The Story of Kansas

Kansan worked on Manhattan Project

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

One-time Kansan Norman Foster Ramsey helped change world history. During World War II, Ramsey was one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb, in Los Alamos, N.M. He later helped found the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

He also worked with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

He was born Aug. 27, 1915, in Washington, D.C.

His mother was a mathematics instructor at the University of Kansas. His father was an officer in the Army Ordnance Corps, which took the family to places around the world.

He attended schools in Topeka and Fort Leavenworth, as well as in Paris and Washington, D.C.

“With two of the moves I skipped a grade and, encouraged by my supportive parents and teachers, I graduated from high school with a high academic record at the age of 15,” Ramsey wrote in his autobiography for the Nobel Prize.

His interest in science, he wrote, was stimulated by reading an article on the quantum theory of the atom.

“But at that time I did not realize that physics could be a profession,” Ramsey wrote. “My parents assumed that I would try to follow my father’s footsteps to West Point, but I was too young to be admitted there.”

He was offered a scholarship at KU, but when his father was transferred to New York when Ramsey was just 16, he ended up attending Columbia University. He majored first in engineering, then switched to mathematics, then physics.

At Columbia, Ramsey studied under Isidor Isaac Rabi, one of the key leaders in the development of radar and the atomic bomb.

Ramsey was the first graduate student to work with Rabi, who was closely associated with Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project. Rabi received the Nobel Prize in 1944.

During the war, Ramsey’s work first revolved around the development of radar at the MIT Radiation Laboratory from 1940 to 1943. He was transferred to the Manhattan Project from 1943 to 1945.

In 1947, he accepted a position at Harvard University, where he founded a research program in molecular beam physics, particle physics, and neutronbeam physics.

Ramsey, along with Daniel Kleppner and H. Mark Goldenberg, also developed the hydrogen maser, a form of atomic clock.

His work on molecular beams earned him the 1989 Nobel Prize in physics. He shared that award with Hans Dehmelt of the University of Washington and Wolfgang Paul of Bonn University.

Ramsey’s research developed a technique that caused atoms to shift from one energy level to another.