Isidor Isaac Rabi

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Isidor Rabi
II Rabi.jpg
Born Isidor Isaac Rabi
(1898-07-29)29 July 1898
Rymanów, Galicia, Austria-Hungary
Died 11 January 1988(1988-01-11) (aged 89)
New York City, New York, USA
Nationality United States
Alma mater Cornell University
Columbia University
Known for Nuclear magnetic resonance
Awards Elliott Cresson Medal (1942)
Nobel Prize for Physics (1944)
Public Welfare Medal (1985)
Scientific career
Fields Physics
Institutions Columbia University
Doctoral advisor Albert Potter Wills
Doctoral students Julian Schwinger
Norman F. Ramsey
Martin L. Perl

Isidor Isaac Rabi (/[invalid input: 'icon']ˈrɑːbi/; 29 July 1898 – 11 January 1988) was a Galician-born American physicist and Nobel laureate recognized in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance.


Early years

Rabi was born into a traditional Jewish family in Rymanów, Galicia, Austria-Hungary (now Poland), and was brought to the United States as a child the following year. He was awarded a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry degree from Cornell University in 1919, continuing his studies at Columbia University 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, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and Otto Stern. 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 on the development of radar and the atomic bomb.[1] Some[who?] say that he reluctantly agreed to serve as a visiting consultant who would come and go from Los Alamos, where he was one of the very few exceptions to the strict security rules there. General Leslie Groves made a special effort to bring Rabi, who had been a student with Oppenheimer 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.[citation needed] The scientists working on Trinity set up a betting pool for the results of the test, with predictions ranging from total dud to 45 kilotons of TNT equivalent (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.[2]

Isidor Isaac Rabi, Copenhagen 1963

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 and CERN, and served as U.S. President Harry S. Truman's second Science Advisor.

Rabi testified on Oppenheimer's behalf at a controversial United States Atomic Energy Commission 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) and eleven future laureates, including seven faculty (Polykarp Kusch, Willis Lamb, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, James Rainwater, Norman Ramsey, Charles Townes and Hideki Yukawa), a research scientist (Aage Bohr), a visiting professor (Hans Bethe), a doctoral student (Leon Lederman) and an undergrad (Leon Cooper).[3] 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.[4]

He famously remarked that "the world would be better without an Edward Teller." He is also known for asking regarding the muon, "Who ordered that?"[5]

Rabi is the recipient of The International Center in New York's Award of Excellence as well as the 1967 Atoms for Peace Award. In 1985 he was awarded the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.[6]

He also served on the board of trustees for Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, from 1956-1959.

Personal life

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


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Technical Reports

See also


  1. Isidor Isaac Rabi – Biography
  2. Richard Rhodes (1986), The Making of the Atomic Bomb. 886 pp. ISBN 0-671-44133-7 p. 656
  3. Nobel winners associated with Columbia physics department
  4. Donald MacKenzie Mechanizing Proof: Computing, Risk, and Trust423pp. ISBN 0-262-13393-8 p34.
  5. Who Ordered the Muon?New York Times, September 27, 1987
  6. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1 at line 746: Argument map not defined for this variable.
  • Rabi, scientist and citizen by John S. Rigden (Sloan Foundation Series; Basic Books, 1987). A biography that is close to an autobiography, as it was based on extensive interviews with Rabi.
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1 at line 746: Argument map not defined for this variable.

External links