Sprawled on the sands of the New Mexico desert, Isador Isaac Rabi was witness on July 16, 1945, to a demonstration of scientific power so spectacular that neither his welder’s glasses nor his analytical training could fully shield him from its awe-inspiring effects:
Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone else has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way into you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. . . . Finally it was over . . . and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing.
More than two years before this first test of an atomic bomb, I.I. Rabi had refused J. Robert Oppenheimer’s invitation to serve as associate director of the Manhattan Project. Still, no one questioned his place among the leading American scientists who gathered on that summer night to observe the fireball that rose above Alamogordo. Though his services to the Project as a consultant were modest, everyone involved recognized Rabi as one of the pioneers who had pushed America into the forefront of modern physics.
In this wonderfully accessible new biography, John Rigden paints an intriguing portrait of this remarkable man. Though himself a physicist, Rigden writes an engaging narrative that allows the intelligent layman to feel something of the romance and adventure of Rabi’s pioneering work. Extensive interviews permit the reader to hear Rabi in his own voice.
Trained in an outmoded classical physics at Columbia University, Rabi traveled to Europe in 1927 to learn the “new physics” he had been reading about in the professional journals. During the next two years, he worked in the world’s leading research laboratories with some of the brightest minds in Europe—Neils Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Otto Stern, and Paul Dirac. As Rabi explained it, he needed his European experience not to learn the subject of subatomic physics but to acquire “the taste for it, the style, the quality, the tradition. We [Americans] knew the libretto, but we had to learn the music.”
When he returned to take a position at Columbia University, Rabi knew “the music,” and he was able to share the melody with other inquiring minds. Together, he and a handful of other American physicists propelled the United States into the leadership of the exciting new field. Rabi’s breakthroughs in nuclear magnetic resonance during the 1930’s won him the Nobel Prize in 1944, after receiving nominations for the award from Enrico Fermi and Albert Einstein. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) not only clarified the structure of the atom, but it also opened a promising new technology for medicine, chemistry, and biology.
Despite his refusal of the position with the Manhattan Project, Rabi made a significant contribution to the American war effort during the 1940’s. He directed research on radar that helped in the fight against German U-boats, that guided night bombings, and that coordinated carrier task forces. After the war, Rabi helped to establish the Brookhaven National Laboratory, while training a new generation of physicists at Columbia. Thrust into the national limelight by his Nobel Prize, Rabi helped to shape the national awareness of the political and social significance of modern science. He served as chairman of the Scientific Committee that advised Eisenhower on appropriate responses to the Sputnik launching, advocating the 1957 reformation of the committee as the President’s Advisory Committee (PSAC) which gave the scientific community a stronger voice in the White House. Even today, 20 years after his retirement, Rabi speaks out on scientific issues affecting the nation.
Yet for all the admiration the reader feels for this accomplished man, doubts linger. In particular, the reader may wonder about how Rabi reached the conclusion as a boy that rational science made religion superfluous. “It’s all very simple,” declared a 10year-old Rabi, “who needs God?” Rabi himself admits that his youthful turn to atheism gave his Orthodox Jewish family “a lot of pain,” though he was “rather insensitive” to their feelings. In his mature years, Rabi did find a place in his thinking for Deity—but not for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Rather, Rabi worshiped the God of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. “When I discovered physics,” Rabi told Rigden, “I realized it transcended religion. It was the higher truth. . . . Physics brought me closer to God. . . . Whenever one of my students came to me with a scientific project, I asked only one question, ‘Will it bring you nearer to God?'” Absent from Rabi’s scientistic religion is any sense of human frailty or sinfulness. Missing, too, is any acknowledgment of man’s need for redemptive grace. Like Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods with a fennel stock, Rabi wants to bring the powers of heaven within human grasp. “Mankind is puny and feeble,” Rabi declares, “as long as it is ignorant. It is ignorant in so far as it is self-limited by dogma, custom, and most of all by fear, fear of the unknown.” In Rabi’s view, science gives mankind the knowledge and power for breaking these limitations.
But even Rabi expresses misgivings about the “menacing” nuclear fire he and his colleagues did finally coerce out of the atom. Morally offended by the bombing of civilians even with conventional weaponry, Rabi thinks that the destruction wrought upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “terrible.” Though he did not object to the atomic bombings at the time, Rabi now feels that he shares “part of the blame, like every other American.” To his credit, Rabi did oppose the development of the hydrogen bomb, arguing that there was a need for “some limitation on the totality of war.” But, once stolen from celestial heights. Promethean fire has a way of jumping the terrestrial fire-breaks set to keep it within bounds: The United States tested the first H-bomb in November 1952.
In another way, though, Rabi and his colleagues resemble not Prometheus so much as the tower-builders described in Genesis 11. Like Rabi, the men of Babel wanted to draw “closer to God” through the assiduous application of their craft. In the end, though, modern scientists and ancient tower-builders share a similar fate. Rabi complains that “science seems to be no longer communicable to the great majority of educated laymen” and that even physicists have grown so narrowly specialized that they can barely talk to each other. Looking back over the last 30 years, Rabi laments that “there was a sharp drop-off of interest in physics among physicists other than for their own particular specialty. They became more and more specialized. . . . I felt the change was deplorable.” The Orthodox rabbis Rabi left behind as a boy would not have been surprised: As the tower of modern science grows heavenward, the builders divide into babeling tribes. For all of the discoveries of Rabi and his colleagues, the new science has not displaced the wisdom of our most ancient stories.
[Rabi: Scientist and Citizen, by John S. Rigden (New York; Basic Books) $21.95]