Martin Perl, a 1995 Nobel laureate in Physics for the discovery of the tau lepton, was awarded an honorary degree yesterday at commencement. Perl actually has a significant Union connection-- he started his career as a chemical engineer, and was working for GE making vacuum tubes when they sent him to take classes in calculus and atomic physics at Union. His physics professor, Vladimir Rojansky, convinced him that he was more interested in physics than chemical engineering, so he changed careers.
Saturday night, I had dinner with Perl, two other faculty members, and three students. He's just about 82, though you wouldn't know it. He's officially retired, but still very active, and has recently started to take an interest in atom interferometry, and we talked a bit about the physics of that. He also went out of his way to include the students in the conversation, which is always great to see. After the ceremony, he came to the department reception, and was talking at length with students and families.
All in all, it was one of the best dinners with a visiting dignitary that I've been to. He was charming, engaging, and (unsurprisingly) very smart. Asked about his retirement, he said that the only real problem with it was that he was in bureaucratic limbo-- he still has an office at SLAC, and some lab space, but no longer has the authority to sign for purchases and the like, which is a hassle. He said he wasn't entirely sure how that would affect the NSF proposal he's submitting.
For a scientist, there's probably nothing better you could hope for than to still be active and writing grants in your 80's. I hope he gets the money.
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I had the privilege of spending time with Martin Perl 2 years ago when he was attending a conference in my city of Abu Dhabi. What impressed me most about Martin was how unaffected he is by fame and great renown in his field of high energy physics. I enjoyed much discussion with Martin especially on the subject of cosmology. I am an electronic engineer (with a physics origin) but a very enthusiastic professional cosmologist.
What struck me most about Martin was his modesty and readiness to listen without attempting to undermine the ideas of someone who is not as knowledgeable in the subject as he is.
A truly memorable time spent with a very charming and interesting man.