(Roughly) Daily

“In our world of big names, curiously, our true heroes tend to be anonymous”*…

A March 1940 meeting at the University of California at Berkeley concerning the planned 184-inch cyclotron (seen on the blackboard), from left to right: Ernest O. Lawrence, Arthur H. Compton, Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, Karl T. Compton, and Alfred Lee Loomis

Now let us praise a man who should be famous…

Alfred Lee Loomis was a lawyer, a banker, a socialite, possibly one of the most influential physical scientists of the twentieth century, and can reasonably claim to have done more than any other civilian to bring a swift end to World War II. And yet, in the intervening decades, he’s faded into obscurity.

Loomis’s story is one of incredible intellect, unimaginable wealth, a breadth of ability that spanned from the abstract and theoretical across to the practical and logistical, and an unbelievable knack for knowing the right people and putting them into contact with one another. He applied these generational talents relentlessly to the hardest problems facing science throughout the first half of the twentieth century. He deserves to be far better known…


To be more specific…

Alfred Lee Loomis (November 4, 1887 – August 11, 1975) was an American attorney, investment banker, philanthropist, scientist, physicist, inventor of the LORAN Long Range Navigation System and a lifelong patron of scientific research. He established the Loomis Laboratory in Tuxedo Park, New York, and his role in the development of radar and the atomic bomb contributed to the Allied victory in World War II. He invented the Aberdeen Chronograph for measuring muzzle velocities, contributed significantly… to the development of a ground-controlled approach technology for aircraft, and participated in preliminary meetings of the Manhattan Project.

Loomis also made contributions to biological instrumentation. Working with Edmund Newton Harvey he co-invented the microscope centrifuge, and pioneered techniques for electroencephalography. In 1937, he discovered the sleep K-complex brainwave. During the Great Depression, Loomis anonymously paid the Physical Review journal’s fees for authors who could not afford them….


As Nobel Laureate Luis Alvarez noted…

… after the turn of the century, university scientists found it possible to earn a living teaching students, while doing research “on the side.” So the true amateur has almost disappeared—Alfred Loomis may well be remembered as the last of the great amateurs of science. He had distinguished careers as a lawyer, as an Army officer, and as an investment banker before he turned his full energies to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, first in the field of physics, and later as a biologist. By any measure that can be employed, he was one of the most influential physical scientists of this century. In support of that assessment, one can note: (1) his election to
this Academy when he was 53 years old, (2) his honorary degrees from prestigious universities, (3) his crucial wartime role as director of all NDRC-OSRD radar research in World War II, and (4) his exceedingly close personal relationships with many of the leaders of American science and government in the mid-twentieth century…


The financier who became a scientist and helped win World War II: Alfred Lee Loomis. For more, see Jennet Conant’s Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II. (Conant is the grandaughter of James B. Conat– in the photo above– chemist, President of Harvard, and friend/collaborator of Loomis).

* Daniel J. Boorstin


As we applaud awesome amateurs, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Edward Williams Morley; he was born on this date in 1838. A chemist who was first to precisely determine the atomic weight of oxygen, he is probably best remembered for his collaboration with the physicist Albert A. Michelson. In what we call the Michelson–Morley experiment (actually a number of experiments conducted between April and July in 1887), they attempted to detect the luminiferous aether, a supposed medium permeating space that was thought to be the carrier of light waves; their method was the very precise measurement of the speed of light (in various directions, and at different times of the year, as the Earth revolved in its orbit around the Sun). Michelson and Morley always found that the speed of light did not vary at all depending on the direction of measurement, or the position of the Earth in its orbit– the so-called “null result.”

Neither Morley nor Michelson ever considered that these null results disproved the hypothesis of the existence of “luminiferous aether.” But other scientists began to suspect that they did. Almost two decades later the results of the Michelson–Morley experiments supported Albert Einstein’s strong postulate (in 1905) that the speed of light is a constant in all inertial frames of reference as part of his Special Theory of Relativity.


%d bloggers like this: