Robert Eugene Marshak was born October 11, 1916 in the Bronx in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents Harry and Rose Marshak. He excelled at school, attending City College of New York for a brief time before finishing his undergraduate degree at Columbia University. He then went on to receive his PhD in Physics from Cornell in 1939. He and his thesis advisor, Hans Bethe, researched the role of fusion in star formation. This work landed him a spot on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos a few years later, where he assisted in the development of atomic weapons technology. Of particular note were his contributions to our understanding of how shock waves behave during high energy events such as nuclear explosions, which led to such waves being known as “Marshak waves”.
After the war, Marshak returned to New York to take up a position in the Physics Department at Rochester University in Rochester. In 1947, as a participant in the Shelter Island Conference, Marshak presented a hypothesis theorizing the existence of a new class of subatomic particle, which was shortly to be confirmed. After becoming head of the University of Rochester Physics Department in 1950, Marshak established the Rochester Conference, now known as the International Conference on High Energy Physics, which still meets to this day. His work on weak interactions was instrumental to establishing the electroweak theory, which won Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann a Nobel Prize.
It is unclear what Marshak’s beliefs were before World War II, but, following his work on the Manhattan Project, he became a staunch supporter of open science and an end to the militarization of science and technology. He worked tirelessly to enhance scientific communication, protest nationalist scientific policies, and promote peace. While people who knew him frequently described him as being prickly, arrogant, and difficult to work with, he nevertheless used his position and renown within his field to support and advocate for scientists who found themselves persecuted by their own governments. He maintained an active correspondence with physicists and scientists all over the world and attended conferences, symposia, meetings, and workshops to learn and share his own knowledge.
In 1970, he was offered the position of President at City College of New York, which he had once attended. He accepted, and ran the school for 9 years. As time wore on, he found he missed physics and teaching, so in 1979 he took up the position of University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Virginia Tech, where he stayed until his retirement in 1991. In 1983, while at Virginia Tech, he also served a year-long term as President of the American Physical Society, which is the largest organization of American physicists.
One incident in particular highlights Marshak’s commitment to scientific freedom and openness. Andrei Sakharov was a nuclear physicist from the Soviet Union. His life had a similar trajectory to Marshak’s. He too worked on nuclear technology for his country, and he too came to believe that weaponizing science was a sure path to war and destruction. However, his life turned out much differently than Marshak’s. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Sakharov began to advocate for peace and an end to nuclear testing. He became a well-known dissident within his own country, work which would eventually lead to his arrest, exile, and a Nobel Peace Prize. It is during this period where his story intersects with Marshak’s. In Marshak’s papers, one can trace the American’s growing concern with the danger and persecution facing his Soviet colleague, as well as his efforts to bring the situation to the attention of the global community and prevent harm from coming to Sakharov, who by now was known much more for his political actions than for his work as a physicist. Marshak did not face such overt threats, but his support of and communication with Soviet scientists throughout the Cold War period brought him under scrutiny at a time when the specter of communism made any connection to the USSR a dangerous one. He was forced to undergo several investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a result of his work. Despite this, Marshak never stopped being an advocate for the peaceful sharing of science and technology.
This only skims the surface of Marshak’s papers. The finding aid for his collections can be found here.
This project was supported by a grant from the American Institute of Physics.
One of the great things about working in a place like Special Collections is that discovery can be an everyday occurrence. Ive written at this blogeither obliquely or directlyabout this dimension of the job, as have many of my colleagues. Whether the find is a promotional flyer for D.W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation, a journal from an arctic expedition, a letter written by Victoria Cross (one of several pseudonyms of British writer, Annie Sophie Cory), or a copy of The Great Gatsbyautographed by F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . there is always some excitement even if you know that the discovery really may mean that you havent seen the item before. Someone else, perhaps a colleague, likely a predecessor, may have very well known about the book, letter, paper that youve just discovered.
So, several years ago, when I was perusing the part of our stacks that deals with aviation (the TLs for all you library-folk out there), I saw for the first time a nondescript book with a rough, brownish, handmade paper cover and pages that were clearly handmade, a book with a lot of age on it. When I opened up the book, this is what I saw: LUomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso LAmico Dell Autore.
Roughly translated: Man Flying over the air, water, and land. New Inventions/Innovation of an Anonymous Italian of the Year 1784. In Venice at a Friend of the Author’s.
Most translations of the title that Ive seen are close variations of this. Could be through air or on water or on land, I suppose, but the date is clear; that it was published anonymously is clear; and it is completely clear that Id never heard of this work. A quick check showed that no English translation exists. A handwritten note on the inside front cover, reads (translated), The author is Count Carlo Bettoni. Again, he was unknown to me, but a little bit of investigating confirmed that is known to be the author of the book . . . and that only six copies are listed in Worldcat. This is the kind of discovery, a felicitous thing, that drives curiosity! That the two languages of the book, Italian and mathematics, are languages in which I am less than fluent, did nothing to quell my desire to know more.
So many things to investigate! What do we know about Count Bettoni? A few quick searches on the book title indicate that an individual named Giuseppe Avanzini contributed the mathematical content of the book, but what do all those equations seek to describe? Even more tantalizing . . . Worldcat shows that four of the six copies listed also include illustrations or folding plates! Our copy does not. The year of publication, 1784 is, itself, interesting. Only in late 1782 did the Mongolfier brothers of France start their experiments with balloons, with the first untethered balloon flight with a human aboard occurring on 21 November 1783 in a system of their design. It is fair to say that the early and mid 1780s saw the craze of ballooning emergeespecially in Britain and France, but also in Italyas a popular craze and a seductive possibility for scientific investigation. Apparently, Bettoni took part, but he also seems to have let his imagination range over . . . what, improved methods of transportation over land and sea, as well?
Bettoni was born in 1725 to a wealthy landowning family in what is now Brescia in the Lombardy region of north Italy. The aptly-named [?] Biographical Dictionary of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (184244) describes him as “a nobleman passionately fond of science, and a munificient patron of scientific men.” In 1768, he founded the Academy of Agrarian Brescia and, apparently, conducted experiments to protect mulberry trees from a rampant epidemic. In some circles, (see A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World . . . Digested on a New Plan by John Pinkerton, vol. 4, 1809), and as a result of these experiments, Bettoni was credited with discovering a new silkworm! Bitten by the ballooning bug in 1783, Bettoni went to work with Avanzini on what would become L’Uomo Volante.
Born in 1753, Avanzini studied theology and mathematics at Brescia, while preparing himself for the priesthood. He came to Bettoni’s attention and had gained recognition for his skill as a mathematician by the time he collaborated with Bettoni on Thoughts on the Government of the Rivers (1782) a work that reported on the practice of planting specific kinds of trees along riverbanks to impede erosion and decrease the dangers of flooding. They would work together again after L’Uomo Volante on a large and unfinished project to produce a topographical map of the area surrounding Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy located about halfway between Brescia and Verona. Whatever the nature of the collaboration between the two men, it is clear that the substance of the mathematical element Avanzini contributed to L’Uomo Volante and to other projects, was the work of a man who would go on to become professor of mathematics and, later, of physics and applied mathematics at the University of Padua. His work, primarily in the area of fluid dynamics, would earn him membership in the Italian National Academy of Sciences (Societ Italiana). While I am not qualified to judge the quality and appropriateness of the mathematics in L’Uomo Volante, I would guess that it could be evaluated seriously.
The Enciclopedia Italiana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti describes L’Uomo Volante, in one of the few characterizations I have found, as “miscuglio piuttosto audace di prosa scientifica e di progetti palesemente utopistici” (translated as “a rather bold mixture of scientific prose and blatantly utopian projects”). The Enciclopedia, also known as Treccani says that Bettoni, an “agricultural and technical aviation pioneer,” was the first to propose a dirigible balloon and a system of propulsion based on rowing. Other sources also suggest his is the first recorded version of an elongated airship, a spindle-shaped balloon, rather than the spherical balloons either in use or proposed at the time. (The use of the word “dirigible” suggests a rigid frame, but I do not know if this is part of the Bettoni/Avanzini design.)
Of course, there were plans for the more typical version, as well, but with some accommodation for steering and/or propulsion.
There were also two drawings included for water travel, one involving an elongated system of paddles:
But now, when we come to land, well, this giant-sized hampster wheel really got my attention! Check it out!
So, should we ignore this work that seems to have garnered little attention over a couple of centuries? Is it the work of a wealthy amateur scientist (read: crackpot) whose mathematician colleague lent his skills for a free ride? Is it to be taken seriously? Doesn’t someone want to translate it? Is this the basis for a thesis or dissertation just waiting, screaming, in fact, to be tackled? Surely, some student in the history of science and technology wants to rediscover Signori Bettoni and Avanzini. Ladies and Gents, Studente e Studentesse . . . step right up!
Original materials. One-of-a-kind documents. This is what one expects to find in Special Collections. Any Special Collections. All Special Collections. It is our business. But every once in a while, you come across a unique document and, “surely,” you say to yourself, “there must be another copy of it somewhere.” Yes, it is unique because it is a particular individual’s copy, maybe with his or her annotations, but this can’t possibly be the only copy that exists! And then you find out, maybe, it is. Could the proceedings from the first Rochester Conference on High Energy Physics, part of the Robert E. Marshak Papers, 1947-1990, be such a document?
The first Conference on High Energy Physics to be held in Rochester, NY took place on 16 December 1950. It was organized largely by Robert Marshak, then the new chair of the Physics Department at the University of Rochester. Marshak had started at Rochester in 1939 and, following the outbreak of the war, worked first in Boston on furthering the development of radar and then, in Montreal, contributing to the British effort to produce an atomic bomb. In 1944, he joined the American atomic effort at Los Alamos, where he was a deputy group leader in theoretical physics. With the end of the war, however, inquiry into the realm of nuclear and particle physics no longer needed to be restricted to its practical aspects.
That first meeting in Rochester followed by 20 months the last of the three Shelter Island conferences that had been organized by Robert Oppenheimer between 1947 and 1949. Marshak, who attended these meetings and at which he first proposed the influential two-meson theory, described them as having been “limited to a small number of theorists, with a couple of ‘token’ experimentalists,”* nearly all American. The goal for the Shelter Island meetings, which involved approximately 25 attendees, was to assess the post-war status of particle physics and to provide an outlook for future developments. Marshak’s vision was to invite a more equal mix of theorists, accelerator experimentalists, and cosmic ray experimentalists and to make the meeting truly international. The increased emphasis on the experimental aspect of the field reflected not only Marshak’s interests, but also the fact that five new high-energy accelerators had been built in the U.S. since the end of the war—including one at Rochester—and they were producing results.
An early proposal for the Rochester conference was sent to the University of Rochester’s provost, Donald Gilbert, on 11 January 1949, before the last of the three Shelter Island meetings. The proposal was for a five-day event that included a one-day trip to the accelerator facilities at Cornell. It came with a request to the university for $7500. A letter written by Marshak to Joseph C. Wilson, head of The Haloid Company (which would become Xerox Corp.), dated 22 January 1950, makes clear that funding for the proposal would need to come from private sources.
By the fall of 1950, the conference was planned as a one-day event and scheduled for 16 December. The Physics building on campus would remain open the following day for post-conference meetings/ presentations and Professor Wolfgang Panofsky extended his visit for a week to include a public lecture and special colloquia on new frontiers and recent experiments. A first round of invitations to general attendees may have been sent out in late October or early November, as the earliest acceptance among the materials is dated 7 November. Another general invitation in the collection is dated 29 November. Invitations were sent to approximately 100 top physicists as well to interested representatives of local industries, including Haloid, which provided financial support for the conference.
Interestingly, in a hand-written reply to a request that he participate in some of the post-conference discussion, Richard Feynman wrote:
O.K. I’ll stick around a couple of days more and talk things over. We’ll worry about what the lectures are later. In the meantime something general like ‘Field Theory’ or something will do as a title I guess. You make the title, I’ll talk on it.
Three sessions were scheduled for the day-long program: a morning session dealing with experiments with nucleons, chaired by Abraham Pais; an afternoon session on experiments with mesons, chaired by Robert Oppenheimer; and an evening session chaired by Hans Bethe on experiments with photons and electrons. In a June 1970 article for “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,” Marshak wrote:
There were three sessions of invited papers at this first Rochester Conference, chiefly experimental reports on nucleon elastic scattering and meson production by nucleons and photons. Theoretical discussion on the experimental findings was useful, but I do not recall any breakthroughs.
The manuscript of the proceedings begins with a 6-page summary of the morning session written up by R.S., possibly R. Scalettar, a colleague of Marshak’s from Rochester’s Physics Department. What follows are approximately 120 pages of marked-up typescript, a transcript of the days presentations and discussion. As is clear from the manuscript, the days events were recorded on audio tape, which provided the basis for the transcription. (The fate of the original tape is anyone’s guess.) In addition to notes on various pages regarding “reel” and “side” numbers, the following note is found very early in the transcription of the morning presentation:
about 3 minutes of Ramsey’s speech is not available to us at this point because the plug to the recording machine was kicked out of wall.
Is it comforting—or, perhaps, simply humbling—to recognize that our knowledge of this conference of the most esteemed representatives of the most advanced technology of the day depended, in part, on the recognition that an electric plug had been kicked out of the wall?
There is also the following note from the person producing the transcript:
(broke tape at this point, after spending nearly two hours learning operation of machine and taking notes. It took from 30 to 45 minutes to learn the machine and listen to the speech once and the rest of the time was taking notes, a few words at a time and rewinding frequently when I couldn’t keep up or missed a word. B.)
There is some indication that written proceedings were to be distributed to the participants in the conference. It remains unclear whether this was done, but it appears doubtful. John Polkinghorne, in his 1989 book, Rochester Roundabout: The Story of High Energy Physics, states unequivocally, “No Proceedings are publicly available of the first Conference.” (p.198). I have found no others. In his 1986 book, Inward Bound: Of Matter and Forces in the Physical World, Abraham Pais, a participant in the 1950 conference, notes his thanks to Robert Marshak for “making available to me an unedited transcript of that meeting.” (note, p.461). These are, presumably, copies of the typescript held here in the Marshak Papers. Lastly, in June 2014, a set of the proceedings of the First through Seventh Rochester Conferences on High Energy Physics was sold through Bonhams auction house. The description specifies:
Vol. I: mimeographed typescript draft with ms corrections, in 3-ring binder, with ms note to Abraham Pais from Robert Marshak, founder of the Rochester Conferences. (http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/21652/lot/130/ last viewed 10 July 2015)
Can we presume that this is the copy Pais refers to in his book? Are there any others? Perhaps not.
Marshak’s initial conference grew to become the event of lasting and international significance that he envisioned. The Third Conference, held December 18–20, 1952, had 150 participants, had governmental support for the first time, and included scientists from Great Britain, Italy, Australia, France, Holland, and Japan, among other countries. The Sixth Conference, held in April 1956, saw the attendance of the first Soviet delegation. The following year, 300 scientists from 24 countries attended the Seventh Conference, which ran for 5 days. It had become what John Wheeler, physicist from Princeton, called the “premier opportunity for the physicists of the world to exchange ideas.” After the Seventh Conference, the newly organized High Energy Commission of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) decided to establish a three-way rotation for the annual conference with the 1958 meeting in Geneva and the 1959 meeting in Kiev. In 1960, the Tenth Conference&—lasting eight days and with 36 scientific secretaries also participating—was back in Rochester, but for the last time before the officially named International Conference on High Energy Physics left permanently for more varied venues and a biennial schedule.
In 1970 Marshak left Rochester to become president of the City College of New York, and in the fall of 1979 became a University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Virginia Tech. He retired as Emeritus University Distinguished Professor in 1987. Robert E. Marshak died on 23 December 1992.
Although the conference that began with Marshak’s small one-day event is now being held around the world, it is still commonly referred to as the Rochester conference. The proceedings of that first meeting are now publicly available, likely for the first time.
All of this material and more will eventually find its way to this department’s platform for digital content, Special Collections Online, but until then, for this material, this post will have to serve in its place.
*Marshak, Robert E., Scientific impact of the first decade of the Rochester conferences (1950–1960, in Pions to Quarks: Particle Physics in the 1950s, Laurie M. Brown, Dresden, and Hoddeson, eds., New York: Cambridge University Press, 198