COMMENT OBITUARY Martin L. Perl (1927–2014) Discoverer of the .

he tau lepton, a subatomic particle uncovered by , was one of the biggest surprises Tin in recent decades. Perl discovered this third type of lepton (the other two types are the lighter and ) at a time when there was no experimental evidence for its exist- ence or any theoretical indication that a third ‘family’ of particles should exist. Perl, who died on 30 September at the age NEWS SERVICE A. CICERO/STANFORD LINDA of 87, was born in 1927 in Brooklyn, , to Jewish immigrants from . Through determination and hard work, his father had established a printing and adver- tising company that sustained the family throughout the depression of the 1930s. Perl once reflected that his parents’ high expec- tations — they demanded that he achieve A grades in every course — “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 in Ann Arbor, Perl got and stayed with our group for a few days. particularly gifted”. his first opportunity to think seriously about We pored over the data until we worked out Even though he graduated from high high-energy on charged — with some disappointment — that the school at just age 16 and received a medal when he was offered a position at the yet-to- anomaly was most likely an artefact of our for his achievements in physics, Perl never be-built Stanford Linear Accelerator Center experimental set-up. thought of becoming a . Neither (SLAC) in Menlo Park, . He moved As well as fundamental physics, Martin he nor his family thought it was possible to SLAC in 1963, and in December 1975, he loved building mechanical devices and elec- to make a living as a . Perl decided and his colleagues published a paper entitled trical instruments. When I and some other instead to become a chemical engineer. ‘Evidence for Anomalous Lepton Production students were constructing an apparatus for His studies at the Polytechnic Institute of in e+–e– Annihilation’ (M. L. Perl et al. Phys. an , he was so curious and enthu- Brooklyn were interrupted by military ser- Rev. Lett. 35, 1489; 1975). It was not until the siastic that he would frequently stop by to vice during the Second World War, but he end of 1979, however, that the discovery of the watch and learn about our progress. Martin completed his bachelor’s degree in 1948. tau lepton was finally verified. always rewarded independent thinking. But After graduating, Perl joined General Until this point, the prevailing view while he helped his students to follow their Electric, where he worked in the - among had been that only two own ideas, he also taught them to be realistic tube division. To develop and improve the types of lepton existed: electrons and muons. about what was possible — and to move on company’s production process for vacuum The tau lepton is more than 3,000 times from a problem if they failed to make pro- tubes, at the time used in appliances such heavier than an electron and is highly unsta- gress. His teachings served us both in the lab as and radios, Perl needed to ble. Its discovery transformed the expecta- and later in life. understand how the electron vacuum tube tions of fundamental and Martin had exceptionally high standards. worked. He started taking physics courses paved the way for the discoveries of other He was a creative researcher who never at the in Schenectady, New elementary particles, including the tau neu- chased honours, titles or respect, although York, and it was here that he realized where trino and the bottom and top quarks. In respect always chased him. Everyone who his real interest lay. 1995, Perl shared the in Phys- knew him was impressed by his simplicity In 1950, Perl left industry to start a PhD ics with , who received and honesty, summed up in the words he at in New York, under his share for his part in the detection of the wrote at the end of his Nobel biography: “It the supervision of physicist Nobel laureate , another component of matter. was good fortune … ” ■ . The lessons that Perl took Martin’s enthusiasm for fundamental from Rabi — the importance of working physics was contagious. Once, while work- Valerie Halyo is a visiting scholar in on fundamental problems, choosing your ing as a PhD student in his laboratory, I experimental high-energy physics at own research problems, getting the right found an anomaly in our data that suggested , New Jersey, USA. answers and checking them thoroughly the existence of a new fractionally charged She earned her PhD under the supervision before publishing — guided him through- particle. Martin, who treated any research he of Martin L. Perl at Stanford University in out the rest of his career. was involved in very seriously, immediately California from 1997 to 2001. After a research and teaching job at the cancelled his trip to a scheduled conference e-mail: [email protected]

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