[time-nuts] In Memoriam: Robert V Pound
jfor at quik.com
Mon Jul 5 13:07:47 EDT 2010
April 19, 2010
Robert Pound, Physicist Whose Work Advanced Medicine, Is Dead at 90 By
Robert Pound, a Harvard physicist whose experiments provided the first
laboratory confirmation of Einstein's general theory of relativity and
helped pave the way for the age of magnetic resonance imaging, died on
April 12 in Belmont, Mass. He was 90.
The death, at a nursing home, was confirmed by his son, John. Although he
never earned a doctorate, Professor Pound was known as a brilliant
hands-on physicist who built his own apparatus. In a career that spanned
more than 60 years at Harvard, Professor Pound conceived and built devices
that helped him probe the workings of the atom, leading to advances in
technology and medicine.
"He was an excellent theorist, but his role was as a designer and
builder," said Peter Galison, a Harvard professor of physics and the
history of science. "He invented everything himself. It was Pound who made
the thing work."
His best-known contribution came in 1959, when, with his student Glen
Rebka, he showed that gravity can change the frequency of light. The
effect, which had gone unmeasured after decades of astronomical
observations, had been predicted by Einstein's theory of general
relativity, which explains how gravity can warp space and time.
"Other people thought you'd have to do the experiment on top of a
mountain, but Bob recognized that we could do this in the building," said
Dr. Rebka, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Wyoming.
By rigging an abandoned indoor tower to capture infinitesimal changes in
the wavelength of rays emitted by radioactive iron, Professor Pound and
Dr. Rebka measured the effect of gravity on light. The principle has since
been used to calibrate atomic clocks in global positioning satellites.
"We had carpenters cut holes in the floor, from the penthouse to the
sub-basement, with cables dropping over to the lab next door," Dr. Rebka
Professor Pound was a member of the Harvard team that discovered nuclear
magnetic resonance, by which atomic nuclei can be coaxed into absorbing
and emitting energy at specific frequencies, leading to a new era of
three-dimensional medical imaging.
Although nuclear resonance had been observed among sparse atoms in a
vacuum in 1938, it was the Harvard group, which also included E. M.
Purcell and H. C. Torrey, that first observed it in ordinary solids and
"The Pound box was a devilishly clever way of measuring that subtle
absorption of radio waves," said Paul Horowitz, a professor of physics and
of electrical engineering at Harvard, and a former student of Professor
Pound. "His electronics expertise made that experiment possible."
Since it was recognized with a Nobel Prize in 1952 (which Professor
Pound's collaborator Edward Purcell shared with Felix Bloch of Stanford
University), nuclear magnetic resonance has become a standard technique
for revealing the structure of molecules.
In the 1970s it led to the birth of magnetic resonance imaging, which
revolutionized medical diagnosis by allowing doctors to take
high-resolution images of the interior of the human body.
Nuclear resonance has since been used for purposes from oil exploration to
Professor Pound's mechanical zeal extended beyond the laboratory. As a
young man he installed a telegraph key in his blue Ford coupe that allowed
him to tap out Morse code messages on the horn. He later owned a
Around the Harvard campus he cut an elegant figure, sporting a trim
mustache and longish hair. And though he was known as soft-spoken and
unpretentious, he could be assertive in his opinions. In the 1970s he
opposed Harvard's core curriculum, arguing that the university should
trust talented students to choose their own courses. In 1980, at a time of
fear about the health effects of radiation, he proposed that the nation
save energy by building rooms that could heat human bodies directly using
Robert Vivian Pound was born in Ridgeway, Ontario, on May 16, 1919, the
son of a mathematician. On graduating from the University of Buffalo in
1941, he married and moved to Boston to take a wartime job designing radar
and sonar devices.
As the war continued, he was hired by the M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory,
where, working to develop radar systems for the Allied forces, he helped
to lay the groundwork for postwar advances in nuclear imaging techniques.
Professor Pound earned a fellowship at Harvard in 1945 and stayed there
the rest of his career. After his groundbreaking work in the 1950s, he
became Mallinckrodt professor of physics in 1968, and served as head of
the physics department and laboratories at Harvard in the ensuing decade.
A loyal mentor, Professor Pound nurtured a crop of hands-on physicists who
have since done pioneering work in medical imaging, printing technology
and the search for extraterrestrial life - as well as nuclear physics.
"He didn't strike you immediately as being brilliant," said David
Griesinger, a student of Professor Pound who went on to work as an
acoustical engineer. "The way he thought was slower and deeper."
Over the years Professor Pound received many honors for his work,
including the National Medal of Science and the Eddington Medal of the
Royal Astronomical Society.
In addition to his son, John, of San Rafael, Calif., he is survived by his
wife, Betty, of Belmont, Mass., and two grandchildren.
Professor Pound was a tinkerer at heart. He owned a series of elegant
British sedans, which he would lovingly maintain in his spare time. One
student recalls finding him in the machine shop, turning a piece of metal
on the lathe in his bow tie and tweeds.
Others recall that when confronted with a mechanical problem in a
laboratory setting, he often gave the same advice as he would in the
garage: "Did you try whacking it?"
This is a very accurate description of Bob Pound. I met him a number of
times over the years. A REAL loss!
BTW, he wrote the Rad Lab volume on Mixers.
It's sad his death has gone largely unnoticed. I only came across it by
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