Isidor Isaac Rabi and the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance

Atomic physicists Ernest O. Lawrence (left), Enrico Fermi (center), and Isidor Rabi

Atomic physicists Ernest O. Lawrence (left), Enrico Fermi (center), and Isidor Rabi

On July 29, 1898, Polish-born American physicist and Nobel laureate Isidor Isaac Rabi was born. He is best known for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance, which is used in magnetic resonance imaging. He was also involved in the development of the cavity magnetron, which is used in microwave radar and microwave ovens.

Isidor Isaac Rabi moved to the United States in 1899 and received his education in New York City. Rabi received his Bachelor of Chemistry at Cornell University and began his studies in physics in 1921. In 1927, Rabi received his Ph.D. degree for work on the magnetic properties of crystals and traveled across Europe working with Sommerfeld, Bohr, Pauli, Stern, and Heisenberg. Rabi became lecturer in Theoretical Physics at Columbia University. Even though he was recommended for the position by Heisenberg, Rabi was not remembered as an enthusiastic teacher and his students remembered him as “the worst teachers I ever had” (Irving Kaplan) or “simply an awful lecturer” (William Nierenberg). However, Rabi’s reputation as a scientist was great and he had already much influence and convinced many of his students to pursue a career in physics.

Considering his research, Rabi returned to particle beam experiments and developed the Breit-Rabi equation. Rabi also made the prediction that the Stern–Gerlach experiment could be modified to confirm the properties of the atomic nucleus. Among with Victor W. Cohen, Rabi built a molecular beam apparatus at Columbia to employ a weak magnetic field with which they hoped to detect the nuclear spin of sodium. It was previously predicted that if the nuclear spin were I, the magnetic field would split the beam into (2I + 1) beamlets. The experiment revealed four beamlets indicating that the nuclear spin of sodium was 3⁄2. As Rabi’s research became more and more famous, several researchers helped to create the Molecular Beam Laboratory. There, many started their careers as physicists, however, only male physicists. Rabi himself never had a woman as a doctoral or postdoctoral student and it is believed that in his opinion, women could not be physicists. In 1937, the scientists Rabi, Kusch, Millman and Zacharias used an oscillating field to measure the magnetic moment of several lithium isotopes with molecular beams, including LiCl, LiF and dilithium. In the end, the team discovered that the shape of the deuteron was not symmetric. This information provided valuable insights into the nature of the nuclear force binding nucleons. For the creation of the molecular-beam magnetic-resonance detection method, Rabi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944.

During his academic career, Isidor Isaac Rabi published his most important papers in The Physical Review, of which he was an Associate Editor for two periods. He received the Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and, the Elliott Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute. He was awarded the Medal for Merit, the King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom and is an Officer of the Legion of Honour.

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