Rabi—Scientist and Citizen

Title:                      Rabi—Scientist and Citizen

Author:                  John S. Rigden

Rigden, John S.(2000). Rabi: Scientist and Citizen. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press

LOC:       00031919

QC16.R2 R54 2000

Date Posted:      October 31, 2013

Isador Rabi is one of a handful of truly outstanding physicists of the 20th century, but being in physics, he is essentially unknown among the general public. It is well that John Rigden wrote this fascinating book about Rabi’s contributions as a physicist.

As a young man, Rabi studied in Europe and was involved in the development of quantum theory, and he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1944 for research conducted after his return to the United States. During World War II he was part of the Radiation Laboratory at MIT that developed radar, and he was a frequent consultant to the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, NM. After the war, he was one of the many physicists who tried to prevent the development of the arms race but whose pleas were ignored.

Along the way, Rabi was involved with the greats of physics (Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, J. Robert Oppenheimer, et al). In the postwar era, he was consulted by the country’s political leaders, notably Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom he first met when Eisenhower was president of Columbia University, Rabi’s home base for more than half a century.

All of this makes for an interesting story, ably told by John S. Rigden, a physicist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Rigden was not making an effort to get inside Rabi, the man. The names and dates and explanations of the science are right, but the totality does not add up to a whole person. That was not Rigden’s intention.

A highly successful chapter in the book is the one on Rabi and Oppenheimer, who was Rabi’s good friend though they were very different. This chapter provides a portrait of Oppenheimer, an extremely complex and fascinating man who, Rigden argues, was the cause of his own downfall. It is also the part of the book where Rigden explores Rabi’s personality, which he does by comparison with Oppenheimer’s.

“Rabi and Oppenheimer: many parallels, basic differences,” Rigden writes. “Both men deeply concerned with the events of their day; both men eager to do good for the sake of the future. Rabi, the wise; Oppenheimer, the more brilliant. Rabi the effective operator behind the scenes; Oppenheimer, the eloquent spokesman.

“Of all their similarities and of all their differences, it is perhaps the sense of identity, to themselves and to others, that separates the two men most decisively. If Rabi and Oppenheimer, like Humpty-Dumpty, each fell from a wall and shattered into many pieces, the King’s men would never be able to restore the splintered brilliance of the original Oppenheimer. For Rabi, the king’s men would have it easy: the pieces fit together in only one way.”

The story of the development of quantum theory is a tremendously important event in the history of science, and, while that story has been told many times, it doesn’t hurt to tell it once again from the perspective of yet another participant. In fact, it is best done that way. We would like to know more about who Rabi was; I would like even more to understand his scientific thinking.

The story of the efforts—and failure—of scientists to persuade political leaders to contain atomic weapons after WWII is one of the saddest and most frustrating episodes of 20th Century science. Rabi was in the forefront of these efforts, particularly through his membership on and eventual chairmanship of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, which urged President Harry S. Truman not to go ahead with the H-bomb.

Rigden and Rabi blame Truman for not getting sufficient scientific advice and for not understanding the issues that were before him when he approved the H-bomb project. “He simply did not understand what it was about,” Rigden quotes Rabi as saying.