Isidor Isaac Rabi Biography

Isidor Isaac Rabi was a Poland-born American physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944. This biography provides detailed information about his childhood, life, research career and timeline.

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Israel Isaac Rabi
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Leo    Leo Men
Born in:
Rymanów, Galicia, Austria-Hungary (today Poland)
David Rabi
Janet Teig
Helen Newmark
Nancy, Margaret
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place of death:
New York City, USA
More Facts
Cornell University, Columbia University
Newcomb Cleveland Prize (1939)
Elliott Cresson Medal (1942)
Nobel Prize in Physics (1944)
Medal for Merit (1948)
Barnard Medal (1960)
Atoms for Peace Award (1967)
Oersted Medal (1982)
Public Welfare Medal (1985)
Vannevar Bush Award (1986)

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Isidor Isaac Rabi was a Poland-born American physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics for the development of a method by which the magnetic moments, namely the spin and magnetic characteristics of atomic nuclei, could be measured. This measurement technique became a basis for subsequent experiments on atomic beams which lead to the development of a body scanning method used in medical practice known as ‘Magnetic Resonance Imaging’ or MRI. The method was also used for experiments on the guidance systems of missiles and satellites. His experiments on ‘Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR)’ became an indispensable tool for chemists while ‘Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)’ became an indispensable tool for physicians. He also proposed the construction of the first atomic clock in history. Isidor was destined to become a tailor like his father had he stayed back in Europe but was able to earn a degree in chemistry after coming to America. He worked for many years in an industrial laboratory after which he joined college to study physics as chemistry did not seem interesting to him. He also studied books on various topics which widened the horizon of his knowledge helping him suggest new ways of carrying out experiments which benefited both chemists and physicists.

Childhood & Early Life
  • Isidor Isaac Rabi was born Israel Isaac Rabi in Rymanow, Poland, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on July 29, 1898. His father was a Jewish tailor named David Rabi and his mother was Janet Teig.
  • He had a younger sister named Getrude.
  • His family immigrated to America in 1899 when he was an infant. His family stayed in Lower East side of Manhattan and later in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
  • After completing elementary school in Brooklyn, where his name was changed to Isidor, he joined ‘Manual Training High School, Brooklyn’.
  • He got a scholarship and joined the ‘Cornell University’ at Ithaca, New York where he opted for electrical engineering as a major subject but later changed over to chemistry. He graduated with a BS in chemistry from the university in 1919.
  • Though he decided to pursue a job instead of continuing his study in chemistry he had to study it again at the ‘Cornell University’ in 1922 till 1923 after wasting three years since he could not get a fellowship for studying physics.
  • He wanted to leave ‘Cornell University’ and wished to join the ‘Harvard University’ in Cambridge but joined ‘Columbia University’ as a graduate student in physics instead.
  • While casually reading a book ‘Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism’ written by John Clerk Maxwell, he realized that he could develop an easier method of taking measurements with a very simple two-step process where the susceptibilities of the crystal, a solution and water were matched with one another. He submitted his dissertation on July 16, 1926 and was awarded his PhD in 1927.
  • He was associated with Erwin Schrondinger, Arnold Sommerfield, Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr from 1927 to 1929 during his post-graduate work in Europe. While working with Pauli in Hamburg, Germany, he successfully carried out an experiment on the deflection of beam particles at Otto Stern’s molecular-beam laboratory using a magnetic field configuration presently called the ‘Rabi Field’.
  • In 1929 while working in Leipzig with Werner Heisenburg Rabi received an offer from the ‘Columbia University’ to join as a lecturer.
  • Isidor Isaac Rabi started his career as a lecturer in ‘Theoretical Physics’ from 1929 to 1937.
  • In 1933 Rabi and Victor W. Cohen, his first graduate student, were able to measure the nuclear spin of sodium with their molecular beam apparatus.
  • In 1936 he carried out the second experiment on proton and deuteron and was able to reduce uncertainty in their magnetic moments drastically.
  • In 1937 he became a Professor of ‘Theoretical Physics’ at the Columbia University and held the post till 1940.
  • His third experiment in 1939 reduced the uncertainty to 0.7 percent which was very accurate by all standards.
  • In 1939 he discovered the nuclear quadrupole moment and the magnetic resonance method for the measurement of magnetic instances of atoms.
  • He served as the head of the ‘Radiation Laboratory Research Division’ of the ‘Massachusetts Institute of Technology’ in Cambridge, Massachusetts from October 1940 to 1945.
  • He returned to the Columbia University and served as a Professor of Physics from 1945 to 1957.
  • He became the President of the ‘American Physical Society’ in 1950.
  • He served on the ‘General Advisory Committee’ of the US Atomic Energy Commission’ from 1952 to 1956.
  • He served as the Chairman of the ‘US Atomic Energy Commission’ from 1952 to 1956.
  • He became a member of ‘Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire’ or ‘CERN’ in 1954.
  • He served as a ‘Higgins Professor of Physics’ at the Columbia University from 1957 to 1964.
  • He worked at the ‘Brookhaven National Laboratory’ up to 1967 after founding it in 1947.
  • He served as a ‘University Professor of Physics’ at the ‘Columbia University’ from 1964 to 1967.
Major Works
  • Isodor Isaac Rabi’s book ‘The Nuclear Spin of Sodium’ was published in 1933 and ‘The Magnetic Moment of the Proton’ in 1934.
  • His book ‘On the Process of Space Quantization’ was published in 1936 and ‘A New Method of Measuring Nuclear Magnetic Moment’ was published in 1938.
  • ‘An Electric Quadrupole Moment of the Deuteron: The Radiofrequency Spectra of HD and D2 Molecules in a Magnetic Field’ was published in 1940 and ‘The Hyperfine Structure of Atomic Hydrogen and Deuterium’ was published in 1947.
Awards & Achievements
  • Isidor Isaac Rabi won the ‘Eliot Cresson Medal’ from the ‘Franklin Institute’ in 1942 and the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944.
  • He received the ‘Congressional Order of Merit’ and the ‘King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom’ in 1948.
  • He was appointed a board member of the ‘Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel’ in 1959.
  • He won the ‘Niels Bohr Gold Medal’ and the ‘Atoms for Peace Award’ in 1967.
  • He received the ‘Oersted Medal’ in 1982 and the ‘Vannevar Bush Award’ in 1986.
  • He was made an ‘Officer of The French Legion of Honor’, fellow of the ‘American Academy of Arts and Sciences’, ‘American Philosophical Society’ and the ‘National Academy of Sciences’.
  • He received honorary D.Sc. from the universities of Harvard, Princeton and Birmingham and was made a foreign member of Japanese and Brazilian Academies.
Personal Life & Legacy
  • He married Helen Newmark on August 17, 1926 and had two daughters, Nancy and Margaret with her.
  • Isidor Isaac Rabin died of illness in New York City, New York, USA on January 11, 1988 at the age of 89.
Humanitarian Work
  • Isidor Isaac Rabi refused to work for the Manhattan Project, believing that the atom bomb was an unnecessary ‘evil’ and became an outspoken opponent of any kind of atomic weapon.
  • Isidor Isaac Rabi had acted as himself in a movie titled ‘The Day After Trinity’ in 1981.

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Last Updated
- June 30, 2016
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