Good Schools, Books, a Love of Mechanics, and You Must Earn a Living
About 1900 my parents came to the United States as children from what was then the Polish area of Russia. As Jews, their families left Russia to escape the poverty and the antisemitism. My parents grew up in poor areas of New York City, my father Oscar Perl in the East Side district of Manhattan and my mother Fay Rosenthal in the Brownsville district of Brooklyn. Their educations ended with high school – my father going to work as a clerk and then salesman in a company dealing in printing and stationary, and my mother working as a secretary and then bookkeeper in a firm of wool merchants.
My parents were determined to move into the middle class. By the time my sister, Lila Perl, and I were born in the 1920’s, my father had established a printing and advertising company called Allied Printing. For many years, Allied Printing was a precarious business. I remember conversations at the dinner table about the problem of meeting the upcoming Friday payroll. However, Allied Printing brought the four of us into the middle class and kept us in the middle class thru the Depression of the 1930’s. We lived in the better neighborhoods of the borough of Brooklyn, not the fanciest neighborhoods, but quite good neighborhoods, and so we went to quite good schools.
These schools and the attitude of my parents towards these schools were important in preparing me for the work of an experimental scientist. Going to school and working for good marks, indeed working for very good marks, was a serious business. My parents regarded school teachers as higher beings, as did many immigrants. School principals were gods to be worshiped but never seen by children or parents. Parents never visited the school to talk about the curriculum or to meet with their child’s teacher. A parent being called to the school because their child had misbehaved was as serious as a parent being called to the police station because their child had robbed a bank. The remoteness of my parents from the schools, so unfashionable today, was often painful for me, but I learned early to deal with an outside and sometimes hard world. Good training for research work! The experimenter dealing with nature faces an outside and often hard world. Natures’ curriculum cannot be changed.
The curricula were unsophisticated, with a great deal of time wasted on penmanship and geography in the early grades and repetitions of the trivial history of New York City in higher grades. But there were also serious courses. In my high school, two foreign languages had to be studied, four years of English was required, and that meant mostly grammar and composition. I was able to take four years of mathematics and a year of physics. Whatever the course, whether the course was boring or interesting to me, whether I was talented in mathematics or not talented in languages, my parents expected A’s. This was good training for research, because large parts of experimental work are sometimes boring or involve the use of skills in which one is not particularly gifted.
For example, I am not a good craftsman. Until recently when I could use computer-based drafting programs, my drawings always looked messy, with uneven lines and ragged lettering. I could never get an “A” in drafting in college. Yet drawing the apparatus to be built for my experiments has always been a crucial part of my experimental work.
There was compensation for the unsophisticated curriculum; with good marks one could “skip” school years. The normal progression was to begin the eight years of elementary school at six years of age, and then to take four years of high school, leading to graduation at eighteen. But classrooms were crowded, and there were no worries about the proper social level of a student; a good student could skip a year or more in elementary school. I was sixteen when I graduated from James Madison High School in Brooklyn in 1942. My sister, who is now a well known writer in the United States, moved through school even faster – she graduated at fifteen and one-half.
Along with my parents insistence, soon internalized, that I do very well in school, went my love of reading and my love of mechanics. I read everything: fiction, history, science, mathematics, biography, travel. There were two free public libraries within walking distance of my home; I remember taking six books home from every visit, the limit set by the library. This reading had only partial approval from my parents. They wanted me to play more sports because they were acutely sensitive to their children being one hundred percent American, and they believed that all Americans played sports and loved sports. They felt that too much reading interfered with my going outside to play sport. I loved rainy days when I did not have to go outside, and to the present I still feel very content on a rainy day.
Two books are burned in my memory, Lancelot Hogben’s Mathematics for the Millions and his Science for the Citizen. I borrowed them from the library again and again. I made summaries of them. I could not understand Hogben’s introduction to calculus so I copied that section completely. I don’t know why it never occurred to me or my parents to buy the books. We could have well-afforded them, but somehow buying books was a waste of money. Naturally, I have compensated in my adult years by owning very large numbers of books.
Another thing we could have afforded was to buy me an Erector construction set. The Erector construction set was the United States equivalent of Meccano or Märklin construction sets in England and Europe. But the cousin I played with every Saturday had an Erector set, and one Erector set per extended family was considered quite enough. He also had electric trains. I loved to build with the Erector set, I loved to build toys and models out of wood, I loved to draw mechanical devices, even those I could not build. I loved to read the magazines, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. I loved all things mechanical; cars, trucks, derricks trains, and steam ships. I was in love with mechanics, and I still am.
Before leaving this subject I must mention that since I never owned an Erector set as a child, I have compensated in my adult years by collecting old European, English, and American construction sets; and even by devising and starting prototype production of a modern wooden construction set called BIG-NUT.
I was also interested in chemistry, but my parents were not willing to buy me a chemistry set. I had some chemicals but when I bought sulfuric acid and nitric acid, my father confiscated the acids on the grounds of safety. As every child knows, chemistry with nothing stronger than vinegar soon becomes dull. Strangely for a person who became a physicist, I was not interested in amateur radio or in building radios. I don’t know why. This was the 1930’s when vacuum tubes and variable condensers made radio building quite mechanical.
In spite of very good school marks, a love of books (particularly in science and mathematics), and a great love of mechanics, I never thought of becoming a scientist. That was because as the children of immigrants, my sister and I were taught that we must use our education to “earn a good living” In fact, we didn’t have to be taught that. It was obvious to us. Our home life was physically comfortable, and in some ways emotionally supportive, but it was also rigid and stifling. We knew that we had to earn our own livings to escape from home and Brooklyn. A good living in the Jewish middle class meant that a girl should become a teacher or nurse; a boy should become a doctor, dentist, lawyer, or accountant. I did not think about going into business because the difficulties of the Depression years did not make business a good way to earn a living.
Although I won the physics medal when I graduated from high school, I did not think of becoming a physicist or any kind of scientist. My parents and I knew about a few scientists, certainly Pasteur, and perhaps Einstein, but we did not know that it was possible for a man to earn a living as a scientist.
Engineering Studies, the War, a Practicing Engineer, and What You are Interested in is called Physics
We did know that a man could earn a living as engineer. And so in choosing a profession for me, my parents and I took into account my love of mechanics, and science and mathematics. We put aside my becoming a doctor, dentist, lawyer, or accountant in favor of my becoming an engineer. This was an unusual choice for a Jewish boy in the early 1940’s because there was still plenty of antisemitism in engineering companies. I enrolled in the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, now Polytechnic University, and began studying chemical engineering.
There were several reasons for choosing chemical engineering. Chemistry was a very exciting field in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Chemistry was bringing to our lives synthetic materials such as nylon. The slogan of the radio program, Dupont’s Cavalcade of America, was “Better things for better living through chemistry”. Furthermore, Allied Printing had prospered through my father’s hard work, and through the inclusion of a few chemical companies among his customers. He became friends with buyers in several of these companies, and they told him about the expansion of their companies. There would always be a good job in chemical engineering.
One of the first courses I took in college was general physics, using the textbook by Hausman and Slack. The course was all about pulleys and thermometers; physics seemed a dead field compared to chemistry. So, just as I was blind to the fascination of physics in high school, I was once again blind to its fascination in college. I ignored physics, and continued studying chemistry and chemical engineering.
My studies were interrupted by the war. I wanted to join the United States Army, but I was not yet eighteen and my parents would not give me permission. However, they agreed to me joining the United States Merchant Marine, I was allowed to leave college and become an engineering cadet in the program at the Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy. The training ship was wonderful – it had a main reciprocating steam engine, and direct steam driven pumps and auxiliary machinery; a paradise of mechanics. But when I went to sea for six months as part of the training, I was on a Victory ship with a sealed turbine and electrically driven auxiliary machinery. Very boring. Therefore, when the war ended with the atom bomb, I left the merchant marine and went to work for my father while waiting to return to college. I knew so little about physics that I didn’t know even vaguely why the bomb was so powerful.
I didn’t get right back to college. The draft was still in force in the United States. I was drafted, and spent a pleasant year at an army installation in Washington, DC, doing very little. Finally, I returned to the Polytechnic Institute and received a summa cum laude bachelor degree in Chemical Engineering in 1948.
The skills and knowledge I acquired at the Polytechnic Institute have been crucial in all my experimental work: the use of strength of materials principles in equipment design, machine shop practice, engineering drawing, practical fluid mechanics, inorganic and organic chemistry, chemical laboratory techniques, manufacturing processes, metallurgy, basic concepts in mechanical engineering, basic concepts in electrical engineering, dimensional analysis, speed and power in mental arithmetic, numerical estimation (crucial when depending on a slide rule for calculations), and much more.
Upon graduation, I joined the General Electric Company. After a year in an advanced engineering training program, I settled in Schenectady, New York, working as a Chemical Engineer in the Electron Tube Division. I worked in an engineering office in the electron tube production factory. Our job was to troubleshoot production problems, to improve production processes, and occasionally to do a little development work. We were not a fancy R&D office. I worked on speeding-up the production of television picture tubes, and then on problems of grid emission in industrial power tubes. These tasks led to a turning point in my life.
I had to learn a little about how electron vacuum tubes worked, so I took a few courses in Union College in Schenectady specifically, atomic physics and advanced calculus. I got to know a wonderful physics professor, Vladimir Rojansky. One day he said to me “Martin, what you are interested in is called physics not chemistry!” At the age of 23, I finally decided to begin the study of physics.
Graduate Study in Physics, I.I. Rabi, and Learning the Physicist’s Trade
I entered the physics doctoral program in Columbia University in the autumn of 1950. Looking back, it seems amazing that I was admitted. True, I had a summa cum laude bachelor degree, but I had taken only two courses in physics: one year of elementary physics and a half-year of atomic physics. There were several reasons I could do this 1950; it could not have been done today. First, graduate study in physics was primitive in 1950, compared to today’s standards. We did not study quantum mechanics until the second year, the first year was devoted completely to classical physics. The most advanced quantum mechanics we ever studied was a little bit in Heitler, and we were not expected to be able to do calculations in quantum electrodynamics.
Second, there was no thought of advising or course guidance by the Columbia Physics Department faculty – students were on their own. I was arrogant about my ability to learn anything fast. By the time I realized I was in trouble, but the time I realized that many of my fellow students were smarter than me and better trained then me, it was too late to quit. I had explained the return to school to my astonished parents by telling them that physics was what Einstein did. They thought if Einstein, why not Martin; I could not quit. I survived the Columbia Physics Department, never the best student, but an ambitious and hard-working student. I was married and had one child. I had to get my Ph.D and once more earn a living.
Just as the Polytechnic Institute was crucial in my learning how to do engineering; just as Union College and Vladimir Rojansky were crucial in my choosing physics; so Columbia University and my thesis advisor, I.I. Rabi, were crucial in my learning how to do experimental physics. I undertook for my doctoral research the problem of using the atomic beam resonance method to measure the quadrupole moment of the sodium nucleus. This measurement had to be made using an excited atomic state, and Rabi had found a way to do this.
As is well known, Rabi was not a “hands-on” experimenter. He never used tools or manipulated the apparatus. I learned experimental techniques from older graduate students and by occasionally going to ask for help or advice from Rabi’s colleague, Polykarp Kusch. I hated to go to Kusch, because it was always an unpleasant experience. He had a loud voice which he deliberately made louder so that the entire floor of students could hear about the stupid question asked by a graduate student.
Thus as in the course work, I was on my own in learning the experimenter’s trade. I learned quickly, as I tell my graduate students now, there are no answers in the back of the book when the equipment doesn’t work or the measurements look strange.
I learned things more precious than experimental techniques from Rabi. I learned the deep importance of choosing one’s own research problems. Rabi once told me that he would worry when talking to Leo Szilard that Szilard would propose some idea to Rabi. This was because Rabi wouldn’t carry out an idea suggested by someone else, even though he had already been thinking about that same idea.
I learned from Rabi the importance of getting the right answer and checking it thoroughly. When I finished my measurement of the quadrupole moment, I was eager to publish and to get on with earning a living. But Rabi had heard that a similar measurement had been made by an optical resonance method in France. He wrote to the French physicists to see if they had a similar answer. He didn’t telephone or cable; he calmly wrote. I waited nervously. Six or eight weeks later he received the answer that they had a similar answer; then, I was allowed to publish. It is far better to be delayed, it is better to be second in publishing a result, than to publish first with the wrong answer.
It was Rabi who always emphasized the importance of working on a fundamental problem, and it was Rabi who sent me into elementary particle physics. It would have been natural for me to continue in atomic physics, but he preached particle physics to me – particularly when his colleagues in atomic physics were in the room. I think that most of that public preaching may have been Rabi’s way of deliberately irritating his colleagues.
Michigan, Bubble Chambers, and On my Own with L.W. Jones
When I received my Ph.D. in 1955, I had job offers from the Physics Departments at Yale, the University of Illinois, and the University of Michigan. At that time, the first two Physics Departments had better reputations in elementary particle physics, and so I deliberately went to Michigan. I followed a two-part theorem that I always pass on to my graduate students and post doctoral research associates. Part 1: don’t choose the most powerful experimental group or department – choose the group or department where you will have the most freedom. Part 2: there is an advantage in working in a small or new group – then you will get the credit for what you accomplish.
At Michigan I first worked in bubble chamber physics with Donald Glaser. But I wanted to be on my own. When the Russians flew SPUTNIK in 1957, I saw the opportunity, and jointly with my colleague, Lawrence W. Jones, we wrote to Washington for research money. We began our own research program, using first the now-forgotten luminescent chamber and then spark chambers. This brings me to the story I tell in my Nobel lecture on the discovery of the tau lepton.
It was Good Fortune …
Looking back to to my early years in Brooklyn, at the Polytechnic Institute, and at the General Electric Company, I am astonished to be writing a biographical note as a Nobel Laureate. I have tried to tell how it happened, yet I realize that I have left out the most crucial element: good fortune. It was good fortune to be a child during the Depression years and a youth during the war years. I lived in a country united by the belief that hard work and perseverance could get one through great difficulties. I saw right triumph. The progression of my career coincided with the growth of universities and the tremendous expansion in federal support for basic research, Academic jobs were relatively easy to get and hold, research funds were relatively easy to get. All good fortune. Of course, my ultimate good fortune was that the tau existed.
Life is much harder for the young women and men who are in science in present times. But they are smarter and better trained than I was at their ages; they know more and have better equipment. I wish them good fortune.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
Martin L. Perl died on 30 September 2014.
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