Preposterous Universe

Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Melba Phillips

This is a couple of weeks late, but still worth noting. Physicist and educator Melba Phillips passed away on November 8th at the age of 97. (Obituaries at the New York Times and Washington Post.) I didn't know anything about her personally, so everything here is stolen from the press release.

Phillips had a remarkable career. She started on a fast track, as one of J. Robert Oppenheimer's first graduate students, receiving her Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1935. The Oppenheimer-Phillips effect helped to understand the interactions of deuterons with other nuclei. But jobs were scarce during the Depression, and being female didn't make it any easier. She finally landed a faculty position at Brooklyn College in 1938. She had a strong social conscience and was politically active, helping to found the Federation of American Scientists in 1945. Her activities got her in trouble in the McCarthy era, and she ended up being fired in 1952 after refusing to testify before a U.S. Senate committee investigating alleged communist activities. Much like the Pope and Galileo, Brooklyn College eventually apologized somewhat late, in 1987; they held a symposium in her honor in 1997.

Unemployed, Phillips turned her attention to physics education; her book with Panofsky is till a standard text in undergraduate electromagnetism. From 1966 to 1967 she served as president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, which later created the Melba Newell Phillips Award in her honor.

She joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1962, recruited by her former student Stuart Rice. Among other accomplishments, she was responsible for the first physics course taught here to non-scientists. She retired in 1972, but remained active, serving as a visiting professor at several universities. A rich and admirable life.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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