Melvin Schwartz was an American physicist who along with Leon M. Lederman and Jack Steinberger played a prominent role in the development of the neutrino beam method for which the trio received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1988. The pioneering experiments conducted by the men showed for the first time that two types of neutrinos existed. Born in New York City during the Great Depression, Schwartz had a difficult childhood as his parents struggled to provide economic stability for the family. But despite the challenging circumstances, his parents instilled in their young son the importance of contributing to the betterment of mankind. He attended the Bronx High School of Science where he realized his love for physics. He then proceeded to study physics at Columbia University, and embarked on an academic career after completing his PhD. He became a professor of physics at Stanford University after teaching at Columbia for a few years. It was at Columbia that he met his future collaborators Jack Steinberger and Leon M. Lederman; with them he performed the experiments that would eventually earn them the Nobel Prize in Physics. After years of a successful academic career he ventured into newer territories and founded a company, Digital Pathways.
Childhood & Early Life
Melvin Schwartz was born on November 2, 1932, in New York City, at the peak of the Great Depression. He had a very difficult childhood as his parents struggled to make ends meet. However, the family maintained their optimism and the young boy was instructed by his parents to always strive to give back to humanity.
An intelligent boy, he excelled in his studies at the Bronx High School of Science in New York. As a 12 year old, he realized his love for physics.
After graduating from high school, he joined the Columbia Physics Department, headed by Nobel laureate I. I. Rabi, which was at that time considered one of the best institutes for studying physics. It was here that he became acquainted with Jack Steinberger who was his teacher and mentor. Schwartz received his bachelor’s degree in 1953 and a doctorate, also from Columbia, in 1958.
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After completing his doctorate, he joined his alma mater as an assistant professor in 1958. He was promoted to associate professor in 1960 and became a full professor three years later.
He spent several years of his successful academic career at Columbia. He collaborated with his colleagues Jack Steinberger and Leon Lederman to perform groundbreaking experiments in the field of particle physics. He was also greatly influenced by Tsung-Dao Lee, another Columbia colleague who had recently won the Nobel Prize, at the age of 30.
In the 1950s, physicists were having trouble studying neutrinos because even though they are plentiful, they very rarely interact with other matter. Schwartz had a feeling that neutrinos might be easier to study if it was possible to create a beam of them in a laboratory.
In the 1960s, he along with Steinberger and Lederman conducted experiments at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island to further investigate this possibility. The researchers used a particle accelerator to generate a stream of high-energy protons, which were then fired at a target made of the metal beryllium. These collisions resulted in a stream of different particles that always came out in pairs, a muon together with a neutrino. This enabled the scientists to study the collisions between neutrinos in the beam and aluminum atoms in a 10-ton detector. As a result of these experiments, the muon neutrino was discovered.
After spending 17 years at Columbia, Schwartz moved to Stanford University in 1966. What primarily prompted the move was the fact that a new accelerator, SLAC, was just being completed and his knowledge and experience would come in handy for research there.
At Stanford he was involved in investigation of the charge asymmetry in the decay of the long-lived neutral kaon, and was also a part of another project which succeeded in producing and detecting relativistic hydrogen-like atoms each made up of a pion and a muon.
In the 1970s, he founded a company, Digital Pathways, and served as its Chief Executive Officer. The company dealt with secure management of data communications. He left Stanford in 1983 to work full time at his company.
He became Associate Director of High Energy and Nuclear Physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1991. Around the same time he rejoined the Columbia faculty as Professor of Physics and was made I. I. Rabi Professor of Physics in 1994. He retired in 2000.
While working alongside his colleagues in Columbia in 1962, Melvin Schwartz discovered that more than one type of neutrino exists. During their experiments they first detected interactions of the muon neutrino which was a pioneering discovery of that era.
Awards & Achievements
Melvin Schwartz received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965.
In 1975, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
In 1988, Melvin Schwartz, along with Leon M. Lederman and Jack Steinberger was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics "for the neutrino beam method and the demonstration of the doublet structure of the leptons through the discovery of the muon neutrino."
Personal Life & Legacy
Melvin Schwartz was happily married to Marilyn who was his constant companion and source of support. The couple had three children.
He died on August 28, 2006, after struggling with Parkinson's disease and hepatitis C.