'55 Grad Wins Physics Prize, Recalls I.I. Rabi

Photograph: Martin L. Perl. Photo Credit: Stanford University.

Martin L. Perl, a 1955 Columbia Ph.D. has won the Nobel Prize for Physics. He becomes the 55th Nobel Laureate who has taught or studied at Columbia.

He was cited for his 1975 discovery of one of the smallest constituents of the universe, a subatomic particle known as the tau lepton.

Perl, 68, was a student of I.I. Rabi, the famed Columbia physicist who won the Nobel in 1944 for measuring the radio-frequency spectra of atomic nuclei.

"I learned so much from him," Perl said in a telephone interview from Stanford, where he is a professor, soon after learning of his award last Thursday. "The first thing he taught me was, don't do what other people do. The other crucial thing about him was that he was never very good in math, but he was able to do great research. That gave me the courage, if you will, that I could do similar things.

"Finally, he taught me that it was good to be first, but better to be right. We never published anything without checking it carefully."

The son of immigrant parents, Perl was born in Brooklyn in 1927. He earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, now Polytechnic University, and then worked as an engineer for General Electric from 1948 to 1950. With only one year of undergraduate physics, he was admitted to Columbia's graduate physics program. "It was amazing that Columbia accepted me," Perl said. "That kind of confidence was one of the great things about Columbia."

Perl also remembers the help he got from Columbia physicist Polykarp Kusch, who, just months after Perl graduated in 1955, won the Nobel Prize for his precision determination of the magnetic moment of the electron.

"If you wanted to make a vacuum system work, you went to see Kusch," he recalled.

Perl, joins a group--now 23--of renowned Nobel physicists who were trained at Columbia or taught or conducted research here, among them Enrico Fermi, Charles H. Townes, James Rainwater and Aage Bohr. At one point in the 1950s, Nobels were awarded to Columbia physicists at such a rate that younger faculty sported pins reading "Not Yet!" according to The God Particle, a 1993 book by laureate Leon Lederman, a 1951 Columbia physics Ph.D. and professor, about how physics theory has advanced.

Three of the four Nobelists now on the Columbia faculty are physicists. Tsung-Dao Lee, University Professor, received the prize in 1957 for refuting the law of parity. Melvin Schwartz, I.I. Rabi Professor of Physics, and Jack Steinberger, adjunct professor of physics, shared the 1988 prize with Lederman for their study of neutrinos that led to the now-accepted view that elementary particles come in pairs.

That discovery, in 1962, became a central tenet of the standard model of fundamental physics, the theory that describes the interactions of all the subatomic particles, such as neutrons and protons, and of all the physical forces, such as gravity and electromagnetic radiation. According to the theory, all matter is made up of six kinds of quarks and six kinds of leptons, which are grouped in three families, each with two quarks and two leptons.

Until Perl was able to produce a tau lepton in the Stanford electron-positron collider, a completely unexpected feat, only two such families of particles were hypothesized. The tau turned out to be the first-discovered member of a third quark-lepton family. The two quarks in the family, the bottom and top quarks, were identified at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in 1976 and 1995.

The tau lepton is a superheavy cousin of the electron, also a lepton and the carrier of electrical current in household appliances. The two particles are identical in all respects except that the tau is more than 3,500 times heavier than the electron and survives for only a trillionth of a second, while the electron is stable.

Perl, professor and chairman of the faculty at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Palo Alto, Calif., shared the 1995 Nobel with Frederick Reines, emeritus professor of physics at U.C.-Irvine. The two will share a $1 million award, which will be presented in Stockholm in December. He said he hoped that winning the prize would help him get support for current research seeking evidence that the quark can exist on its own, not merely as a component of other particles.

Perl has also taught at the University of Michigan and was awarded the Wolf Prize in 1982 for his discovery of the tau. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

Asked if he had any advice for hopeful physics undergraduates, Perl said:

"You want freedom and fresh air and a little research money," he said. "The last is always the toughest thing."

The fourth Nobel laureate now at Columbia is Joshua Lederberg, adjunct professor of biological sciences, who won the 1958 prize in medicine or physiology for discoveries in genetic recombination.

In all, 19 present or former Columbia faculty members have won Nobel honors for work done at Columbia, 15 for work done elsewhere. Many of them are among the 33 alumni who have won the prize.

Columbia University Record -- October 20, 1995 -- Vol. 21, No. 7