American Physical Society Names Pupin Hall a Historic Site and Honors Late Columbia Physicist I.I. Rabi

Feb. 5, 2009Bookmark and Share

The American Physical Society, a national organization of physicists dedicated to the development and promotion of physics, named Pupin Hall, home to Columbia's physics department, a historic site. The society recognized the University's historic contributions to the advancement of the science, and singled out Isidor Isaac Rabi, the late Nobel laureate and Columbia professor, for his groundbreaking achievements in magnetic resonance. 

Isidor Isaac Rabi
Image credit: Columbia University Libraries
During a ceremony last Thursday, David Hirsh, Columbia's executive vice president for research, accepted a plaque from Gene Sprouse, American Physical Society editor-in-chief. Also in attendance were Rabi's two daughters, Nancy Lichtenstein and Margaret Rabi Beels, Columbia physicist and Nobel laureate Tsung-Dao Lee, and author Richard Rhodes, who wrote "The Making of the Atomic Bomb."
During the mid-20th century Columbia physicists led the world in the development of quantum mechanics, laser technology and nuclear fission. The first atom was split inside Pupin Hall, located on the Morningside Heights campus.
"Columbia had the best physics department in the country from 1945 to 1952," said John Rigden, a spokesman for the American Physical Society. "When Columbia was mentioned [as a candidate], immediately the committee, without much discussion, said that it was a good move."
The American Physical Society, currently headquartered in College Park, Md., was founded at the University in 1899, and launched its Historical Sites Initiative a few years ago to raise awareness about institutions central to the development of physics. It was only a matter of time before the society turned its sights toward Morningside Heights.
In 1965, Pupin Hall was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. The physics department counts a total of 27 Nobel laureates, many of whom were recruited by Rabi and did their prize-winning work under his chairmanship in the late 1940s.
Rabi gained acclaim for his work on magnetic resonance—the manipulation of an alternating electric field (in Rabi's day, a radio wave), which causes a quantum mechanical system to jump from one form of energy to another. His discovery later led to the innovation of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, technology commonly used in medical diagnostics.
Rabi earned a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1927 before spending the next two years in Germany working with physicists Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Otto Stern. He joined Columbia's faculty in 1929 and completed his research on magnetic resonance in 1938. He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944 and spent the next few years contributing to the inventions of the laser and the atomic clock. He later co-founded Brookhaven National Laboratory and the European Center for Nuclear Research, served as President Harry S. Truman's science adviser and represented the U.S. on NATO's Science Committee for 22 years. In 1964, Rabi became the first University Professor at Columbia. He retired from teaching in 1967, but held the title of University Professor Emeritus and Special Lecturer until his death in 1988.
"Rabi built the Columbia physics department in the 30s, then he came back after the war and gave it a second rebirth," said oral historian Chauncey Olinger Jr. (GSAS '71), who years ago joined New York designer Edwin Schlossberg to build the I.I. Rabi Memorial Room. Located in Rabi's old office space on the eighth floor in Pupin, the room serves as a shrine to the late physicist, with a detailed timeline and several large pictures adorning the walls.
Today, Columbia is a leader in quantum mechanics. Last month, the University opened a state-of-the-art, temperature-sensitive laboratory, and, through its Diversity Initiative, hired Assistant Professor Tanya Zelevinsky, whose work on high-precision spectroscopy "will serve as the scientific grandchild of Rabi's work," said Andrew Millis, professor and chair of the department.
Twenty years ago, the University launched the I.I. Rabi Science Scholars Program, which encourages talented Columbia science students by providing them with research opportunities throughout their undergratuate careers, as well as as summer housing and stipends.
"It's wonderful that Columbia has a historical memory," said Margaret Beels, Rabi's daughter. "It's good for the students to have things like this to remind them they should study backward as well as forward."


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