This Day in Jewish History

1898: A Particle Physics Prodigy Is Born, Will Win Nobel

When he fell ill, I.I. Rabi was thrilled to undergo an MRI scan – a technology based on his own scientific research.

I.I. Rabi, seen head and shoulders, wearing suit and tie, and what appear to be rimless roundish glasses.
Nobel Foundation, Wikimedia Commons

July 29, 1898, is the birthdate of the American physicist and science educator I.I. Rabi. Rabi won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944, for his research into the magnetic qualities of the atomic nucleus, work that had wide-ranging applications. But his non-scientific contributions to public life were also substantial: He built the physics department at Columbia University into a world-class power, he shepherded the creation of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, outside New York, and he was a moving force in the establishment of the CERN particle physics lab in Switzerland. He was also a voice for moderation during the Cold War. 

Israel Isaac Rabi, as he was called at birth, was born in Rymanow, a town in Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire. His father, David Rabi, was a struggling tailor who, when his son was still an infant, left for the United States in search of a better economic life for his wife and son, who followed a few months later. His mother was the former Janet Teig.

Published author, in primary school

The Rabis lived initially on New York’s Lower East Side, where David worked delivering ice and then in a sweatshop, before they moved across the river to Brownsville, Brooklyn, where Israel’s parents operated a grocery.

Earlier in his education, a school official decided his first name would be Isidor, and thus it remained.

Rabi’s parents were Orthodox Jews from a Hasidic background – the family spoke Yiddish at home -- and he described them as “fundamentalists,” but they were determined that both he and his younger sister, Gertrude, would have a good general education. He was interested in science from a young age, and while still at primary school, Rabi wrote a paper about radio condensers that was published in the magazine Modern Electrics.

In Brooklyn, he discovered the New York Public Library, and he began to read voraciously. It was after reading about the Copernican model of the solar system, in which the planets revolve around the sun, that Rabi had his crisis of faith. He turned into an atheist, though he described himself to The New Yorker in 1975 as an “Orthodox Hebrew – in the sense that the church I’m not attending is that one. That’s the one I failed.”

By the time he reached 13, Rabi refused to have a synagogue bar mitzvah. Instead, his parents threw a party in his honor, at which he gave a speech about how electric lights worked.

For high school, he chose the Manual Training High School, a Brooklyn vocational school where there weren't many Jewish students, and which he heard had minimal homework.

First Jewish physicist at Columbia?

For college, Rabi was accepted to Cornell University on a scholarship, though his living stipend was so low that he lost several teeth because of poor nutrition. He started studying electrical engineering, but quickly switched to chemistry.

Rabi graduated in 1919, and returned to Cornell three years later for graduate studies in chemistry, before transferring to Columbia to study physics. He received his PhD in 1926, the same year he married Helen Newmark.

Before he began teaching at Columbia, in 1929 (he claimed he was the first Jew on the university's physics faculty), Rabi spent several key years in Europe, working with some of the world's leading physicists. The knowledge and contacts he brought back with him allowed him to play a key role in the coming decades in transforming the U.S. from a physics backwater to the world's leader in the field.

During World War II, Rabi turned down an offer to join the Manhattan Project (though he did act as an advisor on the bomb). Instead, he led a top-secret project in Cambridge, MA, to develop military radar.

Rabi's Nobel Prize was given in recognition of his research in identifying the magnetic properties of the atom, based on measuring the previously unknown spin of protons, work that had substantial practical application in science and medicine.

I.I. Rabi died of cancer, at home, on January 11, 1988, at age 89. One of his thrills toward the end of his life was to undergo a scan in a magnetic-resonance imaging machine, a diagnostic tool that would not have been possible without his scientific research.