Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Norman Ramsey: 1915-2011

Bill Zajc wrote something about Roy Glauber and I randomly wanted to check some data about the Harvard optics Nobel prize winners and happened to visit the Wikipedia page about Norman Ramsey.

Unfortunately, the page stunned me by the information that he died 3 weeks ago. See The Guardian for a detailed biography.

Ramsey was born to father Norman, a maths teacher and general, in Washington DC in 1915. He spent a few years in the 1930s by working for Ernest Rutherford and Maurice Goldhaber in Great Britain. Until 1947, he was employed by Columbia University but he started to create miracles when he moved to Harvard in 1949. He improved Isidor Rabi's 1937 method of alternating magnetic fields to invent the "separated oscillatory fields method" as he called it or the Ramsey method for short. (Ramsey was Rabi's only grad student.) He received his Nobel prize in 1989, exactly during the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, so he only waited for 50 years.

Returning to the past, this discovery led to the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and the related magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine as well as parts of the atomic clocks (based on hydrogen maser and related things). Ramsey has also worked for NATO, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and was rather crucial in the creation of both Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Fermilab. And let me also impress the Japanese TRF readers: Ramsey designed the delivery system for the first atomic bombs. And if you're German, you shall be pleased to know that Ramsey was in a small team that developed ultra-short-wavelength radars.

The list would be enough for 50 average physicists today. Ramsey received his PhD from Harvard in 2006, at age of 91, together with Michael Atiyah. But one year before the degree, as a young 90-year-old physicist, he introduced David Gross at Sidneyfest.

Ramsey in 1952

I've had the pleasure to chat with him several times during various scientist-oriented dinners at Harvard: he was already a professor emeritus at that time while I only retired in 2007. The main story I remember is his explanation how your mental activities change as you get older. "Now when I am 92, I sometimes forget why I picked the calculator as I am approaching the end of a calculation. That's a disadvantage but there are also advantages. I am more experienced than when I was young, e.g. when I was 88 years old." Well, it's not quite an accurate quote but it is close...

He died on November 4th, aged 96.

RIP. I thought he would surpass 100 but 96 years on Earth is a blessed gift.

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