Edward Mills Purcell

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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 (1946) of nuclear magnetic resonance in liquids and in solids. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) has become widely used to study the molecular structure of pure materials and the composition of mixtures.

Born and raised in central Illinois, Purcell received his B.S.E.E. in electrical engineering from Purdue University, followed by his M.A. and Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. 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 1945, he discovered nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) with his students Pound and Torrey. 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, affording the first views of the spiral arms of the Milky Way. This method is still one of the most important modern techniques in radio astronomy. He has also made other 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 Ramsey, he was the first to question the (now disproven) 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.

Purcell is the author of Electricity and Magnetism (1963) — Volume 2 of the Berkeley Physics Course. This text is considered by many to be the definitive introductory electricity and magnetism text and is still in use in courses at MIT, Stanford, Chicago, and UC Berkeley among other schools.

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