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Erwin L. Hahn
In Memoriam

Erwin L. Hahn

Professor of Physics, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

Erwin Louis Hahn was one of the most innovative and influential physical scientists in recent history. He worked in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), optics, and the intersection between these two fields. Starting with his discovery of the spin echo, a phenomenon of monumental significance and practical importance, Hahn launched a revolution in how we think about the physics of spins, with numerous implications for many other areas of science. Students of NMR and coherent optics quickly discover that many of the key concepts and techniques in these fields derive directly from his work.

Erwin Hahn was born on June 9, 1921, in Farrell (near Sharon), Pennsylvania. His mother Mary Weiss, daughter of a rabbi in Vrbas (originally in Austria-Hungary, now in Serbia), was sent by her family to the United States to marry the son of family acquaintances, Israel Hahn, whom she had never met. The marriage produced six boys and one girl; Erwin was the youngest. The family home was in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, and Israel Hahn operated several dry cleaning stores in the area. Neither the business nor the marriage proved to be a success. Israel’s presence at home was erratic. He made bad business decisions and was prone to religious fanaticism that created tensions. Eventually, Israel abandoned the family, leaving Mary to parent Erwin and his siblings as well as run the one remaining dry cleaning shop. His oldest brother Simon went to work for a relative to help support the family. It was also Simon who bought a chemistry set for Erwin, who  recalled distilling, then spilling, urine on the windowsill to the despair of his mother. Economic necessity meant that only Erwin and his  older brother Philip were able to go to college, both on scholarships (Philip became a professor of economics).

Hahn received his B.Sc. in chemistry in 1943 from Juniata College (PA) and afterwards, impressed by the fundamental concepts of physics, completed a year of graduate studies in physics at Purdue University (IN). His studies were interrupted by wartime service in the U.S. Navy, where he was a radar and sonar instructor. He continued his studies in physics at the University of Illinois, earning his M.Sc. in 1947 and his D.Sc. in 1949.

Hahn had several possibilities for a career, among them the Navy, music (he was an enthusiastic and gifted violinist), as well as acting and comedy. In the Navy he was frequently on stage as an entertainer and was asked if he would go professional. His brother Milton was also a professional actor for some years. However, Hahn turned towards science.

He was a research associate at Illinois, then a National Research Council fellow at Stanford University in California, where he worked with Felix Bloch, and then as a research physicist at IBM Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory. In 1955 he came to the University of California, Berkeley, where he joined the physics faculty, and where he remained until his death on September 20, 2016, at the age of 95. Hahn was married twice, to Marian Ethel Failing in 1944 and, after her death in 1978, to Natalie Woodford Hodgson in 1980. He  is survived by his wife, three children, two stepchildren, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Hahn was sometimes referred to as “the Wizard of Magnetic Resonance”. He made a number of seminal contributions. He introduced the  nuclear free-induction decay (FID) which was reported in a short Physical Review paper that was published in 1950, just slightly ahead of Hahn’s more famous paper on spin echoes. In FID, polarized nuclei are subject to a pulse of a driving magnetic field but are then allowed to evolve “freely,” while their magnetization is monitored. While Hahn downplayed the significance of this work as “obvious,” it has in fact become the basis of pulsed NMR, the dominant modern approach in NMR.

Hahn was happy to tell the story of his “accidental” discovery of spin echo, the most famous of his achievements. He was a postdoctoral fellow when he discovered spin echoes, though he emphasized that at that time he was given freedom to work more like an independent research scientist. While studying nuclear spin coherence relaxation, he applied not one but two driving pulses separated by a time interval. What he saw (and what he at first thought to be a “glitch”) was that, in addition to decaying FID signals following each of the two separate pulses, there was a third “ghost” signal appearing at a time following the second pulse equal to the time separation between the two pulses. This was puzzling because it was not clear where the signal came from; the echo occurred long after the FID following each of the pulses died out due to dephasing, then thought of as an irreversible process in the thermodynamic sense. Eventually, Hahn recognized that the “echo” signal was due to “refocusing” of the precession of different nuclei in the sample occurring at slightly different frequencies due to magnetic-field inhomogeneities and that the system’s order was “hidden” but not gone. The second pulse, in effect, creates a kind of time reversal, where the relative phases accumulated by the spins during the evolution between the pulses are undone during the evolution after the second pulse. Today, spin echo and its countless generalizations, for instance to sequences of not two but up to thousands of pulses, constitute the basis of essentially all magnetic resonance applications, including the familiar medical-diagnostic magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Indirect dipole-dipole (scalar or J-) coupling between nuclear spins in a single molecule was independently discovered by two teams: Hahn and D. E. Maxwell, and H. S. Gutowsky, D. W. McCall, and C. P. Slichter. While the usual interaction between two magnetic dipoles (magnetic nuclei) averages to zero when the molecule in a liquid or a gas rapidly tumbles, altering the relative positions of the nuclei, the two teams discovered that a part of the dipole-dipole interaction survives the tumbling. In modern language, the origin of the effect is second-order hyperfine interaction involving molecular electrons. These scalar couplings went on to become part of the “molecular fingerprint” widely used in NMR spectroscopy. Moreover, the growing subfield of zero- and ultralow-field (ZULF) NMR spectroscopy (in which both authors of this memoir currently work and to which Hahn was one of the early contributors) is entirely based on indirect couplings.

While Hahn did not discover nuclear quadrupole resonance (NQR), a kind of magnetic resonance that occurs for nuclei with spin >1/2 that comes about due to the interaction of these nuclei with electric-field gradients in solids, he literally “wrote the book” on the subject. Recent applications of NQR include, apart from chemical analysis, detection of toxic and explosive substances. An important property of NQR is that it does not require application of a strong magnetic field. Later work with A. Pines, J. Clarke, and A. Trabesinger led to the development of a more general ZULF NMR technique that similarly does not require any strong fields and is colloquially known as “NMR without magnets.” Together with D. E. Kaplan, Hahn introduced spin-echo double resonance (SEDOR) techniques, which are widely used to study interactions between dissimilar nuclei and, for instance, to measure the lengths of chemical bonds. SEDOR was one of the first “2D NMR” methods in that it studied the spin-system evolution as a function of two different time-delay intervals in an experimental sequence. SEDOR was a precursor of the powerful multi-dimensional NMR methods used in protein-structure analysis today.

Hahn pioneered the study of nuclear spin noise and elucidated the physics of radiation damping in a spin system coupled to a resonator or a microwave cavity. Together with S. R. Hartmann, Hahn devised an ingenious technique involving matching of radio-frequency fields to couple an abundant and a rare nuclear species allowing detection of the rare spins. It later evolved into development of methods for cross-polarization: the transfer of nuclear order from one kind of nuclei to another, greatly expanding the analytical capabilities of NMR. The Hartmann-Hahn results showed that the energy-conservation concept can be extended to the “rotating frame.”

Hahn and S. L. McCall’s major discovery in the field of optics was the phenomenon of self-induced transparency whereby a pulse of light propagates without loss in an absorptive medium (which is due to reversible exchange of energy between the light and the medium). This is closely related to the physics of solitary waves (solitons), which were first observed and studied in optics by Hahn and coworkers. An additional contribution in optics includes a complete theory of  coherent two-photon optical processes, a precursor to an active field of research in subsequent decades. This is another beautiful example of how he transferred ideas about coherent transient phenomena in NMR to the field of optics.

As a pioneer in both NMR and optics, Hahn wrote and spoke extensively on the deep  connection between NMR and quantum optics, offering useful insights to both disciplines.

A partial list of E. L. Hahn’s awards and honors that recognize these contributions include:

  • Guggenheim Fellowships (1961 and 1969)
  • Buckley Prize in Solid State Physics, American Physical Society (1971)
  • Prize of the International Society of Magnetic Resonance (1971)
  • Alexander von Humboldt Award (1976)
  • Berkeley Faculty Research Lecturer (1979)
  • Wolf Foundation Prize in Physics (1983)
  • California Inventors Hall of Fame (1984)
  • S. Department of Energy Award for Sustained Research in DC Squid NMR (1986)
  • Berkeley Citation, University of California, Berkeley (1991)
  • S. National Academy of Sciences Comstock Prize for discoveries in electricity, magnetism or radiation (1993)
  • Honorary Doctor of Science, University of Stuttgart , Germany (2001)
  • Russell Varian Prize (2004)
  • Honorary Doctorate, Oxford University (2009)
  • Gold Medal of the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (2016).

Beyond his famous published works, Hahn was a brilliant, provocative, and entertaining lecturer, raconteur and teacher.

Hahn had a remarkable and legendary sense of humor which drew on all levels of decorum, and he was always glad to share “Hahn stories, anecdotes, and witty remarks” with colleagues and friends. In Hahn’s case, the sense of humor was accompanied by sensitivity and  tact.

With his unique combination of exceptional innovation and physical intuition, plus a strong, jovial charisma and sense of humor, E. L. Hahn was a seminal contributor to condensed matter physics and nonlinear optics. He will be missed, but his personality will be remembered by those who knew him and his contributions will continue to impact all of us.

Dmitry Budker
Alexander Pines


Authors' note: This is a short version of a biographical memoir that was first published by the National Academy of Sciences and reprinted by the Royal Society of London. Some of the material is adapted with permission from the International EPR(ESR) Society from EPR Newsletter 21(2), 6-8 (2011) ( We are indebted to Prof. J.-C. Diels for some of the original material, to the members of Prof. Hahn’s family, and in particular to Katherine Hahn Halbheer and Elizabeth Hodgson, for their invaluable help, and to Prof. L. Wald for sharing his memories of Prof. Hahn and for his important critical suggestions.