Philip Morrison

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Philip Morrison

Template:TOCnestleft Dr. Philip Morrison (1915-2005) was one of the youngest physicists to work on the Manhattan Project, helping to assemble the first atomic bomb with his own hands; later he campaigned against the bomb, and devoted himself to finding evidence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life.

In 1938 he married Emily Kramer. In 1965, he married, secondly, Phylis Hagen Singer, with whom he had a son. She died in 2002.

Early life

Philip Morrison was born at Somerville, New Jersey, on November 7 1915. At the age of four he contracted polio, which left him partly handicapped. He attended school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before going on to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he took a Science degree; he then wrote a thesis on atomic electrodynamics at the University of California at Berkeley under J. Robert Oppenheimer, later director of the atomic energy research project at Los Alamos, New Mexico.[1]

Federation of American Scientists

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) was founded in 1945 by scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bombs.

Hans Bethe, was one of the founders of FAS.[2] Leo Szilard, Philip Morrison, Richard L. Meier and Harold Urey[3] were others.

FAS was founded from the merger of thirteen smaller groups. It started with a membership of more than 2,000 scientists and an advisory panel that included Robert Oppenheimer, Harold Urey, Harlow Shapley, Smyth, Leo Szilard and Edward U. Condon.[4]

Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace

Philip Morrison was a sponsor of the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace which ran from March 25 - 27, 1949 in New York City. It was arranged by a Communist Party USA front organization known as the National Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions. The conference was a follow-up to a similar gathering, the strongly anti-America, pro-Soviet World Congress of Intellectuals which was held in Poland, August 25 - 28, 1948.[5]

Manhattan Project

Morrison began work on the Manhattan Project in 1942, working in Chicago with Enrico Fermi to refine methods of producing plutonium for the "gadget", as it was then known. He then went to Los Alamos to help in the construction of the bomb's core. When the weapon was tested in July 1945, he traveled from the Los Alamos laboratory to the testing site in the desert in the back of a motor car with the bomb's plutonium core sitting beside him in a case. He then went to Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean, where he helped to assemble the bomb that was to be dropped on Nagasaki.

Anti nuclear campaigner

After the Japanese surrender, Morrison was one of a team of scientists sent to inspect the damage inflicted by the atomic bombs on Japan. As he flew over Hiroshima, Morrison was horrified by what he saw: "There was just one, enormous, flat, rust-red scar, and no green or grey, because there were no roofs or vegetation left. I was pretty sure then that nothing I was going to see later would give me as much of a jolt… Most of us who hadn't dropped out of this atom project during the last two or three years had developed our own private justifications for staying with it. I know I had done so."

As a result of this experience, Morrison began to campaign for the international control of atomic research. "Destruction," he wrote, "has now changed qualitatively with this new energy. War can now destroy not cities, but nations." He added: "Another war cannot be allowed." The benefits of atomic energy were, he said, "almost limitless", but they required international co-operation and civilian, not military, control.[6]

Suspected spy

Nigel West, in his book Mortal Crimes (2004), about Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project, says that Morrison was suspected of being the agent codenamed "Relay" or "Serb" by the Russians, on the basis of one of the VENONA cables, decrypted Soviet intelligence signals. A communication of 1944 included the words: "Your proposal to make RELAY group leader… is impracticable. RELAY is disabled and has an artificial leg. Frequent trips are difficult for him… He lives in the Philadelphia area." West says that "it was noted that Philip Morrison lived with his parents in Philadelphia in 1943, and wore a caliper on a leg weakened by childhood polio". (In fact, Morrison appears to have been based in Chicago during this period.) As late as the 1990s, Morrison was still under suspicion; but he was always adamant that he had never been a Soviet agent.[7]

The controversy was sparked in 1999 with the publication of a memoir by Jeremy Stone, then-president of the Federation of American Scientists. Morrison, ironically, was a co-founder of the federation and played a key role in getting Stone his position, as well as in protecting Stone from an earlier attempt to fire him.

In his memoir, Stone recalled conversations and visits with a physicist he called Scientist X, whom he eventually concluded was a Soviet nuclear spy code-named Perseus. Scientist X could easily be identified as Morrison, and many in the physics community were outraged by the accusation.

Morrison quickly sent Stone a letter detailing clear-cut discrepancies that showed that he could not have been Perseus. Stone ultimately replied, "I can only accept your denial that you are Perseus," but he never apologized for the charge.[8]


According to a 1953 Senate Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act report;[9]

Philip Morrison, who admitted Communist Party membership about 1939 and who is now a leader of the Communist-controlled American Peace Crusade, joined the Manhattan atomic project in 1942. He was a physicist and group leader in the Meteorological Laboratory in 1944. He participated in the positive intelligence program of the United States Army. Until the test of the atomic bomb, he was with the University of California Laboratory in New Mexico. He was one of a small group of experts who assembled, tested, and mounted bombs used for combat in the Pacific. Due to his position at Los Alamos, he was a member of a mission to Japan to inspect cities damaged by the atomic bomb. Professor Morrison acknowledged he had access to virtually all secrets of the atomic project.


In 1946 Morrison was appointed an associate professor at Cornell University, where he remained until 1964.

At Cornell, Morrison began to interest himself in theoretical astrophysics, and estimated that there could be several billion planets capable of sustaining advanced life forms. With a colleague, Giuseppe Cocconi, he attempted to locate radio signals from extraterrestrial beings, and he wrote extensively on the subject in scientific journals and popular magazines. In 1976 Nasa asked him to chair a group of scientists dedicated to locating messages from outer space.[10]

Defending Trachtenberg

In 1955, citing scholastic freedom, Morrison had taken up the cause of Alexander Trachtenberg, indicted for publishing works such as Toward a Soviet America. Called before the Senate's internal security sub-committee, Morrison denied that he was a Communist, although he admitted that he had been involved with the Communist Party USA, as late as 1942; he insisted that his superiors on the Manhattan Project had been aware of this.[11]

National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee

As of May 1964, Philip Morrison Physics, Cornell University, was listed as a sponsor of the Communist Party USA front, National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee.


In 1964 Morrison joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and nine years later he became MIT's Professor of Physics. Among the phenomena he investigated were quasars, black holes and supernovae. Having concluded that supernovae probably created elements including lead, uranium, deuterium and gold, he remarked: "Between bullets and printers' type, gold and nuclear weapons, all our troubles seem to come from supernovae."


Morrison was a gifted lecturer who also campaigned hard for the teaching of science in schools. Among his publications were Elementary Nuclear Theory (with Hans Bethe, 1956), and The Price of Defense: A New Strategy for Military Spending (1979), in which he and others argued for a 42 per cent cut in American defense spending and a shift to missile-carrying submarines as the principal deterrent. In 1961 he co-edited Charles Babbage and His Calculating Engines.[12]



  1. Telegraph, April 27, 2005
  4. Crucibles: the story of chemistry from ancient alchemy to nuclear fission By Bernard Jaffe, page 312
  5. Review of the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace by the Committee on Un-American Activities, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., April 19, 1949
  6. Telegraph, April 27, 2005
  7. Telegraph, April 27, 2005
  9. [1] "Interlocking subversion in government departments" July 30, 1953, page 36
  10. Telegraph, April 27, 2005
  11. Telegraph, April 27, 2005
  12. Telegraph, April 27, 2005