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E. M. Purcell

E. M. PurcellAKA Edward Mills Purcell

Born: 30-Aug-1912
Birthplace: Taylorville, IL
Died: 7-Mar-1997
Location of death: Cambridge, MA
Cause of death: Respiratory failure

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist, Astronomer

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Nuclear magnetic resonance

American physicist E. M. Purcell developed the principles of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in 1946, now used in chemistry and physics to determine the molecular structure of materials and mixtures. NMR is also the technology that provides the basis for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a tool for medical diagnosis. He was awarded the 1952 Nobel Prize for Physics, with co-recipient Felix Bloch, who conducted much the same research independently, and reached the same conclusions in his work at Stanford.

During World War II Purcell worked at the MIT Radiation Laboratory, as part of the team that developed microwave radar. In 1951 he discovered microwave emissions from the neutral hydrogen of interstellar space. Because hydrogen is present throughout the known universe, this became a key tool in radio astronomy, allowing advanced mapping of the known galaxy. In 1953, with his graduate student Stephen Smith, he described what is now called the Smith-Purcell effect, whereby visible light is generated as an energetic beam of electrons is aimed near the surface of a ruled optical diffraction grating.

His father was a senior technician for a regional phone company, and as a boy Purcell was allowed to play with discarded equipment and read electronics journals, which he later said ignited his scientific curiosity. He served on the Science Advisory Committee for Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson until 1965, when he resigned in protest over the escalating war against Vietnam. From that point forward, he refused all military-related committees and work. He believed that manned space exploration beyond the local planets would be impossible, due to the effects of relativity on high-speed interstellar travelers.

Father: Edward A. Purcell (telephone technician)
Mother: Mary Elizabeth Mills (Latin teacher)
Brother: Robert Purcell
Wife: Beth C. Busser (dated 1933-37, m. 1937, two sons)
Son: Dennis Purcell (pharmaceutical executive)
Son: Frank Purcell

    High School: Mattoon High School, Mattoon, IL (1929)
    University: BS Electrical Engineering, Purdue University (1933)
    Scholar: Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (1933-34)
    University: MS, Harvard University (1938)
    Scholar: PhD Physics, Harvard University (1938)
    Teacher: Physics, Harvard University (1938-41)
    Scholar: Radiation Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1941-45)
    Teacher: Physics, Harvard University (1945-49)
    Professor: Physics, Harvard University (1949-80)

    Nobel Prize for Physics 1952 (with Felix Bloch)
    Oersted Medal 1967
    National Medal of Science 1979
    American Academy of Arts and Sciences
    American Philosophical Society
    American Physical Society President
    Harvard Society of Fellows
    National Academy of Sciences 1951
    Royal Society Foreign Member
    Phi Kappa Sigma
    Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society
    American Journal of Physics Columnist, 1983-88

Author of books:
Electricity and Magnetism (1963, physics text)
Principles of Microwave Circuits (1987, physics; with Robert H. Dicke and C G Montgomery)


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