Isidor Isaac Rabi, the Nobel prize-winning physicist who played a key role in the wartime development of the atomic bomb and radar, died Monday after a long illness. Rabi, who had been associated with Columbia University for 65 years, was 89.
Rabi's research explored the inner workings of the atom and the magnetic fields that control the subtle interactions of atomic particles. He received the 1944 Nobel prize in physics for demonstrating that each atom acts like a tiny radio broadcasting station, sending out radio waves that reveal its innermost secrets.
But he may be best remembered for his postwar activities in promoting international cooperation in the study and use of the atom. Rabi conceived and helped organize the first International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, sponsored by the United Nations.
He also helped establish the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors the use of atomic power around the world, and made the proposal that led to the establishment of the European Center for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, which is often called the most significant international cooperative exchange program in science.
He was born Israel Isaac Rabi in 1898 in Rymanow, a part of Austria then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but came to be called Isidor by his family members. His father was a tailor who brought his 1-year-old son to the United States. In adulthood, Rabi usually went by his initials.
After receiving his doctorate from Columbia in 1927, Rabi and his friend J. Robert Oppenheimer were among a handful of young scientists who journeyed to Europe to learn the radically new discipline of quantum physics, which stated that the elementary particles from which all atoms are formed are sometimes particles, sometimes waves.
In Europe, he worked in the laboratories of some of the greatest physicists of the day, including Erwin Schrodinger, Neils Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli and Warner Heisenberg, returning to Columbia in 1929 to proselytize American physicists. He did most of his work on a large blackboard in his office, leaving to his students the mundane tasks of building and repairing laboratory equipment.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, he became associate director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's radiation laboratory, headed by former Caltech president Lee DuBridge, where researchers were working to refine the new technology of radar.
He declined a position in the New Mexico-based Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, but he subsequently became Oppenheimer's "trouble shooter" for the project and served as a liaison between the military and the brilliant but erratic Oppenheimer. He was a staunch defender of Oppenheimer during the postwar period when the latter's security clearance was lifted.
Influenced Young Scholars
After the war, he became chairman of Columbia's physics department and enticed many of the physics community's brightest minds to work and study there. At least seven of them went on to their own Nobels.
Rabi was one the original members of the Atomic Energy Commission's General Advisory Committee when it was formed in 1947.