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Edward M. Purcell

Edward M. Purcell, author of the Electricity and Magnetism textbook for Physics II (8.022), died on March 7 in Cambridge. He was 84.

Purcell, a Nobel laureate in physics, once worked for the MIT's Radiation Laboratory at the time radar was being perfected. The Radiation Laboratory eventually became the Research Lab of Electronics.

During most of his life, from 1936 to 1977, Purcell was associated with Harvard University, where he taught. In 1952, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering how to detect the extremely weak magnetism of the atomic nucleus by measuring nuclear magnetic resonance.

Purcell also made the first recorded detection of radio emissions from hydrogen clouds in space. Purcell had measured the emissions' wavelengths at 21 centimeters, exactly the prediction made earlier by scientists. The measurement became a widely-used astronomical tool in radio astronomy for signal detection, since hydrogen is the most common element in the universe.

The achievement engendered public discussion about the possibility of picking up signals in outer space intended for Earth. It also led to discussion about interstellar travel, a possibility he dismissed.

"All of this stuff about traveling around the universe in space suits - except for local exploration, which I have not discussed - belongs back where it came from, on the cereal box," Purcell said.

One of Purcell's major non-academic pursuits included serving as science adviser to three successive presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Purcell served as president of the American Physical Society and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. In 1979, Purcell won the National Medal of Science.

Purcell was born in Taylorville, Ill. in 1912. He attended Purdue University and graduated in 1933. Purcell obtained his doctorate in physics at Harvard, where he remained and became a full professor in 1949.

Purcell is survived by his wife Beth, two sons, and a brother.