Professor of Physics, Emeritus
Institute Professor, Emeritus

Professor of Physics, Emeritus
Institute Professor Emeritus

In Memoriam: November 7, 1915 - April 22, 2005


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Area of Physics:

Nuclear Physics, Quantum Physics, High Energy Astrophysics

Research Interests

He was widely known for his research and professional contributions in quantum electrodynamics, nuclear theory, radiology, isotope geology and, since the 1950s, in cosmic-ray origins and propagation, gamma-ray astronomy and other topics in high-energy astrophysics and in cosmology.

Biographical Sketch

Philip Morrison was born in Somerville, N.J., in 1915. He attended Pittsburgh public schools and received the B.S. degree from the Carnegie Institute for Technology in 1936. In 1940 he received the Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of California at Berkeley, under the supervision of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

For the next two years he taught physics at San Francisco State College and at the University of Illinois before joining the Manhattan Project. In 1946, Morrison joined the physics faculty at Cornell University, where he remained until he came to MIT in 1964.

From 1943 to 1946 Morrison was associated with the Manhattan Project, which was responsible for the development of the first atomic bomb. He joined the Metallurgical Laboratory of the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago toward the end of 1942. He was a physicist and group leader there and later at Los Alamos from 1942 to 1946.

In 1945, it was Morrison, riding in the back seat of an automobile, who brought the bomb's plutonium core from Los Alamos to the New Mexico desert site for the first test. He also was at the island air base of Tinian, from which two bombs were launched against Japan. He later witnessed the aftermath of the explosion at Hiroshima in a visit immediately following the war.

In 1984, Morrison's faculty colleagues named him the James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award Lecturer for the academic year 1984-85. The citation read, in part, "Philip Morrison is more than a distinguished scholar. He represents an attitude, a way of life, a symbol for what one might call 'joy of insight' or 'thirst for knowledge.' No one 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. Scientific knowledge and understanding is not a purely cerebral affair; it is soaked with emotion, excitement, and nervous tension, as everyone knows who has heard Philip Morrison talk…He has a gift for language and a wide-ranging intellect which allow him to draw upon insights from different fields to help illuminate a subject."

His memberships included the American Physical Society (fellow), the Federation of American Scientists (chairman, 1973-76) the American Astronomical Society (council, 1977-79), the International Astronomical Union, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia.

Among his many awards are the Pregel Prize of the New York Academy of Sciences, the Babson Prize of the Gravity Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Westinghouse Science Writing Award, the Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers, the Priestly Medallion of Dickinson College, the Presidential Award of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1980; the Public Science Medal of the Minnesota Museum of Science, the American Institute of Physics' Andrew Gemant Award and the Wheeler Prize (with Phylis Morrison) of the Boston Museum of Science.