Apr 8

Dale Dougherty

Dale Dougherty

A Life in Science: Paul Lauterbur

Paul Lauterbur, the father of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology, died in March. MRI machines are widely used to examine physical tissue in the brain and other parts of the body. The Economist has a well-written obituary of Lauterbur that begins:

The whole history of modern science, Paul Lauterbur once joked, might be written on the basis of papers turned down by academic journals.

Lauterbur's first paper on nuclear magnetic resonance, which he submitted to Nature in 1971, was rejected because his images, taken with an early version of the device, were considered "fuzzy." It shouldn't have mattered that the images were fuzzy but that they showed something that was not made visible before.

Lauterbur's story resonates with the kind of hands-on discovery we write about in Make. Growing up in Ohio, Lauterbur "built his own lab in the basement of the house" and "his greatest joy...was to be left alone to experiment or explore the world." He had a chemistry teacher who allowed him "to lark around with apparatus, just within the limit of danger and expulsion, at the back of the class."

The Economist's obituary also recounts the time and place of his great inspiration:

"His core discovery, of how to get spatial information about atoms in a magnetic field, was scribbled on a paper napkin over dinner in a Big Boy restaurant in Pittsburgh, between two bites of a hamburger."

Lauterbur won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2003 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame class of 2007.

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Comments: 1

  Tim O'Reilly [04.08.07 10:18 AM]

Lovely post, Dale. It's great to be reminded how what we think of as the "hacker ethic" or "maker ethic" has such deep roots, and people on whose shoulders we stand were once just winging it themselves.

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