Memoir

Norman F. Ramsey

Harvard University

August 27, 1915 - November 4, 2011


Election Year: 1952
Scientific Discipline: Physics
Membership Type: Member

Nobel Prize–winning physicist Norman F. Ramsey’s research in electromagnetic radiation led to developments in the fields of molecular structure identification and atomically accurate time keeping. He developed the separated oscillatory field method, which measures the frequency of electromagnetic radiation most readily absorbed by an atom. This analysis of resonance allowed for a deeper understanding of a molecule’s structure, which led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, which visualize the nuclei of atoms within the body to produce an image useful for medical diagnosis. Ramsey received the Nobel Prize in 1989 for his development of the separated oscillatory field method and its use in atomic clocks, where a second is defined and measured by the number of radiation cycles in a cesium atom, resulting in exceptionally accurate time keeping.

Ramsey earned his BA degree (1935) and PhD (1940) from Columbia University. He received a Kellett Fellowship to Cambridge University, where he continued his research in atomic spectroscopy. Upon his return to Columbia University, he took a leave of absence to lead a group that was developing three-centimeter wavelength radar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and aided the secretary of war as a radar consultant. In 1943 he served on the Manhattan Project, leading the team that assembled the atomic bombs. He helped to establish the Brookhaven National Accelerator Laboratory and became the head of the first physics division there in 1946. In 1947 he joined the faculty at Harvard University, where he conducted his research and served as a professor of physics. He is credited with the creation of a NATO scholarship to fund the education of future scientists. Ramsey also led a committee in the National Research Council that met on the investigation of acoustical evidence in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

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