Harrison M. Randall

Harrison McAllister Randall (1970-1969) was an American physicist whose leadership over the years 1915-1941 brought the University of Michigan to international prominence for its research in experimental and theoretical physics.

Prior to 1910, the Michigan Physics Department had been focused on precision metrology.  Indeed Randall, who took all of his degrees at Michigan, had measured the coefficient of expansion of quartz for his own 1902 PhD thesis prior to his appointment to the Michigan faculty.  But a sabbatical year (1910-11) spent in Tübingen, Germany exposed him to the astonishing range of developments in modern physics; guided by Friedrich Paschen, Randall became expert in the methods of infrared spectroscopy and decided it was a promising area for development in Ann Arbor.

It was not long before Randall and his Michigan collaborators produced molecular spectra of unprecedented quality and detail.   At that time Walter Colby was the only resident theorist, so,with Randall’s encouragement,  Colby recruited Oskar Klein.  Although Klein returned to Europe after two years, the importance of theoretical colleagues was by then firmly established and it was arranged to have Otto Laporte, Samuel Goudsmit,  George Uhlenbeck, and David Dennison added to the physics faculty.   Also it was Colby’s insight and Randall’s enthusiasm that started the Michigan Summer Symposia in Theoretical Physics, an annual (1927-1941), multi-week gathering that provided short courses from prominent theorists (Bohr, Dirac, Fermi, Heisenberg, Pauli, …) to audiences that  sometimes exceeded 100 auditors.

Meanwhile, Randall also oversaw Michigan’s substantial growth in atomic physics and nuclear physics; in the mid 1930s he found the resources to build a cyclotron that was, for a time, the most energetic in the world.

Randall was elected to the presidency of the American Physical Society in 1937.  He remained as chairman of the Michigan physics department until his retirement in 1941 but continued for another 25 years to explore the use of infrared spectroscopy in biophysics.




Harrison M. Randall, On the Coefficient of Expansion of Quartz,  Phys Rev 20.   Pp 1-37.  (1905)  (this is a refinement of his 1902 thesis experiment)

H. M. Randall,  Infrared  Spectroscopy at Michigan,  Journal of the Optical Society of America, Vol. 44, pp 97-103  (1954)   (overview of work in Ann Arbor)

H. H. Nielsen, A Half-Century of Infrared Spectroscopy,  Journal of the Optical Society of America, Vol. 50, p. 1147  (1960)   (Ives medal encomium for Harrison M. Randall)

H. M. Randall and D. W. Smith,  Infrared  Spectroscopy in Biological Research,  Journal of the Optical Society of America, Vol. 53,   1086-1092  , (example of work done after his retirement)

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