps. New York: J. Day, 1957. The book that inspired Powers of Ten.

Hawkins, David. Project Y: The Los Alamos Story. Los Angeles and San Francisco: Tomash, 1983.

Perlman, David. “Philip Morrison—Scientist with Social Conscience.” San Francisco Chronicle, 27 April 2005: B7. Obituary.

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.

Sartori, Leo, and Kosta Tsipis. “Philip Morrison.” Physics Today (March 2006): 83. Obituary.

Schweber, Silvan S. In the Shadow of the Bomb. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Smith, Alice Kimball. A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists’ Movement in America, 1945–47. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

U.S. Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy. Hearings on S. Res. 179, pt. 2, 79th Cong., 1st sess., 6 December 1945. Morrison’s testimony is on pp. 233–253.

A. P. French

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