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Robert E. Marshak: A Brief Biography



Robert E. Marshak was born in 1916 in the Bronx, a borough of New York City. His parents, Harry and Rose Marshak, immigrated to New York from the city of Minsk in Belorus, Russia, which they left to escape the pogroms. In Minsk, Harry and Rose lived in the Jewish ghetto, and received only a religious education. When they came to America, they only were able to get work as laborers in New York. Rose was a seamstress, and Harry alternated between working as a cloth cutter in a sweat shop and selling fruits and vegetables from a horse- drawn wagon. During the Great Depression, employment was scarce, and they had trouble supporting their family of five (Robert and two younger sisters, Ruth and Beatrice).

Marshak's academic ability was recognized early, and despite their poverty, the family encouraged his studies. As a result, he finished James Monroe High School at the age of 15. He won virtually every achievement medal offered by the high school and guided the school's math team to state championships. From high school, he enrolled in the City College of New York (CCNY), a tuition-free university that served as an exit from poverty for generations of immigrants. After one semester at CCNY, he received a Pulitzer Scholarship which provided full tuition and a stipend which allowed him to continue his education at Columbia University. College appears to have been a profound intellectual experience for Marshak. He initially majored in philosophy and math, and served as the dance critic for the school newspaper. In fact, his first magazine article, published in the Columbia Magazine in 1934, was a critique of the dancer Martha Graham. Also during this time period he was the book editor of the "Columbian Jester" receiving many books from publishers to review. In his senior year, he switched to physics, and came into contact with Nobel Laureate I.I. Rabi. Rabi was initially skeptical of his commitment to physics, but later became a friend. Marshak graduated from Columbia in 1936, and went to graduate school at Cornell University via a fellowship. This was the first time he had ever left the New York City area. At Cornell, he studied with Hans Bethe, who at the time was working on problems pertaining to energy production in stars, which later won Bethe a Nobel Prize. Marshak wrote his dissertation on energy production in white dwarf stars. His basic conclusion was confirmed about forty years later when the white dwarf orbiting Sirius came into view. He completed his Ph.D. degree in 1939 at the age of 22.

Jobs were hard to come by in the late 1930s, especially for Jewish scientists for whom positions were limited by quotas. Marshak nonetheless was able to get a one- year, non- renewable position at the University of Rochester. Here he met, among other notables, Victor Weiskopf, the future director of CERN, the nuclear accelerator facility in Geneva, Switzerland. During this time a tenure-track position opened in the Physics Department at Rochester which Marshak received.

Teaching at the University of Rochester was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Marshak became involved in the war effort, as did many scientists at the time. Initially, he worked on developing radar in Boston, Massachusetts, then on the British atomic bomb project in Montreal, Canada. In 1943, Marshak married Ruth Gup, a school teacher in Rochester. Later he joined the Manhattan Project which was developing the American atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. At Los Alamos, Marshak was a deputy group leader in theoretical physics, a rank which allowed him to be privy to the overall strategy of atomic bomb creation. One of his contributions apparently was the development of an explanation of how shock waves work under the conditions of extremely high temperatures achieved during a nuclear explosion. These waves are now called "Marshak waves." This explanation was the subject of renewed interest a few years ago because it helped describe the consequences of a supernova explosion.

Both Robert and Ruth Marshak felt that Los Alamos was the most influential event in their lives. At Los Alamos, Marshak worked among the most select group of physicists in the world, including luminaries like Hans Bethe, Enrico Fermi (Italian Nobel Laureate, the first to create a controlled nuclear reaction), Niels Bohr (Danish Nobel Laureate, creator of the modern concept of the atom), Robert Oppenheimer (director of the Manhattan Project), and Richard Feynman (Nobel Laureate and possibly the most widely known physicist of the last two decades). With this group, he witnessed the first explosion of the atomic bomb, an event which profoundly affected him. The shock of the subsequent destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led him to join in organizing the Federation of Atomic Scientists, a group seeking to limit nuclear proliferation. Marshak became chairman of the Federation in 1947. In later years, he was involved in other organizations with similar goals such as the Pugwash Conference, the Atoms for Peace Award, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

After the war, Marshak returned to the University of Rochester, where he moved quickly through the ranks. He become a chair professor (the Harris chair) and the head of the physics department in the 1950s. He was very active as a researcher, and was a participant at the famous Shelter Island Conference where he proposed the two-meson theory. During his fourteen year chairmanship the Physics Department at Rochester became one of the top 10 in the country, and a recognized center for advanced research in physics. Most of the world's famous physicists passed through Rochester during those years, and Ruth Marshak played an important role as hostess for their receptions.

Unfortunately, despite the prestige of the Physics Department, the University of Rochester as a whole apparently was not considered to be in the same league with institutions such as Princeton, MIT, Caltech, or UC-Berkeley. In order to have students of the necessary caliber in the department, Marshak sought out the best graduate students from overseas, most notably India, Japan, and Pakistan, and brought them to Rochester. Many of these students later returned to their own countries to become leaders in their scientific communities.

Perhaps Marshak's most significant scientific contribution was the proposal of the V-A Theory of Weak Interactions (the fourth force in nature) in collaboration with his student George Sudarshan. Unfortunately, the pair published the theory only in a conference proceedings for a meeting in Italy. Six months later, a different derivation of the same concept was published by Feynman and Gell-Mann in a mainstream scientific journal. Marshak had talked with Feynman about the general problem in California some time before. Though the V-A Concept was considered to be one of the most important contributions to theoretical physics, a Nobel Prize was never awarded for it. Marshak was nominated several times, but never received it. Perhaps the confusion over who had priority for the idea led the committee to pass on his nomination. Only recently has the story of this discovery been clarified. His achievements, however, were recognized by his appointment to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. He later served on the Council of the National Academy of Sciences and on many of its important committees. Among other honors, Marshak received Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Ford Fellowships, as well as the Oppenheimer Prize.

During his years at the University of Rochester, Marshak became intensely interested in international science. He was a member of many committees and groups that sought to establish linkages between American scientists and scientists from Eastern Europe and the Third World . He felt that scientific cooperation was an important first step in the quest for global peace. His outspoken views on this subject may have led him to being subjected to a "witch- hunt" interrogation during the McCarthy Era. He was found to be a "loyal American" and did retain his "Q-clearance", one of the highest security clearances. In 1956, he was a member of the first delegation of approximately six American scientists to visit the USSR after the death of Stalin. Marshak met the leaders of the Soviet Physics community, including Lev Landau. He made more trips to the USSR during the 1950s (US State Department debriefings after these trips are in the files), and became an acknowledged expert on Soviet science. As a result, he published articles in publications such as The New York Times Magazine and Scientific American about the subject, and was frequently interviewed by the news media. Unfortunately, some of the initial progress made in establishing links between the American and Soviet scientific communities was erased by the U-2 incident.

Over the years, Marshak made a large number of trips to Europe, the Middle East, Pakistan, India, and Japan. These trips provided him with the opportunity to meet with the scientific, and occasionally political, leaders of these countries (e.g., Nehru, the Prime Minister of India). He became friends with famous physicists like Yukawa (the most famous physicist of Japan, and the discoverer of the Meson, for which he won a Nobel Prize), and Abdus Salam (the most famous physicist of Pakistan, also a winner of the Nobel Prize). Many of the great scientists that he met are not well known in the US, but served major roles in the development of the scientific establishments of their own countries. His interest in international affairs was noted by his nomination to the Council on Foreign Relations, and by the receipt of the first American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for contributions to international science.

During the 1950s, Marshak established the "Rochester Conference", considered by his colleagues to be one of his most significant achievements. The conference evolved over the years into "The International Conference on High-Energy Physics." The Rochester Conference was instrumental in bringing together scientists from around the world, and served as a model for the establishment of international conferences in other fields. One of the most challenging aspects of the early conferences was the attempt to bring real Eastern European and Soviet physicists (as opposed to KGB agents) to the meetings. This effort required Marshak to carry out intense negotiations with the US State Department and with members of Congress. His other involvement in international science included participation in the establishment of the International Center of Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, and the International Foundation for Science in Sweden.

Also during these years, Marshak was involved with the lobbying effort to establish the National Science Foundation, which is now the principle agency for funding scientific research in this country. He also was involved in many issues that came up before the US Atomic Energy Commission. He had some connection to industry, serving as a consultant to businesses such as the Rand Corporation, Eastman Kodak, and General Electric. He also served as editor of at least two major series of physics books (one for McGraw-Hill, and the other for Wiley- Interscience), while writing several himself, including Meson Physics and The Theory of Weak Interactions, among others.

In the 1960s, he was made one of only four Distinguished University Professors at the University of Rochester. He could have finished his career in this ideal position, but as fate would have it, at the end of 1960s the University of Rochester was in the turmoil typical of the Viet Nam Era campuses. A conflict between the conservative administration under President W. Allen Wallis and the more liberal faculty and students surfaced in a number of major issues. For instance, the establishment of the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) at Rochester which was to undertake classified research, even though it was part of a university; the hiring of a history professor, Eugene Genovese, who had socialist leanings and had been criticized by President Nixon; and the role that the faculty was to play in establishing university policy. The faculty pressured Marshak into becoming the President of the University Faculty Senate. He accepted the nomination, and what followed was effectively a battle between Marshak and Wallis. At one point, the faculty gave a vote of no confidence against Wallis, and Wallis seems to have blamed the situation on Marshak. The two were never on friendly terms afterwards.

This battle at the University of Rochester received lots of publicity, and brought Marshak to the attention of the search committee looking for a new president for CCNY. They approached him with an offer to become president, just at a time when his social conscience had been roused. He remembered the City College of his youth, and felt that the presidency of the college would provide an opportunity to serve the less privileged segments of society and provide them with the chances for success from which he had benefited in his youth. Thus he accepted the offer and became CCNY President just at a time when the college was undergoing a vast change in demographics. There were clashes between different ethnic groups at the college. There was unhappiness among the older faculty who couldn't understand why the college could no longer remain as it had been in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The city had instituted a policy of open admissions, which led to a sudden increase in the size of the student body. The city also was going bankrupt, resulting in a painful series of budget cuts.

Typical of Marshak, a severe workaholic, he put his full effort into the struggle to redefine the college and bring it through these crises. In addition to improving the quality of several departments, he established important new programs such as the Biomedical Center and the Legal Center, raised the funds for a new performing arts center (the Leonard Davis Center), and pushed through the construction of a 150 million dollar academic complex. Some of these programs were controversial and were hit with reverse-discrimination suits. These events caused Marshak particular unhappiness because he always was motivated by a desire to do what he felt was right. He also worked hard to establish what he called the "Urban Education Model". This was a new concept in characterizing how urban universities should serve their communities. He also became involved in the debate about national educational policy and "Science and Public Policy", delivering many speeches on the subject. He also served on the board of directors for Harlem Hospital and for Colonial Penn Insurance Company. In the end, the success of his efforts was recognized by the naming of the 14-story science building on campus after him. The stress of his position at CCNY took a toll on his health, and he suffered a minor stroke during a confrontation with a student group. The stroke effected his balance for the remainder of his life, though it didn't stop the intensity of his work.

After nine hard years at CCNY, his desire to return to physics led him to accept an offer as University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, and he and Ruth moved to Blacksburg in 1979. During this period, he became President of the American Physical Society, the principle organization of physicists in the United States. Typical of his modus operandi, he took an activist approach to the job, using the weight of the society to debate the Reagan Administration on the issue of placing an anti-ballistic missile system into space, popularly known as "Star Wars". He also worked to establish scientific links with China, an effort which led to a trip to China for the signing of an exchange agreement with the President of the Chinese Academy of Science, an organization with over 1 million members. Marshak negotiated a similar arrangement with the scientific community in Brazil. He also became quite involved with human rights issues in the Soviet Union, particularly with regards to Sakharov, the father of the Soviet H- bomb, who had been imprisoned as a dissident for many years.

Marshak officially retired as a professor at the age of 75. During the last five years of his life, he worked intensely on a book, entitled Conceptual Foundations of Modern Particle Physics. He finished the final corrections on the manuscript the day before he died. When he dropped the manuscript in the mailbox, he turn to his wife and said, in a joking voice, "It's done. Now I can die." The next day, December 23, 1992, he did. Minutes after the family convened in Cancun, Mexico, to celebrate Marshak's fiftieth wedding anniversary, he took the grandchildren down to the beach to enjoy the last hours of a sunny, windy afternoon. While the children played on the beach, he stepped into the warm water of the Gulf. The undertow was unexpectedly strong, and he apparently lost his balance-- the final manifestation of his stroke. He fell into the water, couldn't stand up, and drowned a few feet from shore.


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