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Right-on-time Physicist

Norman Ramsey

An atomic physicist, Ramsey studied matter and energy at an atomic level. He learned he could precisely control the flow of atoms through a magnetic field. He called it “the separated oscillatory fields method”. Everyone else in the field calls it the “Ramsey Method”. So what? So this: the Method is what enables MRIs — Magnetic Resonance Imaging medical scanners — to work. In addition, the Ramsey Method made it possible to build the most accurate timepiece ever created: “atomic” clocks, which are so accurate that current versions are not expected to gain or lose even one second over 138 million years. “I didn’t even know there was a problem about clocks initially,” Ramsey said in 1995. But atomic clocks aren’t just a curiosity: they enable technologies such as the Global Positioning System to be accurate. And he spent 39 years teaching physics at Harvard, passing on his knowledge. “If you made a list of the most outstanding physicists of the 20th century, he’d be among the leaders,” said Leon M. Lederman, emeritus director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory — which Ramsey co-founded. Dr. Ramsey was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1989 for his Method. He died in Massachusetts on November 4. He was 96.

From This is True for 6 November 2011


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