Particle physicist Martin Lewis Perl was recognized worldwide for his discovery of the τ (tau) lepton. For that achievement he received the 1982 Wolf Prize and shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physics. He was also a Fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of the National Academy of Sciences (elected 1981).

Martin's distinctive approach to scientific investigation had its origins in his upbringing and in the influence of I. I. Rabi, his graduate advisor at Columbia University.

After coming to Stanford University in 1963, Martin sought to understand why there should be two and only two families of leptons: the electron and its associated neutrino; and the muon and the muon neutrino. His discovery of the τ provided evidence for a third family of fundamental leptons. The bottom quark was discovered shortly afterward at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, providing evidence for a third family of quarks. Direct evidence for the τ neutrino came later, thereby completing the third lepton generation, while the discovery of the top quark in 1995 completed the third generation of quarks. These achievements established leptons and quarks as fundamental constituents of matter and, along with the fundamental forces, provided the experimental basis of the “Standard Model,” our picture of how all matter is made up and how its components interact. Why there are three and only three families of leptons and quarks remains an unsolved mystery to this day.

Keyword(s): biography

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Literature Cited

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