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The Online Afterlife of Manhattan Project Physicist Philip Morrison

"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."

by Becky Ferreira
Nov 7 2015, 3:00pm

Trailer for "Ring of Truth," 1987. Video: PBS/YouTube/ACME Crimenet.

Philip Morrison, born 100 years ago today, was only 27 when he was recruited to work for the Manhattan Project.

An ambitious physicist, he volunteered to conduct dangerous criticality experiments with prototype bombs, which fellow physicist Richard Feynman called "tickling the dragon's tail." He even shared a backseat with the core of the Trinity bomb on the ride out to the New Mexico test site.

Morrison was willing to take on these risks because he believed in the project, fearing that the Germans would deploy an atomic bomb before the US. With that apocalyptic vision in mind, he threw his considerable genius into the development of the first nuclear weapons.

But when the "Little Boy" atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, Morrison was appalled that the city's civilian population had received no warning of the attack. When he witnessed the extent of the devastation during a tour of the city the following year, he was forever changed.

"We circled Hiroshima, and there was just one enormous flat, rust-red scar, and no green or gray, because there were no roofs or vegetation left," he told The New Yorker. "I was pretty sure then that nothing I was going to see later would give me as much of a jolt."

Morrison spent the rest of his life dedicated to fighting nuclear proliferation, while also becoming a key figure in the development of nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, and gamma ray astronomy—a field he pioneered. He was also one of the first scientists to establish a scientific framework for searching the skies in order to find signs of alien intelligence.

"Scientific knowledge and understanding is not a purely cerebral affair. It is soaked with emotion, excitement, and nervous tension."

His profound experiences working for the Manhattan Project as a young man informed his sensibilities as a scientist, ethicist, and popular author and television personality throughout his career. He exuded a Sagan-level sense of wonderment about the universe around us, and tireless optimism for our ability to sustainably survive in it.

"Philip Morrison is more than a distinguished scholar," his MIT faculty colleagues wrote in a 1984 awards citation. "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," the passage continues. "It is soaked with emotion, excitement, and nervous tension, as everyone knows who has heard Philip Morrison talk."

Morrison died of respiratory failure in his sleep on April 22, 2005. He was 89, and mourned by friends, students, and fans around the world. But though he is gone, his jubilant charisma is still resonating with a wide audience a decade on.

For example, over the last few years, excerpts of his 1987 six-part PBS science series The Ring of Truth began surfacing on YouTube. Much like Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Journey, The Ring of Truth is a riveting exploration of science, technology, and humanity, filled with creative tricks for explaining complex ideas.

Take this segment in which Morrison contextualizes atomic scales by having gourmet chef Kin Jing Mark show his technique for making dragon-beard noodles.

From "Ring of Truth: Atoms." Video: PBS/YouTube/hiplobonoxa

In another segment, Morrison uses the residue of July 4 sparklers to demonstrate the laws of conservation, while also making a point about the biases of the human eye.

From "Ring of Truth." Video: PBS/YouTube/Donna Blakeway

"It is plainly very dangerous to overindulge the eye," he says, "to assume because we no longer see something that it has ceased to exist."

The same could be said of Morrison himself, whose legacy continues to shine on like the twinkling remains of a sparkler. To celebrate the centennial of his birth, I highly recommend indulging in a binge watch of The Ring of Truth's best episodes, from the history of telescopes to the conservation of mass. Whether he's speaking about Fraunhofer lines or the Tour de France, Morrison's love for science—paired with his talent for communicating its complexities—is an example for all time.