Edward Purcell


Journalists last month suddenly dragged a rather unwilling physicist out of secluded Lyman Laboratory into the public's view. Self-effacing Edward M. Purcell (as well as Stanford's Felix Bloch) had won the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physics and this was part of his reward. "First came the Swedish reporters," Purcell complained, "for they had advance notice. Things are beginning to quiet down now, and my wife and I have finally answered most of the mail," he added, looking up from his cluttered desk."

Few undergraduates have a chance to know Purcell unless they major in Physics. Purcell admits his main interests lie in research and if he had to choose he'd far rather be in his experimental laboratory than teaching Physics 11a--"frankly I think I'm a bit stale there." In Lyman he is sheltered from much of the college life. When non-science students do see him, moreover, they are apt to mistake him for a graduate student--though he is all of 40. The Davidson game was the first football match he's attended in 12 years. "But I love baseball," he is quick to add.

Purcell turned to Physics largely as an afterthought. "I trained as an electrical engineer at Purdue because I didn't know what Physics really was." After getting his B.S., he spent a year in Germany and then returned to Harvard to receive his M.A. in 1935 and Ph.D. three years later.

It was in the waning months of 1945 that Purcell made his prize-winning discovery while on leave of absence at M.I.T. He was head of a group which discovered new microwave techniques, for radar and other electronic instruments. "Altogether it was a very large show--started with 40 men and ended with 40,000 by 1945."

One day Purcell lunched with Robert V. Pound, then on leave from a Harvard Junior Fellowship, and H. C. Torrey, on leave from Rutgers. During the conversation, Purcell mentioned the idea he was mulling over. Briefly it involved measuring the forces at work inside atoms, taking advantage of the fact that most nuclei act as if they are extremely small, rapidly spinning bar magnets. "The only difficulty to be solved was that no one knew whether the extremely feeble effect of these magnets in ordinary substances could actually be detected."


Borrowing most of the equipment, the three young experimenters found a sufficiently large magnet in a wooden shed behind Lyman Laboratory and set to work--during nights, Sundays, every spare moment. Unknowingly they were working against time, for 3,000 miles away Bloch was constructing a similar experiment.

Just before Christmas the important day dawned--the equipment was ready. Newspapermen had a field day describing the event: "Purcell, Pound, and Torrey stayed in their workshop until four o'clock one December morning," one article read, "When they left to go home through a blinding snowstorm, they had completed their preparations...Several days passed before they had any spare time...One Saturday morning Purcell went into the shed, warmed the equipment, and waited for the others...they threw the switches. The experiment worked."

"Well," Purcell said on reading the clipping for the first time, "I guess it's all right--"I can't really remember the climatic conditions...and anyway the point is the experiment didn't work the first time."

Modesty immediately overtakes Purcell when asked why he won the prize. "I guess it's because I suggested the original experiment," he muttered "but I think it's only fair to say that the original experiment could not have been done without any one of the three of us."

Purcell's greatest ordeal is yet to come. Last Saturday he left by plane for Stockholm, Sweden, where King Gustav Adolf will give him a medal, a scroll, and a monetary reward during the week-long celebration for Nobel Prize winners. "Bridgman (Physics Nobel Prize in 1946) has told the pretty well what to expect; it will be quite an affair. It's been so frantic around here I don't know if I'm excited , but I must admit I'll be glad to get away--after all you don't get the unless you go to Sweden for it.