Martin Lewis Perl was born on June 24, 1927, in Manhattan, New York. He enrolled in the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, now Polytechnic University, and began studying chemical engineering. His college career was interrupted by the start of World War II. Perl joined the United States Merchant Marine. After the war, he returned to the Polytechnic Institute and received a bachelor degree in Chemical Engineering in 1948. Following graduation, he joined the General Electric Company, working as a Chemical Engineer in the Electron Tube Division.
In 1950, he entered the physics doctoral program at Columbia University. After he obtained his Ph.D. in 1955, he had job offers from the Physics Departments at Yale, the University of Illinois, and the University of Michigan. In the end, Perl accepted Michigan’s offer. Perl has been on the faculty at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center SLAC since 1963.
In 1995, Perl won the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Fredrick Reines, for his discovery of the tauon. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS).
The following press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences describes Perl's work:
Mankind seeks his place in nature. He endeavours to find answers to philosophical and physical questions alike. The home of mankind, the Universe, was created in a Big Bang. “What does this Universe consist of?” - "What are the smallest constituents of the Universe and what are their properties?" - "What can they tell us of the history of the Universe and of its future?" etc. This year's laureates have in this search made lasting contributions: They have discovered two of nature's most remarkable subatomic particles.
Martin L. Perl and his colleagues discovered, through a series of experiments between 1974 and 1977, at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in the USA, that the electron has a relative some 3 500 times heavier, which is called the taut
Martin Perl's discovery of the tau was the first sign that a third "family" of fundamental building blocks existed. Some years later a further building block was discovered - one of the family's two quarks, the bottom quark. Not until 18 years later was its other quark, the top quark, discovered. The existence of the third family is very important for physicists' confidence in the present theoretical model for understanding the properties of nature's smallest constituents. This is called the standard model. Without a third family, the model would have been incomplete and unable to admit what is termed the Charge and Parity (CP) violation, a violation of a fundamental principle of symmetry which, among other things, regulates particle decay (Nobel Prize to Cronin and Fitch 1980). If a fourth family of quarks and leptons is discovered, this may mean that the standard model must be revised and more extensive reconstruction within elementary-particle physics commenced.