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Isidor Isaac Rabi

Isidor Isaac Rabi

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Isidor Isaac Rabi was a Galician-born American physicist
A physicist is a scientist who studies or practices physics. Physicists study a wide range of physical phenomena in many branches of physics spanning all length scales: from sub-atomic particles of which all ordinary matter is made to the behavior of the material Universe as a whole...

 and Nobel laureate recognized in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance
Nuclear magnetic resonance
Nuclear magnetic resonance is a physical phenomenon in which magnetic nuclei in a magnetic field absorb and re-emit electromagnetic radiation...


Early years

Rabi was born into a traditional Jewish family in Rymanów
Rymanów is a town of 3,585 inhabitants . in Poland's Subcarpathian Voivodeship. It is a capital of a separate commune within the powiat of Krosno...

, Galicia, Austria-Hungary
Austria-Hungary , more formally known as the Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council and the Lands of the Holy Hungarian Crown of Saint Stephen, was a constitutional monarchic union between the crowns of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary in...

 (now Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

), and was brought to the United States as a child the following year. He was awarded a Bachelor of Science
Bachelor of Science
A Bachelor of Science is an undergraduate academic degree awarded for completed courses that generally last three to five years .-Australia:In Australia, the BSc is a 3 year degree, offered from 1st year on...

 in Chemistry
Chemistry is the science of matter, especially its chemical reactions, but also its composition, structure and properties. Chemistry is concerned with atoms and their interactions with other atoms, and particularly with the properties of chemical bonds....

 degree from Cornell University
Cornell University
Cornell University is an Ivy League university located in Ithaca, New York, United States. It is a private land-grant university, receiving annual funding from the State of New York for certain educational missions...

 in 1919, continuing his studies at Columbia University
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...

 and received his Ph.D. in 1927. A fellowship enabled him to spend the next two years in Europe working with such eminent physicists as Niels Bohr
Niels Bohr
Niels Henrik David Bohr was a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Bohr mentored and collaborated with many of the top physicists of the century at his institute in...

, Werner Heisenberg
Werner Heisenberg
Werner Karl Heisenberg was a German theoretical physicist who made foundational contributions to quantum mechanics and is best known for asserting the uncertainty principle of quantum theory...

, Wolfgang Pauli
Wolfgang Pauli
Wolfgang Ernst Pauli was an Austrian theoretical physicist and one of the pioneers of quantum physics. In 1945, after being nominated by Albert Einstein, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his "decisive contribution through his discovery of a new law of Nature, the exclusion principle or...

 and Otto Stern
Otto Stern
Otto Stern was a German physicist and Nobel laureate in physics.-Biography:Stern was born in Sohrau, now Żory in the German Empire's Kingdom of Prussia and studied at Breslau, now Wrocław in Lower Silesia....

. He then joined the Columbia faculty and never left.


In 1930 Rabi conducted investigations into the nature of the force binding protons to atomic nuclei. This research eventually led to the creation of the molecular-beam magnetic-resonance detection method, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944.

In 1940 he was granted leave from Columbia to work as Associate Director of the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a private research university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. MIT has five schools and one college, containing a total of 32 academic departments, with a strong emphasis on scientific and technological education and research.Founded in 1861 in...

 on the development of radar
Radar is an object-detection system which uses radio waves to determine the range, altitude, direction, or speed of objects. It can be used to detect aircraft, ships, spacecraft, guided missiles, motor vehicles, weather formations, and terrain. The radar dish or antenna transmits pulses of radio...

 and the atomic bomb
Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project was a research and development program, led by the United States with participation from the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army...

. Some say that he reluctantly agreed to serve as a visiting consultant who would come and go from Los Alamos
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory is a United States Department of Energy national laboratory, managed and operated by Los Alamos National Security , located in Los Alamos, New Mexico...

, where he was one of the very few exceptions to the strict security rules there. General Leslie Groves
Leslie Groves
Lieutenant General Leslie Richard Groves, Jr. was a United States Army Corps of Engineers officer who oversaw the construction of the Pentagon and directed the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II. As the son of a United States Army chaplain, Groves lived at a...

 made a special effort to bring Rabi, who had been a student with Oppenheimer
Robert Oppenheimer
Julius Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist and professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with Enrico Fermi, he is often called the "father of the atomic bomb" for his role in the Manhattan Project, the World War II project that developed the first...

 and maintained a close and mutually respectful relationship, out to Los Alamos for the days leading up to the Trinity test so that he could help Oppenheimer maintain his sanity under such intense pressure. The scientists working on Trinity set up a betting pool
Betting pool
A betting pool, sports lottery, sweep or office pool if done at work, is a form of gambling, specifically a variant of parimutuel betting influenced by lotteries, where gamblers pay a fixed price into a pool , and then make a selection on some outcome, usually related to sport...

 for the results of the test, with predictions ranging from total dud to 45 kilotons of TNT equivalent
TNT equivalent
TNT equivalent is a method of quantifying the energy released in explosions. The ton of TNT is a unit of energy equal to 4.184 gigajoules, which is approximately the amount of energy released in the detonation of one ton of TNT...

 (KT). Rabi's guess of 18 KT proved to be the closest to the actual yield of 18.6 KT, despite his having made the guess by default (it was the only choice left by the time he arrived), and he won the pool.
After the war he continued his research, which contributed to the inventions of the laser and the atomic clock. He was also one of the founders of both Brookhaven National Laboratory
Brookhaven National Laboratory
Brookhaven National Laboratory , is a United States national laboratory located in Upton, New York on Long Island, and was formally established in 1947 at the site of Camp Upton, a former U.S. Army base...

 and CERN
The European Organization for Nuclear Research , known as CERN , is an international organization whose purpose is to operate the world's largest particle physics laboratory, which is situated in the northwest suburbs of Geneva on the Franco–Swiss border...

, and served as U.S. President Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States . As President Franklin D. Roosevelt's third vice president and the 34th Vice President of the United States , he succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when President Roosevelt died less than three months after beginning his...

's second Science Advisor.

Rabi testified on Oppenheimer's behalf at a controversial United States Atomic Energy Commission
United States Atomic Energy Commission
The United States Atomic Energy Commission was an agency of the United States government established after World War II by Congress to foster and control the peace time development of atomic science and technology. President Harry S...

 hearing in 1954 that ultimately led to Oppenheimer being stripped of his security clearance.

Rabi chaired Columbia's physics department from 1945 to 1949, a period during which it was home to two Nobel Laureates (Rabi and Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi was an Italian-born, naturalized American physicist particularly known for his work on the development of the first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, and for his contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics...

) and eleven future laureates, including seven faculty (Polykarp Kusch
Polykarp Kusch
Polykarp Kusch was a German-American physicist. In 1955 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics with Willis Eugene Lamb for his accurate determination that the magnetic moment of the electron was greater than its theoretical value, thus leading to reconsideration of—and...

, Willis Lamb
Willis Lamb
Willis Eugene Lamb, Jr. was an American physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1955 together with Polykarp Kusch "for his discoveries concerning the fine structure of the hydrogen spectrum". Lamb and Kusch were able to precisely determine certain electromagnetic properties of the electron...

, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, James Rainwater
James Rainwater
Leo James Rainwater was an American physicist who shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1975 for his part in determining the asymmetrical shapes of certain atomic nuclei.-Biography:...

, Norman Ramsey, Charles Townes and Hideki Yukawa
Hideki Yukawa
né , was a Japanese theoretical physicist and the first Japanese Nobel laureate.-Biography:Yukawa was born in Tokyo and grew up in Kyoto. In 1929, after receiving his degree from Kyoto Imperial University, he stayed on as a lecturer for four years. After graduation, he was interested in...

), a research scientist (Aage Bohr), a visiting professor (Hans Bethe
Hans Bethe
Hans Albrecht Bethe was a German-American nuclear physicist, and Nobel laureate in physics for his work on the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis. A versatile theoretical physicist, Bethe also made important contributions to quantum electrodynamics, nuclear physics, solid-state physics and...

), a doctoral student (Leon Lederman) and an undergrad (Leon Cooper
Leon Cooper
Leon N Cooper is an American physicist and Nobel Prize laureate, who with John Bardeen and John Robert Schrieffer, developed the BCS theory of superconductivity...

). When Columbia created the rank of University Professor in 1964, Rabi was the first to receive such a chair. He retired from teaching in 1967 but remained active in the department and held the title of University Professor Emeritus and Special Lecturer until his death on 11 January 1988.

Rabi served as the U.S. Representative to the NATO Science Committee at the time the term 'Software Engineering' was coined. While serving in that capacity, he bemoaned the fact that many large software projects were delayed. This prompted several discussions that led to the formation of a Study Group that organized the first conference on Software Engineering.

He famously remarked that "the world would be better without an Edward Teller
Edward Teller
Edward Teller was a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist, known colloquially as "the father of the hydrogen bomb," even though he did not care for the title. Teller made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, spectroscopy , and surface physics...

." He is also known for asking regarding the muon
The muon |mu]] used to represent it) is an elementary particle similar to the electron, with a unitary negative electric charge and a spin of ½. Together with the electron, the tau, and the three neutrinos, it is classified as a lepton...

, "Who ordered that?"

Rabi is the recipient of The International Center in New York's Award of Excellence as well as the 1967 Atoms for Peace Award
Atoms for Peace Award
The Atoms for Peace Award was established in 1955 through a grant of $1,000,000 by the Ford Motor Company Fund. An independent nonprofit corporation was set up to administer the award for the development or application of peaceful nuclear technology. It was created in response to U.S. President...

. In 1985 he was awarded the Public Welfare Medal
Public Welfare Medal
The Public Welfare Medal is awarded by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences "in recognition of distinguished contributions in the application of science to the public welfare." It is the most prestigious honor conferred by the Academy...

 from the National Academy of Sciences
United States National Academy of Sciences
The National Academy of Sciences is a corporation in the United States whose members serve pro bono as "advisers to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine." As a national academy, new members of the organization are elected annually by current members, based on their distinguished and...


He also served on the board of trustees for Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public
Society for Science & the Public
Society for Science & the Public , formerly known as Science Service, is a 5013 non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of science, through its science education programs and publications, including the weekly Science News magazine.Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the organization...

, from 1956-1959.

Personal life

  • Father: David Rabi
  • Mother: Janet Teig
  • Wife: Helen Newmark (m. 1926, two daughters)

Technical Reports

See also

  • Atomic clock
    Atomic clock
    An atomic clock is a clock that uses an electronic transition frequency in the microwave, optical, or ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum of atoms as a frequency standard for its timekeeping element...

  • Nuclear magnetic resonance
    Nuclear magnetic resonance
    Nuclear magnetic resonance is a physical phenomenon in which magnetic nuclei in a magnetic field absorb and re-emit electromagnetic radiation...

  • Rabi cycle
    Rabi cycle
    In physics, the Rabi cycle is the cyclic behaviour of a two-state quantum system in the presence of an oscillatory driving field. A two-state system has two possible states, and if they are not degenerate energy levels the system can become "excited" when it absorbs a quantum of energy.The effect...

  • Rabi problem
    Rabi problem
    The Rabi problem concerns the response of an atom to an applied harmonic electric field, with an applied frequency very close to the atom's natural frequency...

  • Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • List of Jewish Nobel laureates
  • The Day After Trinity
    The Day After Trinity
    The Day After Trinity is a 1980 documentary film directed and produced by Jon H. Else in association with KTEH public television in San Jose, California. The film tells the story of J...


External links