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 day’s presentations and discussion. As is clear from the manuscript, the day’s 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