Biography:Edward Mills Purcell

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Short description: Nobel prize winning American physicist
Edward Mills Purcell
Edward Mills Purcell.jpg
Purcell in 1952
Born(1912-08-30)August 30, 1912
Taylorville, Illinois, United States
DiedMarch 7, 1997(1997-03-07) (aged 84)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Alma materPurdue University (BSEE)
Harvard University (M.A.)
Harvard University (Ph.D)
Known forNuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy
21 cm line
Scallop theorem
Purcell effect
Smith–Purcell effect
AwardsNobel Prize for Physics (1952)
Oersted Medal (1967)
National Medal of Science (1979)
Max Delbruck Prize (1984)
Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize (1988)
Scientific career
InstitutionsHarvard University
ThesisThe Focusing of Charged Particles by a Spherical Condenser (1938)
Doctoral advisorKenneth Bainbridge
Other academic advisorsJohn Van Vleck
Doctoral students
Other notable students
Horn antenna used by Harold I. Ewen and Edward M. Purcell at the Lyman Laboratory of Physics at Harvard University in 1951 for the first detection of radio radiation from nuclear atomic hydrogen gas in the Milky Way at a wavelength of 21 cm. Now at National Radio Astronomy Observatory.[1]

Edward Mills Purcell (August 30, 1912 – March 7, 1997) was an American physicist who shared the 1952 Nobel Prize for Physics for his independent discovery (published 1946) of nuclear magnetic resonance in liquids and in solids.[2] Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) has become widely used to study the molecular structure of pure materials and the composition of mixtures. Friends and colleagues knew him as Ed Purcell.


Born and raised in Taylorville, Illinois, Purcell received his BSEE in electrical engineering from Purdue University, followed by his M.A. and Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. He was a member of the Alpha Xi chapter of the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity while at Purdue.[3] After spending the years of World War II working at the MIT Radiation Laboratory on the development of microwave radar, Purcell returned to Harvard to do research. In December 1946, he discovered nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) with his colleagues Robert Pound and Henry Torrey.[4] NMR provides scientists with an elegant and precise way of determining chemical structure and properties of materials, and is widely used in physics and chemistry. It also is the basis of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), one of the most important medical advances of the 20th century. For his discovery of NMR, Purcell shared the 1952 Nobel Prize in physics with Felix Bloch of Stanford University.

Purcell also made contributions to astronomy as the first to detect radio emissions from neutral galactic hydrogen (the famous 21 cm line due to hyperfine splitting), affording the first views of the spiral arms of the Milky Way.[5] This observation helped launch the field of radio astronomy, and measurements of the 21 cm line are still an important technique in modern astronomy. He has also made seminal contributions to solid state physics, with studies of spin-echo relaxation, nuclear magnetic relaxation, and negative spin temperature (important in the development of the laser). With Norman F. Ramsey, he was the first to question the CP symmetry of particle physics.

Purcell was the recipient of many awards for his scientific, educational, and civic work. He served as science advisor to Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. He was president of the American Physical Society, and a member of the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1979, and the Jansky Lectureship before the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Purcell was also inducted into his Fraternity's (Phi Kappa Sigma) Hall of Fame as the first Phi Kap ever to receive a Nobel Prize.

Purcell was the author of the innovative introductory text Electricity and Magnetism.[6] The book, a Sputnik-era project funded by an NSF grant, was influential for its use of relativity in the presentation of the subject at this level. The 1965 edition, now freely available due to a condition of the federal grant, was originally published as a volume of the Berkeley Physics Course. The book is also in print as a commercial third edition, as Purcell and Morin. Purcell is also remembered by biologists for his famous lecture "Life at Low Reynolds Number",[7] in which he explained forces and effects dominating in limiting flow regimes (often at the micro scale). He also emphasized the time-reversibility of low Reynolds number flows with a principle referred to as the Scallop theorem.

Purcell died on March 7, 1997, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, aged 84.

See also


  1. "E. M. Purcell - Biography". The Nobel Prize in Physics 1952 Felix Bloch, E. M. Purcell. The Nobel Foundation. 1952. 
  2. Bleaney, B. (1999). "Edward Mills Purcell. 30 August 1912 -- 7 March 1997: Elected For.Mem.R.S. 1989". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 45: 437–447. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1999.0029. 
  3. "Famous Phi Kappa Sigma's - Famous Fraternity & Sorority Greeks - Greek 101". 
  4. Purcell, E.; Torrey, H.; Pound, R. (1946). "Resonance Absorption by Nuclear Magnetic Moments in a Solid". Physical Review 69 (1–2): 37–38. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.69.37. Bibcode1946PhRv...69...37P. 
  5. Ewen, H. I.; Purcell, E. M. (1951). "Observation of a Line in the Galactic Radio Spectrum: Radiation from Galactic Hydrogen at 1,420 Mc./sec". Nature 168 (4270): 356. doi:10.1038/168356a0. Bibcode1951Natur.168..356E. 
  6. Purcell, Edward M.; Morin, David J. (2013-01-21). Electricity and Magnetism. ISBN 9781107014022. 
  7. Purcell, E. M. (1977). "Life at low Reynolds number". American Journal of Physics 45 (1): 3–11. doi:10.1119/1.10903. Bibcode1977AmJPh..45....3P. 

External links