Philip Morrison, 89; Physicist Built Bomb, Sought Peace

Times Staff Writer

Philip Morrison, one of the youngest physicists to work on the Manhattan Project and a leading voice in post-World War II efforts to contain the bomb, has died. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus, who was also one of the godfathers of the search for extraterrestrial life, was 89.

Morrison died Friday at his home in Cambridge, Mass., according to an announcement from MIT. The cause of death was not reported.

Hindered by the lingering aftereffects of a childhood bout with polio and hounded by the House Un-American Activities committee for a youthful flirtation with communism -- as well as later unsubstantiated charges that he was a nuclear spy for Russia -- Morrison overcame the obstacles to become a strong moral voice on defense topics and, later, a prolific and popular writer on science.


Morrison wrote more than a dozen books on topics that included the development of the Babbage calculator and the search for extraterrestrial life. With his wife, Phylis, he composed more than 1,500 book reviews for Scientific American, as well as appearing widely on radio and television, most notably on the PBS series “The Ring of Truth.”

“The world has lost one of the major voices of social conscience in science,” said historian of science Charles Weiner of MIT. “He was an inspiration not as a scientist who also did other things but as someone who defined his role as a scientist by being involved in these other things.”

Morrison was a callow 29-year-old when he was called into the Chicago office of fellow UC Berkeley graduate Robert F. Christy, who recruited him into the war effort by citing the danger if Germany produced the bomb first. Morrison worked with Enrico Fermi in Chicago to refine methods to produce plutonium for the “gadget,” as it was called, then later moved to Los Alamos to help construct the bomb’s core.

His was a particularly tricky project that physicist Richard Feynman called “tickling the tail of the sleeping dragon” -- attempting to determine how much uranium or plutonium was necessary to start a spontaneous chain reaction without blowing themselves up in the process.

“It was very dangerous work,” Morrison later said. In fact, two of his colleagues, Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin, died after the war from radiation exposure they received in the experiments.

On July 12, 1945, Morrison rode from the mountain labs of Los Alamos to the Trinity testing site in the backseat of a Dodge sitting next to the plutonium core of the gadget known as Fat Man. Four days later, he witnessed the world’s first atomic explosion.


Soon afterward, he flew to Tinian Island in the North Pacific to oversee the assembly of the bomb, also called Fat Man, that destroyed Nagasaki on Aug.9, three days after the uranium bomb, Little Boy, devastated Hiroshima.

In September, with the war over, Morrison became part of the team that went to Japan to assess the damage. His impression, he said, was that the Hiroshima obliteration was “matchless in human misery.” He wrote to the U.S. Senate in 1946: “I am completely convinced that another war cannot be allowed.”

He became a prominent voice arguing against nuclear proliferation and in favor of peaceful conflict resolution.

Convinced that state institutions like Berkeley were vulnerable in the post-war hysteria, Morrison took a physics post at Cornell University, where he hoped he could avoid controversy. But it was not to be.

His prewar flirtation with communism while he was a graduate student of ultra-liberal J. Robert Oppenheimer led to investigations by the FBI, vitriolic attacks by various McCarthyites and crucifixion in the press. The attacks hindered Cornell’s fundraising efforts and led to widespread calls for Morrison’s resignation. Even staunch ally Hans Bethe, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist on Cornell’s faculty, was critical of Morrison’s “charitable attitude toward Russia.”

Besieged, he cut back on his political activities, retreating into the world of science and literature. He later recalled the period as being “hateful. Not the least of it was that quite good people couldn’t see that, or they were unwilling to see that. And that made it seem still worse.”


Echoes of that controversy reemerged in 1999 with the publication of a memoir by Jeremy Stone, then-president of the Federation of American Scientists. Morrison, ironically, was a co-founder of the federation and played a key role in getting Stone his position, as well as in protecting Stone from an earlier attempt to fire him.

In his memoir, Stone recalled conversations and visits with a physicist he called Scientist X, whom he eventually concluded was a Soviet nuclear spy code-named Perseus. Scientist X could easily be identified as Morrison, and many in the physics community were outraged by the accusation.

Morrison quickly sent Stone a letter detailing clear-cut discrepancies that showed that he could not have been Perseus. Stone ultimately replied, “I can only accept your denial that you are Perseus,” but he never apologized for the charge.

After his retreat from politics, Morrison turned to astrophysics. In 1959, he and Cornell colleague Giuseppe Cocconi began wondering if gamma rays could be used to send signals across interstellar space. After making a number of calculations, they concluded that simple radio waves -- even with the relatively limited technology then available -- could propagate for amazingly long distances, easily crossing the light-years between stars.

Their 1959 paper detailing their findings in the journal Nature set the stage for future searches for extraterrestrial intelligence. A year later, Frank Drake, an astrophysicist at Cornell, began the first organized search for the type of signals they proposed.

Morrison chaired the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s early study groups on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, and played a major role in the establishment of an organized program in 1992.


Morrison left Cornell for MIT in 1964, devoting his remaining research life to cosmic ray origins and propagation, gamma-ray astronomy and other topics in high-energy astrophysics and cosmology.

In addition to his books and book reviews, Morrison also narrated and helped write films on science for designers Charles and Ray Eames, the most notable of them “Powers of Ten.”

Morrison was born in Somerville, N.J., on Nov. 7, 1915, the son of a businessman father and a homemaker mother. He grew up in Wilkensburg, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh.

He contracted polio at 3 and was housebound for almost five years. The disease left him with a pronounced limp that often required the use of a cane, and he used a wheelchair during the last 30 years of his life.

To entertain the young recluse, his father bought him a crystal radio set that allowed him to listen to early broadcasts from Westinghouse radio in Pittsburgh, a gift that triggered a lifelong interest in communication. He built his own radio, volunteered at a local radio station and became a licensed ham radio operator by age 12. That activity sparked a curiosity about other areas of science that served him for his entire life.

He received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, then did his graduate work at UC Berkeley, where he studied theoretical physics under Oppenheimer. He taught briefly at San Francisco State College (now University) before moving to the University of Illinois, from which he was recruited for the Manhattan Project.


In 1938, he married Emily Kramer, who had been his childhood neighbor and then a fellow student at Carnegie Tech. The two separated in 1961, and he married Phylis Hagen Singer.

Phylis Morrison died in 2002. Morrison is survived by a stepson, Bert Singer.