A nuclear pioneer’s collection stars the Milky Way, nuclear explosions, and shock waves
One of the most significant collections of physics and science documents has its home behind the Hokie Stone exterior of Newman Library in Special Collections and University Archives. Atomic bomb, white dwarf stars, shock waves, nuclear explosion, and Albert Einstein are frequent references that archivist Bess Pittman saw while processing the mesmerizing collection of Robert E. Marshak. Thanks to a grant from the American Institute of Physics, this collection is now more accessible for researchers and science enthusiasts alike.
The Robert E. Marshak Papers document the professional life and commitment to scientific discovery of this internationally recognized and highly imaginative physicist, Virginia Tech professor, and promoter of shared science. This trove of materials documents his involvement in global science across many decades.
Astounding highlights in the Marshak collection include letters from Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Abdus Salam, Enrico Fermi, and Hideki Yukawa. The collection includes correspondence, publications, photographs, subject files, scientific notes, conference proceedings, reports, scrapbooks, legislation, speeches, interviews, and other professional and personal materials.
Marshak’s correspondence is quite extensive and includes a number of notable figures of that time. “On the first day we started processing the collection, I found some correspondence that Marshak had with Albert Einstein,” said Pittman. “It was a fairly tight-knit group of people who were working on the same scientific problems back in the day, so it’s wonderful to see how they all knew each other and worked together, or diverged.”
From 1984 to 1994, the Marshak family donated the Marshak Papers, spanning more than 92 cubic feet, to Virginia Tech, but due to limitations in staffing and resources, only the first seven cubic feet were processed. Recent research interest in the collection indicates that now is the time to complete the processing of this exhaustive collection. Thanks to the American Institute of Physics’ Grants to Archives program, 27 years later, Pittman processed the remaining 85.5 cubic feet. The grant covered salary for Pittman and the cost of archival supplies.
From prestigious associations and scientific organizations to international relations, government-sponsored research during World War II, his academic career, and impressive physics research, Marshak had a full career in science and was a pioneer for world peace.
“This is my first opportunity to dive into a collection with such a heavy science focus, and it’s absolutely fascinating,” said Pittman. “Marshak’s grasp of the complexities of the world we live in and the respect he garnered from his peers in the field are obvious.”
Born in 1916 in the Bronx, New York, Marshak graduated from James Monroe High School at the age of 15. In college, Marshak majored in physics at Columbia University and attended graduate school at Cornell University, studying under the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Hans Bethe, who studied energy production in stars or thermonuclear sources of stellar energy.
Marshak’s work with Bethe prompted his 1939 Ph.D. dissertation at age 22 on energy production in the Milky Way Galaxy’s white dwarf stars. His hypothesis was confirmed 40 years later when the white dwarf orbiting Sirius came into view making him instrumental in explaining the actions of fusion in star formation.
After college, Marshak accepted a teaching position at the University of Rochester, but in 1942 during World War II, he began working for the federal government. There he developed radar in Boston and collaborated on the British atomic bomb project at the Montreal Laboratory in Quebec, Canada. This became part of the top secret Manhattan Project. Marshak was part of the scientific team that developed the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Marshak served as deputy group leader in theoretical physics for the atomic bomb project. He discovered energy waves, later named Marshak waves, and contributed the reasoning behind how shock waves work under the immensely hot temperatures during a nuclear explosion. Marshak waves are also used to describe the ramifications of a supernova explosion.
A born leader, dreamer, and innovator, Marshak worked among the most elite physicists in the world. He collaborated with the great minds of Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Neils Bohr, and Richard Feynman. Together they witnessed the explosion of the first atomic bomb.
After the fall of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during World War II, Marshak helped start the Federation of Atomic Scientists with the goal to limit nuclear proliferation, and in 1947 became the chairman of the federation.
After the war, Marshak returned to the University of Rochester to lead its physics department. During this time, he traveled occasionally to the Soviet Union collaborating with Soviet scientists and even enduring several government investigations into his connections to the Soviet Union during the McCarthy Era.
Later, Marshak created the International Rochester Conference in the 1950s where international scientists gathered to share knowledge on High Energy Physics. It was at one of these conferences that Marshak, along with his graduate student, George Sudarshan, proposed the V-A theory of weak interactions, paving the way for the electroweak theory.
In 1970, Marshak became president of the City College of New York (CCNY) where he helped establish the International Foundation for Science. Marshak’s presidency was transformative for the school, but he longed to return to his passion, physics research and his unquenchable desire for social justice.
In 1979, he joined Virginia Tech as University Distinguished Professor of physics and became president of the American Physical Society. During his time at Virginia Tech, Marshak established scientific links with China and Brazil and became involved with human rights issues in the Soviet Union. These issues focused primarily on Andrei Sakharv, the father of the Soviet H-bomb, who was imprisoned as a dissident.
Marshak retired from Virginia Tech in 1991 at age 75. Over his lifetime he wrote several books, including the robust book on development of particle physics, Conceptual Foundations of Modern Particle Physics, written during his retirement. He finished the book in late December 1992 and died the next day, drowning while on vacation in Cancun, Mexico.
“The collection is unique because it documents the workings of an extraordinary mind who came to make his home at Virginia Tech,” said Pittman. “While Marshak was a brilliant scientist advancing our knowledge of the universe, he was also a devoted teacher. The collection reflects his desire to support and promote students of the discipline that he loved, as well as his own accomplishments in the field.”
“The research potential for the 85.5 cubic feet of unprocessed Marshak material is tremendous,” said Aaron Purcell, co-principal investigator of the grant and director of Special Collections and University Archives. “This material documents over five decades of scientific discovery, academic research, and international engagement.”
Purcell said that increased research interest in Marshak indicated a need to fully process the collection and the grant program from the American Institute of Physics was a perfect fit. “Now that the collection is fully organized, it is easier for scientists and historians to locate material. Also, faculty and students at Virginia Tech may decide to use the Marshak collection as part of their courses or research.”
Instruction archivists in the University Libraries Special Collections and University Archives at Virginia Tech work closely with faculty to integrate primary sources into courses, especially those in the STEM fields. The University Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives also houses the related collections of the Michael Collins Papers and the Christopher Kraft Papers. Together, these form a core collecting area for the study of modern science and technology.
Pittman said she wants people to know that even the most esoteric subjects have a deep vein of relatable humanity when you get right down to it. “The papers of a physicist who is most well known for his work in the 1940s might seem obscure and irrelevant to most people now, but they contain all the joy, uncertainty, interpersonal strife, and triumph that one could hope to find.”