Photographer's Note


In the picture galleries of TE we often see penetrating portraits of people from around the world — normal, average, good people representing all walks of life, and once in a while a defining portrait, such as the one by Sabyasachi Talukdar . Most of us contribute incrementally to society, clearly some people more than others. Certainly the vast majority of us are quite average. And as of January 1, 2007 there was an estimated world population of 6.7 billion (or more precisely 6,685,072,397). World Population.

As an unusual post on TE, I am submitting a photo of someone quite extraordinary, a true genius who has contributed immensely to technology and to civilization. Professor Norman Ramsey , born on August 27, 1915 (that makes him 91 years and five months at the time of this posting) is one of the most significant scientists of our times. He was born in Washington, DC, which makes him arguably the smartest man to be born in this city. The son of a military officer who rose to the rank of colonel, Ramsey graduated from high school at the age of 15 in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas — a town known to many Americans as the site, not of a great academic institution, but an infamous Federal Prison. He attended Columbia University and earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, then Cambridge University in England, back to Columbia, where he wrote the first Ph.D. thesis in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), which about 45 years later became the basis of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology that has been a revolutionary medical imaging tool. During the early 70s he was a visiting professor at Oxford University. He served on the faculty of Harvard University for forty years, retiring officially in 1986. But during his time at Harvard, he invented the atomic clock that has revolutionized timekeeping, and made GPS possible. For this discovery he was awarded the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physics.

I took a series of informal candid photographs of him over breakfast while staying at his home on March 8-9, 2006. (I had given a talk at Harvard on March 8, and the Dr. and Mrs. Ramsey, who had attended the talk, made me their houseguest.) On the wall behind Professor Ramsey hangs a Black & White photograph of the King of Sweden, bestowing the Nobel Prize on him, and just below, the official certificate of the prize. What is quite astonishing is that this scientific giant is as modest and gracious, as he is brilliant. He is still as vibrant, although a bit less productive than he was in his heyday. His PhD advisor (I.I. Rabi) was a Nobel Prize winner; and the advisee (William Phillips) of one of his own advisees, won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics.

From the technical point of view, this portrait is a simple shot, using a flash, which, of course, highlights Dr. Ramseys’ silver hair, and brings out the colors of his clothes. In shooting the picture, and again in cropping it, I focused on his right eye. I wrote about this phenomenon in my book ‘Math and the Mona Lisa.’ It was discovered in 1998 by Dr. Christopher Tyler, British-born psychologist working in San Francisco, that in most great portraits the vertical bisector passes through (or very near) an eye. This is true in all three of Leonardo’s miraculous portraits of women, it is true in countless Rembrandt portraits, and even true in some Picasso pictures, including the Portrait of Dora Maar (although, if Picasso knew about this principle in advance, he might have put the eye in the lower right corner of the portrait). Finally, I made the presentation mat in Photoshop, picking up the deep red/cardinal from Dr. Ramsey’s shirt. I would normally have placed his head a little higher in the frame, but I wanted to include the framed documents on the wall.

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Additional Photos by Bulent Atalay (batalay) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 6518 W: 476 N: 11453] (38901)
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