Martin Lewis Perl

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Martin Lewis Perl was an American physicist who discovered the tau lepton, a subatomic particle that aided in the understanding of elementary physics. In 1995, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his seminal contribution to particle physics. Perl, who is now renowned as the precocious child of physics, initially had no interest in pursuing research as a career. Despite being a talented student, he was concerned about his ability to make a career in physics research and instead chose chemical engineering as a ‘brighter’ option. But fate had other plans for this natural-born genius who studied physics while working as a chemical engineer. He earned his Ph.D. in the field not long after. Perl spent eight years at the University of Michigan before starting his research career at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). However, it was at SLAC when he discovered the tau particle that he did his best work. The discovery of a new particle took several years of experimentation. His study, which had been derided by the scientific community, eventually gained acceptance and was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Childhood and Adolescence

Martin Lewis Perl was born in New York City, New York, on June 24, 1927, to Fay and Oscar Perl. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Polish-occupied Russia to the United States. His mother worked for a textile company as a secretary and bookkeeper, while his father worked as a stationery salesman before starting his own printing and advertising business.

Perl was a talented student in the classroom. In 1942, he entered James Madison High School after finishing his early schooling. Perl did not intend to become a scientist despite being an excellent student and earning a physics prize since he was unsure if he could make a living in the field. As a result, he decided to pursue chemical engineering rather than physics research.

Following high school, he enrolled in a chemical engineering course at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. However, when World War II broke out, he dropped out of school to enroll in a course at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. He was drafted into the army for a year. He resumed his studies after the war and graduated from the institute in 1948.

Career of Martin Lewis Perl

Perl went to work for the General Electric Company as a chemical engineer, developing electron vacuum tubes, after graduating. His curiosity about the operation of television tubes led him to enroll at Union College in Schenectady, New York, for a course in atomic physics and advanced calculus.

Perl’s physics class piqued his interest in the subject to the point where he chose to pursue it formally. In 1950, he earned his bachelor’s degree in physics. Perl then went on to Columbia University to pursue a PhD. He completed his thesis on measurements of the nuclear quadrupole moment of sodium using the atomic beam resonance method under the supervision of Isidor Isaac Rabi. In 1955, he obtained his doctorate.

He spent eight years after his PhD at the University of Michigan. Using bubble chambers and spark chambers, he investigated the scattering of pions and later neutrons on protons. Despite the fact that he worked on the physics of strong interactions, he was looking for a simpler mechanism to examine. He spent a lot of time thinking about electron and muon interactions.

He relocated to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in California in 1963. Perl was eager to satisfy his curiosity about muon physics at Stanford. He pondered why, although being 206.8 times heavier than the electron, the muon interacted just like the electron and destroyed in the same way.
In order to better comprehend the muon, he conducted a series of tests. He wanted to know why there was only one muon and if there were any other muons out there.

He and his colleagues set out to discover an even heavier electron than the muon, which would assist explain the role of the muon in the larger scheme of things. He realized that the only way to find out such particles was to use the new collider, the Stanford Positron Accelerating Ring. The process would cause particles to decay radioactively, leaving a distinct trail of subatomic trash behind.

Perl began his career’s biggest effort in 1973. The Spear machine became operational, colliding higher-energy electrons and positrons to produce small fireballs. Though the collision produced a particle, the unknown particle’s lifetime was only 2.91013 seconds, causing it to disintegrate within a few millimeters of the impact.

By 1975, it was evident that something with a mass greater than an electron existed. Perl, who was ecstatic about the new findings, called a symposium and announced his discovery of a new particle.

Early on, Perl’s finding of the new particle drew a lot of criticism. He was heavily chastised because his findings had no logical explanation. Perl and his team spent more than two years collecting data to prove the existence of ‘tau,’ an elementary particle analogous to the electron. It created a triad with the electron and muon.

Tau, which means ‘third’ in Greek, had a mass 3500 times that of an electron. Despite its enormous size, it barely survived for a third of a trillionth of a second before withering into a shower of nuetrinos. The electron brother Tau is the heaviest of the electron brothers. According to the laws of physics, matter in the universe is divided into two groups of six particles: six leptons, which are made up of three electron brothers and three nuetrinos, and six quarks, which make up the insides of protons and nuetrons.

After his spectacular discovery of the tau lepton, Perl did not abandon his research career. He persisted in his research into the nature of quarks. Perl maintained his research after retiring, partnering with SLAC scientists on a number of projects, including one looking into dark energy.

Perl also had academic jobs in addition to his research. From 1955 until 1963, he worked at the University of Michigan as an instructor and later as an associate professor. He joined the Stanford University faculty in 1963 and was promoted to Professor Emeritus in 2004. He even accepted a position as a visiting lecturer at the University of Liverpool.

Major Projects of Martin Lewis Perl

Perl’s most notable achievement occurred in the second part of the 1970s. Between 1974 and 1977, he conducted various experiments with his group of scientists. He observed high-energy collisions of electrons and positrons with the new machine Spear. Though the collision produced a particle, the unknown particle’s lifetime was only 2.91013 seconds, causing it to disintegrate within a few millimeters of the impact. Perl only made tau lepton known to the world after a few more years and several more experiments. Tau leptons were heavier than electrons and were regarded as the electron’s third sibling, the other being the muon.

Achievements & Awards

Perl was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1995 for discovering the tau lepton. The discovery revealed the existence of a third particle family in addition to the two previously recognized families. He shared the prize with physicist Frederick Reines, who discovered the neutrino in the 1950s, another subatomic particle.

He was a member of Scientists and Engineers for America’s board of advisors, an organization dedicated to supporting sound science in the American government.
Perl was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Belgrade in 2009.

Personal History and Legacy

Teri Hoch Perl was Martin Lewis Perl’s wife. Three sons and a girl were born into the marriage.
Perl died of a heart attack on September 30, 2014, at Stanford University Hospital. He was 87 years old at the time.

Estimated Net Worth

The estimated net worth of Martin Lewis Perl is unknown.


Surprisingly, he later in life realized his childhood desire of building toys by acquiring a vast collection of them. He thought that people’s exploratory creativity may be sparked by these toys.