Norman Foster Ramsey Jr. Biography

Norman Foster Ramsey Jr.

Birthday: August 27, 1915 (Virgo)

Born In: Washington, D.C., United States

Norman F. Ramsey was a Nobel Prize winning American physicist who developed a precise method to probe the structure of atoms and molecules and used it to devise a remarkably exact way to keep time. He was awarded the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Hans G. Dehmelt from University of Washington, for the invention of the separated oscillatory field method, which had important applications in the construction of atomic clocks. Norman Ramsey was a towering figure in the world of physics during the second half of the 20th century. He was admired for his scientific accomplishments, his service as a statesman of science, his role as a teacher and mentor, and the friendships he shared with people of all ranks around the world. His life and career spanned almost a century. The technologies that sprung from his work touch the lives of billions today. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), a mainstay of medical diagnostics technology, and the Atomic Clock, which makes Global Positioning System (GPS) possible, are among the technologies derived from the experimental techniques that Ramsey developed. A physics professor at Harvard University for most of his career, Ramsey also held several posts with such government and international agencies as NATO and the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

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Quick Facts

Also Known As: Norman Foster Ramsey

Died At Age: 96


Spouse/Ex-: Elinor Jameson, Ellie Welch

father: Norman Foster Ramsey

mother: Minna Bauer Ramsey

Born Country: United States

Physicists American Men

Died on: November 4, 2011

place of death: Wayland, Massachusetts, United States

Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Physics

discoveries/inventions: Separated Oscillatory Field Method

More Facts

education: Columbia University, University of Cambridge

awards: Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award (1960)
Davisson-Germer Prize (1974) IEEE Medal of Honor (1984)
Oersted Medal (1988)

National Medal of Science (1988)
Nobel Prize in Physics (1989)
Dirac Medal (1990) Vannevar Bush Award (1995

Childhood & Early Life
Born on August 27, 1915 in Washington, DC, Norman Foster Ramsey Jr. was the son of Norman Foster Ramsey, a West Point educated military officer, and Minna Bauer Ramsey, a mathematics instructor.
Norman’s education was frequently interrupted when the family moved to new locations in the United States and abroad. At 15 he graduated from the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, high school as class president and at the top of his class.
After his schooling, he entered Columbia University in 1931, graduating at the top of his class, with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1935. This led to a scholarship to attend Cambridge University in England, where he earned a second bachelor’s degree, this time in physics.
During his years at Cambridge, he attended lectures by Ernest Rutherford, Paul Durac, and J.J. Thomson among others and was tutored by Maurice Gold Haber, who later became a close friend and director of Brookhaven National Laboratory.
The lectures at Cambridge, especially Rutherford’s, kindled in Norman an enthusiasm for experimental physics, particularly the study of molecular beams and he applied to do research for Ph.D. under Isidor Isaac Rabi in Columbia.
He received his Ph.D. in physics from Columbia in 1940, and became a fellow at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., where he studied neutron-proton and proton-helium scattering.
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In 1940, Ramsey accepted a teaching position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
During World War II, his research and development efforts on electromagnetic radiation and radar made vital contributions to navigation and to the detection of enemy aircraft and submarines. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the atomic bomb laboratory at Los Alamos during the war, recruited him to work there. In a Nobel autobiographical sketch, Dr. Ramsey wrote that he was chief of “the Delivery Group,” which was responsible for, among other things, the ballistics of the bomb and modifying airplanes to accommodate the bomb.
Ramsey left Los Alamos in October 1945 and resumed his academic career by returning to Columbia as an associate professor of physics. Here, he helped found the Brookhaven Laboratory on January 1, 1947. Ramsey agreed to serve as the head of its physics department, splitting his time with his duties at Columbia.
Norman later joined Harvard in 1947. While working at Harvard he invented the separated oscillatory fields method, also known as the Ramsey method.
His research helped lay the groundwork for nuclear magnetic resonance, whose applications include the M.R.I. technique now widely used for medical diagnosis.
But the most immediate application of the Ramsey method has been in the development of highly accurate atomic clocks. Since 1967 it has been used to define the exact span of a second, not as a fraction of the time it takes Earth to revolve around the Sun, but as 9,192,631,770 radiation cycles of a cesium atom.
In 1960, working with Daniel Kleppner, he invented a different type of atomic clock, known as the hydrogen maser, whose remarkable stability has since been used to confirm the minute effects of gravity on time as predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Atomic clocks like the hydrogen maser are also used in the ground-based timing systems that track global positioning satellites.
Awards & Achievements
Ramsey was honored by the Nobel committee in 1989 for his work leading to the ultra- precise cesium atomic clock and the hydrogen maser.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Ramsey received a number of awards such as the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award in 1960 for his contribution to physics.
He received the Oersted Medal and the National Medal of Science in 1988.
He served as the president of the Universities Research Association during the 1960s and was involved in the design and construction of the Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois.
He served as the president of the American Physical Society in 1978.
He served as the chairman of the board of the American Institute of Physics from 1980 to 1986.
He also headed a 1982 National Research Council committee that concluded, contrary to the findings of the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, that acoustic evidence did not indicate the presence of a second gunman's involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Elinor Jameson in 1940 and had four daughters. Elinor succumbed to cancer in 1983.
Later he married Ellie Welch of Brookline, Massachusetts.
Ramsey died on November 4, 2011 and was survived by his wife Ellie, his four daughters from his first marriage, and his stepdaughter and stepson from his second marriage.

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