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Physicist Edward Purcell Dies

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Gage University Professor Emeritus Edward M. Purcell died Friday in his Cambridge home. He was 84.

The cause of death was not immediately known.

Purcell shared the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physics with Felix Bloch of Stanford for their independent discoveries of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

"He could have been a Nobel Prize winner for several other things," said Higgins Professor of Physics Emeritus Norman F. Ramsey, himself a Nobel laureate in 1989.

Purcell's discovery of NMR provided the basis for the technology of magnetic resonance imaging. NMR also has important applications in chemical analysis.

Purcell, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics Emeritus Robert V. Pound and Nicholaas Bloembergen worked together to develop the theory of nuclear magnetic relaxation, one aspect of NMR, in their famous "BPP" paper.

In 1951, Purcell and H.I. Ewen detected radio waves from hydrogen atoms in interstellar space. This "21 centimeter line" is used by radioastronomers to map galaxies.

"That really was a landmark for getting American astronomers into radioastronomy," Pound said, adding that British and Australian scientists had traditionally dominated the field.

During World War II, Purcell led a group at M.I.T.'s Radiation Laboratory which developed advanced microwave radar. He was also involved peripherally with the Manhattan Project, helping to devise the instruments which recorded the results of the first atomic bomb test.

"He's a giant in the field," Ramsey said. "He was a man of very deep thought."

Purcell served as president of the American Physical Society in 1970. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1979.

He sat on the President's Scientific Advisory Committee from 1957 to 1960 and again from 1962 to 1965.

"He was a very easygoing and friendly person who was much sought as an advisor," Pound said.

He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Purcell's name may be best known to students throughout the country for his widely used textbook on electricity and magnetism.

Gary J. Feldman, chair of the physics department, noted that Physics 15b has used the book "for as many years as anyone can remember."

While at Harvard, Purcell taught Physics 198, "Widely Applied Physics," which the department recently revived as Physics 125.

He retired in the spring of 1980.

"He was an excellent teacher," Ramsey said. "His courses were very popular."

Professor of Physics Paul Horowitz '65 took Purcell's quantum mechanics course as an undergraduate.

"I was overwhelmed by his modesty, clarity and sheer inspiration," Horowitz said. "This was a completely unpretentious person."

When Horowitz won tenure, he found that Purcell had a similar effect on his colleagues.

"It was pretty clear that Ed was someone that everyone in the department admired as a great physicist," he said.

"He was a very thoughtful person, one of my very best friends," Ramsey said. "There was no one whose judgment I trusted more than his."

Purcell was born in Taylorville, Ill. in 1912. He received his Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Purdue in 1933 and his Ph.D. from Harvard five years later.

Purcell is survived by his wife, Beth C., and two sons, Dennis W. '62 and Frank B. '65.

A memorial service is being planned

Purcell served as president of the American Physical Society in 1970. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1979.

He sat on the President's Scientific Advisory Committee from 1957 to 1960 and again from 1962 to 1965.

"He was a very easygoing and friendly person who was much sought as an advisor," Pound said.

He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Purcell's name may be best known to students throughout the country for his widely used textbook on electricity and magnetism.

Gary J. Feldman, chair of the physics department, noted that Physics 15b has used the book "for as many years as anyone can remember."

While at Harvard, Purcell taught Physics 198, "Widely Applied Physics," which the department recently revived as Physics 125.

He retired in the spring of 1980.

"He was an excellent teacher," Ramsey said. "His courses were very popular."

Professor of Physics Paul Horowitz '65 took Purcell's quantum mechanics course as an undergraduate.

"I was overwhelmed by his modesty, clarity and sheer inspiration," Horowitz said. "This was a completely unpretentious person."

When Horowitz won tenure, he found that Purcell had a similar effect on his colleagues.

"It was pretty clear that Ed was someone that everyone in the department admired as a great physicist," he said.

"He was a very thoughtful person, one of my very best friends," Ramsey said. "There was no one whose judgment I trusted more than his."

Purcell was born in Taylorville, Ill. in 1912. He received his Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Purdue in 1933 and his Ph.D. from Harvard five years later.

Purcell is survived by his wife, Beth C., and two sons, Dennis W. '62 and Frank B. '65.

A memorial service is being planned

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