|FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Volume 58, Number 2
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Founder of FAS and Manhattan Project Veteran dies at 89by Priscilla McMillan
Morrison grew up in Pittsburgh. Stricken by polio when he was four, he was bedridden during much of his childhood and taught himself to read. He loved building radios and hoped to become a radio engineer. But after enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh (later Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie-Mellon University), he discovered theoretical physics. He went to the University of California, Berkeley, as a graduate student in 1936, fell under the spell of Robert Oppenheimer, and became one of the acolytes who stuffed their belongings into a car each spring and followed their teacher to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
Those were Depression years and Morrison, sympathetic with unemployed farm workers in California and the Republican cause in Spain, joined the Communist Party in 1936 and remained until 1942. He later said that it was one of his Party duties to deliver evening lectures on Marx and Lenin at a seedy Loew’s movie theater in San Francisco. He received his Ph.D. in 1940 and, after a spell on the blacklist because of his left-wing activity, was hired by the University of Illinois.
He was there, in Urbana, at the end of 1942, when physicist Robert Christy invited him to join a super-secret project at Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. It was Morrison’s introduction to the Manhattan Project.
Before the war ended he had held so many key jobs in the project that he was probably the single, best-informed witness to the making of the atomic bomb. In 1943, worried that the Germans might get the bomb before we did, he wrote a letter to General Groves, military director of the project, with suggestions as to how the intelligence might find out what the Nazis were up to. He was promptly summoned to Washington, DC, driven to an OSS safe house, and shown aerial photographs of the suspected Nazi installation at Joachimstahl. Even after his transfer to Los Alamos in 1944, Groves, convinced that Morrison¹s left-wing days, like Oppenheimer’s, were behind him, kept him close by flying him back to Washington every few weeks to monitor Nazi progress. Morrison helped put together the implosion bomb tested in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, and flew to Tinian to assemble the bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. Afterwards he and Robert Serber were sent by Oppenheimer to assess the damage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Horrified by the human misery he saw there, Morrison resolved that a major war must never be fought again.
After the war, he accepted a teaching offer from Cornell University over a comparable offer from Berkeley, in part because he thought his past Party affiliation would be less of a burden at a private college than at a state university, and in part because he did not truly like the Berkeley emphasis on big-machine physics. Even at Cornell, however, he did not escape politics, nor did he try. He voted for Henry Wallace for President in 1948, made frequent speeches about the necessity of avoiding war with the Soviet Union and, on occasion, shared a platform with the black actor and singer Paul Robeson, who was known to be close to the Communist Party. After Senator Joseph McCarthy began his rise in 1950, the Cornell administration, under pressure from its trustees, urged Morrison to curtail his public activities. Morrison tried to comply, but repeatedly overstepped. The university held back from firing him but delayed promoting him to full professor until 1956, when his colleagues in the physics department refused to nominate any other candidate until Morrison had his professorship.
In 1964, he moved to MIT and in 1973 was named Institute Professor. He was a much-loved, inspiring teacher and, hoping to empower others by helping them understand science, he and his wife Phylis branched into film. They wrote and narrated “Powers of Ten” with Charles and Ray Eames and, in 1987, produced the six-part PBS series “The Ring of Truth.” Even the post-polio syndrome with which he was stricken in the 1980’s failed to slow him down and he retained his wide-open curiosity until the end. He kept his optimism, too. His last book, written with his MIT colleague Kosta Tsipis, was called “Reason Enough to Hope.”
Priscilla Johnson McMillan is an associate of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and Scientific American. Her most recent book, published in July 2005, is on the history of the Manhattan Project and the Oppenheimer hearing of 1954, “The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race."