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Philip Morrison

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Philip Morrison

Philip Morrison

Philip Morrison, 89, was an American physicist who was one of the youngest participants in the Manhattan Project and then withdrew from weapons research to focus on a prolific writing and teaching career at MIT.

A protégé of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who recruited him to the atomic bomb project, Dr. Morrison worked on the bomb’s plutonium core and witnessed the destruction of Nagasaki, Japan. What he saw changed the course of his career.

“There was just one enormous, flat, rust-red scar, and no green or gray,” he told the New Yorker in 1946, “because there were no roofs or vegetation left. I was pretty sure then that nothing I was going to see later would give me as much of a jolt. The rest would be just a matter of details.”

He spent the rest of his life campaigning against militaristic use of nuclear energy.

Dr. Morrison was a dynamic figure in the scientific community, as well as a popularizer of science for a mass audience. He was comfortable whether writing for an elementary-age audience or working with Nobel laureate Hans Bethe on the scientific text, Elementary Nuclear Theory (1956). He also was a book critic for Scientific American during the magazine’s heyday and narrated the science-museum short film Powers of Ten (1977), which tracks a journey from points of light in the universe to subatomic particles in a man’s hand.

With his second wife and frequent collaborator, Phylis, he wrote and hosted the PBS television series “The Ring of Truth” (1987), which presented accessible views of abstract concepts. For example, he used a bonfire of jelly donuts to show how much energy a Tour de France rider expends daily.

“Kids still come up to me in the airport and say, ‘Hey, you are the guy who burned up the donuts!'” he told a reporter.

Among his contributions to science was what many considered a credible, early paper on using radio signals to communicate with extraterrestrials. While no aliens were contacted, Dr. Morrison kept a hopeful outlook. He once wrote: “If after considerable search we do not find that our counterparts exist somewhere else, I cannot think that would be wrong either, because that would give us even a heavier responsibility to represent intelligence in this extraordinarily large and diverse universe.”

Stricken with polio as a child, he cultivated an interest in science while housebound. One of his early gifts was a crystal radio set with which he could listen to the first commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh. He received a broadcasting license when he was 12.

His books included The Price of Defense (1979), which argued for massive military cuts. He elaborated in an interview at the time: “The history of previous wars … shows very clearly: to induce fear is the worst possible way of averting conflict.”

By Adam Bernstein, Courtesy of the Washington Post

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