Obituary for Martin Perl

A personal memoir focused on Martin as an activist in the early days of the formation of the Forum on Physics and Society

Brian Schwartz

Marty Perl montage display image

The picture in the lower left shows Marty Perl, Richard Lapidus (Stevens Institute of Technology), and David Wolfe (University of New Mexico) at the Penn State Conference on tradition and Change. The photo is part of a display developed for the 1999 APS Centennial celebration and appears under the title Consciousness Raising.

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Martin Perl, a friend of mine, a first-rate scientist, an espouser of science policy and an activist in science education, died on September 30, 2014 at the age of 87. Physicists know Martin as a great scientist as evidenced by his being awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the tau lepton. Less well known are his many contributions to science policy and education. This obituary will focus on the late 60’s and early seventies when US science and physics found itself under great scrutiny and pressure for change by some of its practitioners.

I believe I first met Marty at an annual meeting in New York of the American Physical Society which took place in late January 1969. In those days a general annual meeting was held in New York City every January in which physicists from all disciplines participated. The meeting took place primarily at the New York Hilton and consisted almost entirely of physics research. The world outside the discipline of physics and what was going on in society at large had not played a role at the meetings of the professional societies. The “revolutions” of the 60s in terms of free speech, the women’s movement, civil rights and equality issues, and the public’s dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam had not significantly impacted the APS meetings or the APS governance. Unlike the student protests at Berkeley and Columbia, protests specifically related to science had not yet made national news or produced changes in the operations of professional societies. It soon became clear that the science education enterprise and the science professional societies could no longer remain indifferent to the consequences of science research on the society and the careers of scientists.

In my opinion two major societal events were responsible for some early stirrings of activism in science. The first was the deleterious effects on American society by the war in Vietnam. The warning by President Eisenhower of the military-industrial complex and the role that science played in that complex became more apparent. The second was the rapid leveling off of generous science funding evidenced in the post-Sputnik decade. This was due to the pressure on the budget caused by the Vietnam War, further exacerbated by the Senator Mansfield amendment requiring that funding by any US military agency be shown relevant to their military mission. This sharp unplanned curtailment of the growth in science funding had a severe detrimental effect on employment, particularly to the new and upcoming science Ph.D.s who had entered graduate school during the earlier period of plenty.

In 1968, Charles Schwartz, a physics faculty member at Berkeley, and a friend of Perl, petitioned the APS to amend the constitution to allow one percent of members to call for a vote on any social or scientific issue. The Council opposed this amendment. Charlie had previously extended the scope of the then photocopied camera-ready APS abstracts to include the peace symbol as an abstract in the Bulletin. In 1971, Robert March, University of Wisconsin, proposed a specific amendment to the APS constitution to change the Society’s mission statement to include the phrase “The Society...shall shun those activities which are judged to contribute harmfully to the welfare of mankind.” The amendment was defeated by a nearly 3 to 1 ratio.

At the January 1969 APS meeting Perl and Schwartz established the “radical” organization SESPA, Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action which later became Science for the People with an iconic clenched fist icon symbolizing power on its newsletters. To quote from an oral interview with Charlie Schwartz … “We had sort of a group of people meet in a hotel room the night before and then leafleted the meeting and had a session in the hotel room, which was sort of inviting people to come and join this new organization. There was a lot of response to that; I mean a couple of hundred people come to this meeting and so they were interested in such an organization. I remember the most interesting part was trying to define more or less what the organization was. I remember Marty Perl giving the first speech in which he made it very clear that this was not going to be a radical organization. And then I gave the second speech in which I said in my opinion this was going to be a radical organization. You know, fine, just let that ambiguity sit out there. It was designed as very much an unorganized organization, encouraging local activity and organization and initiative. Marty undertook to keep a newsletter going for a while. So the organization came into existence.”
Gray Arrow Oral History Transcript - Dr. Charles Schwartz

At that time, I worked with Marty and some other APS activists, notably Barry Casper, Carlton College and Earl Callen, American University, to establish a Division on Physics and Society. The APS constitutional rule stated that a petition signed by at least one percent of the APS membership (then 20,000) could institute the establishment of a new division with all the rights of invited talks, contributed abstracts, fellowships and prizes. At that time, the APS had only two categories of an APS subunit, the Divisions and the Regional Sections. The APS under the leadership of William (Bill) Havens and the APS Council found itself in a constitutional bind and thus proposed the concept of a Forum subunit. A Forum, unlike a Division, which focuses on a subfield of Physics, is a unit with appeal to any APS member. Almost immediately, upon the establishment of the new Forum on Physics and Society as the first Forum, the Council repositioned the Division on the History of Physics as the Forum on the History of Physics. Currently there are seven Forum subunits which contribute to the wider scope of interests of the APS membership and meeting participants. We have Marty Perl and his colleagues to thank for this major improvement in the role of the professional society in the development of the complete scientist-citizen. Marty was the first editor of the Forum on Physics and Society newsletter.

The late sixties were when many social responsibilities movements related to science were established. On March 4, 1969, students and professors at MIT organized a “Research Stoppage” and proposed an all-day symposium on the dangerous use of research and scientific technologies. The day was set aside to discuss and criticize the cooperation of MIT and other research institutions with the US Department of Defense. An outgrowth of that symposium was the Science Action Coordinating Committee (SACC), a group of graduate students at MIT concerned with social responsibility of scientists. Another outgrowth of that period was the Union of Concerned Scientists founded by MIT faculty and students to "initiate a critical and continuing examination of governmental policy in areas where science and technology are of actual or potential significance" and to "devise means for turning research applications away from the present emphasis on military technology toward the solution of pressing environmental and social problems."

In the area of science careers and education, Perl was the co-organizer with Roland Good, Penn State, of a conference titled, Tradition and Change in Physics Graduate Education held at Penn State. If was the first major physics graduate education conference, hosted under the auspices of the APS Forum on Physics and Society and the AAPT, which dealt in a comprehensive and fair way with the crisis students, faculty and departments in Physics were experiencing with respect to education, employment and funding. A brief compilation of the papers presented at the conference plus an overview of the conference by Perl and Roland Good appear in the 1975 edition of the FPS newsletter.
Gray Arrow February 1975 Newsletter pdf

What is so surprising and unique about Martin Perl’s involvement with the social and educational challenges of the late 60’s and early seventies was that he was conducting his Nobel Prize winning research at the same time.

I had the opportunity to frequently meet with Marty when I was on the West coast and some of the times when he was in New York. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York as I did and thus we had a lot in common. Once, while visiting New York, he mentioned he was there for a Brooklyn Day to celebrate major achievers from Brooklyn. As a Nobel Laureate, he was high on their list.

I always enjoyed his discussion on creativity and his unbounded views of controversial ideas and experiments he wanted to do on the sign of the mass of some elementary particles.  He was quite modest, outgoing, enthusiastic and very easy to get along with. He was always interested in the opinions of others, and valued them. I regret not spending even more time with him.

For more information on the Forum and the period between the late 60’s and mid-70s see the links below:
Gray Arrow Finding Aid to the Papers of Brian Schwartz, 1966-1977
Gray Arrow February 1975 Newsletter pdf

Brian Schwartz
Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.