In memoriam: Murray Peshkin remembered for perspective, intellect, contributions
Murray Peshkin, a longtime physicist at Argonne National Laboratory and one of the youngest members of the historic Manhattan Project, was remembered as someone who loved to explore complex issues, helped fellow physicists, and enjoyed the outdoors as well as a good game of ping-pong.
Peshkin, whose career spanned a period of unprecedented developments in science, died of heart disease at age 92 on Sept. 20. He contributed so much to science and his colleagues over the years that the Physics Division plans to name the theory room and library after him, said Kawtar Hafidi, Argonne’s Physics Division director.
“Murray was a pillar of the theory group and the Physics Division,” said Hafidi. “In my several discussions with him, he always had a very interesting and wise perspective. He was very modest and gentle in making his point. He was amazing. Even now, I still expect to see him walking in the hallway. He was a breeze of fresh air. The best colleague and mentor one can hope for. He will always live in my heart.”
Peshkin was born on May 17, 1925, in Brooklyn, N.Y. After he graduated from S.J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn in 1942, he entered Cornell University. Two years later, he was granted a leave of absence to serve in the U.S. Army and was assigned to the Manhattan District Laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to assist in the construction of a nuclear reactor.
Peshkin was one of the youngest members of the Army’s Special Engineer Detachment at Los Alamos. He was assigned to Group T-4 of the Theoretical Division, assisting theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. Peshkin was among the first to enter the Trinity test site of the first atomic bomb explosion and left buck naked to minimize contamination.
By September 1946, Peshkin returned to Cornell, completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees, and then received his Ph.D. In 1951, Peshkin became a physics instructor at Northwestern University, where he later met his future wife.
“He was wonderfully grounded in the truth,” said Frances Peshkin, Murray’s wife of 62 years.
Peshkin joined Argonne’s Physics Division full time in 1959. Peshkin was fascinated by problems posed by fundamental issues in quantum mechanics. This included the Aharanov-Bohm effect where a magnetic field in an excluded region of space still impacts the results, the limits to the exponential decay of radioactivity, basic physics features in the search for time-reversal violation in neutron measurements, the implications of neutrino masses, and other issues, colleagues said.
Peshkin saw himself as an organic part of the group effort to further knowledge. Whether it was a subtle issue of quantum mechanics, some connection between condensed matter and nuclear physics, or relativity, Murray was the person to ask. He also worked diligently to get recognition for the accomplishments of his colleagues.
His activities were not restricted to Argonne. When magnetic flux quantization was discovered, Peshkin became one of the theorists who explored its implications. When the applications of the Mossbauer Effect required more consideration, Peshkin was asked to help. When certain atomic decays seemed to show non-exponential behavior, it was again Peshkin who demonstrated that the experimental results could not be correct. Science, after all, is the exploration of our understanding of the order in nature, and Peshkin was a master of this, colleagues said.
In 1967, Peshkin became associate director of Argonne’s Physics Division, and he continued in that position until 1983. He also filled in as acting director on three occasions. His wide circle of acquaintances among Argonne scientists and personnel, his patience in dealing with people, and his attention to humane solutions to problems that arose were exemplary, said Don Geesaman, former division director and Peshkin’s luncheon companion.
“The mere fact that he was interim director shows the respect he was held by the lab and the people knew they could count on him to make good decisions,” said Geesaman, who also enjoyed cross-country skiing with Peshkin.
Many colleagues had stimulating discussions with Peshkin at lunch or in his office, said John Schiffer, a long-term colleague and friend.
“His perspectives usually had an interesting, novel twist to them and helped broaden the framework,” said Schiffer. “He was patient with those who had a more limited understanding, and for many he was an enabler, stimulating them to look further and explore further. He was very generous with his time and actively fought to gain recognition of other people’s work.”
While Peshkin retired in 1991, he remained active, discussing physics and publishing scientific papers until his death.
In addition, editors often sent Peshkin difficult papers for his constructive refereeing. He served as an associate editor of the Journal of Mathematical Physics. Peshkin also was a strong advocate for the rights of international scientists and served as chairman of the American Physical Society Committee on International Freedom of Scientists. He gave numerous talks at churches, synagogues and service organizations about the relation of science and religion and he worked with the Sci-Tech Museum in Aurora.
He also was an avid ping-pong player and played with the Argonne Table Tennis Club even up to two weeks before his death. He enjoyed nature, kayaking, canoeing and long walks, said Peshkin’s daughter, Sharon Boyd-Peshkin.
“He was a man of great intellect. And those who knew him or played with him, knew he was a man of integrity, very moral and very ethical,” said Boyd-Peshkin.
By Anna Marie Tomczyk