Nobel winner, Fermilab founder, dead at 96

November 7, 2011

Download Story
(courtesy of Fermilab archives)
Norman Ramsey, considered one of the founding fathers of Fermilab, died at 96.

Norman Ramsey, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and one of the founders of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, died Friday at age 96. Over his career his discoveries helped transform concepts of time, ushering in the advent of super-accurate atomic clocks.

In the early 1960s, Ramsey was the founding president of the Universities Research Association, which ran what was then called the National Accelerator Laboratory for the U.S. government.

“Without his support and active participation, the lab would have had a hard time coming into existence,” said Ned Goldwasser, deputy director of the lab at the time of its founding.

Goldwasser, now an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Illinois, says Ramsey was a key link between the somewhat chaotic efforts to get the accelerator up and running in Batavia, and the politicians paying the bills in Washington.

"We had a number of serious technical problems as we were constituting the lab. We built big magnets in the ring that failed. There were people in Congress that said we were just a bunch of long-haired know-nothings and we couldn’t be trusted because of this gigantic mistake … Ramsey was an important person, if not the important person, to assuage the ruffled tempers of congressmen and the people at the Atomic Energy Commission.”

Fermilab archivist Adrienne Kolb says Ramsey was a steadying presence at the URA, returning to the post as president there several times over the years. “He assured Fermilab's continuity and had all the right answers to quiet any challenges,” Kolb wrote in an email.

Ramsey won the Nobel Prize in 1989, for his work on methods to measure the minute oscillations of atoms, which led to the invention of the atomic clock. That technology would literally redefine time. As of 1967, one second has been officially defined as 9,192,631,770 cycles of a cesium atom.

Ramsey also taught for four decades at Harvard and served on the Manhattan Project, the covert Allied effort to design and build a nuclear weapon.