Photo of Richard B. Bernstein

Richard B. Bernstein

  • National Medal of Science
  • Chemistry

For his development and use of the technique of molecular beams, which have played a significant role in shaping the field of modern chemical dynamics.

Richard Barry Bernstein changed the face of chemistry in a millionth of a billionth of a second. In the 1950s, Bernstein pioneered a new branch of chemistry called “femtochemistry,” which involves the study of chemical reactions in a millionth of a billionth of a second — a femtosecond. The scientist and his team designed an apparatus used to observe these chemical reactions, which made the field possible.

Before making his mark in the world of chemistry, Bernstein worked in the Manhattan Project, a top-secret government initiative that produced an atomic bomb during World War II.

Bernstein and a group of of scientists traveled to several islands in the Bikini atoll in 1946 to conduct experiments before the first bomb was tested.

When the group’s boat wouldn’t start at the end of the day, the researchers wrote out “SOS” on the beach with cut-up pieces of their underwear in a failed attempt to be rescued. Finally, they used the instruments they were testing to transmit false radiation levels to get the rest of their crew’s attention.

By Rachel Warren