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Martin B. Halpern
In Memoriam

Martin B. Halpern

Professor of Physics, Emeritus

UC Berkeley
Martin (Marty) Brent Halpern, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, passed away on January 21, 2018, at the age of 78. He was born to Blanche and Dr. Melvin Halpern on August 26, 1939, in Newark, N.J., and he grew up in Tucson, AZ. His father, Dr. Melvin Halpern, was a physician who volunteered to serve in World War II, an experience that had a profound influence on his life, and Martin Halpern began his higher education with the intention of following in his father's footsteps.  He graduated from the University of Arizona in 1960 with a B.S. in chemistry and mathematics, and subsequently was admitted to Harvard University, taking courses in preparation for a career in medicine. However, an introductory course in physics made him rethink his path. He was drawn to the logic of the field, changed his career plans, received his M.A. in physics in 1961, and completed his Ph.D. in physics in 1964, both at Harvard University.

Following research positions at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN), and at UC Berkeley, and a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. (accepting an invitation by Robert Oppenheimer), he joined the UC Berkeley faculty as an assistant professor in 1967. He was promoted to full professor in 1974.

His awards and honors include a Harvard Fellowship (1960-61), a National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship (1961-64), a NATO Fellowship at CERN (1964-65), a postdoctoral position at UC  Berkeley (1965-66), and at the Institute for Advanced Study (1966-67). He was a visiting scientist at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen in Spring 1984; a visiting scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in Spring 1989; a visiting scientist at a Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences (RIMS) Workshop on Infinite Analysis in Kyoto, Japan, in Summer 1991; a visiting scientist at CERN (1995-96); and a Miller Professor at UC Berkeley in Spring 1999.

He made central contributions to high energy physics and the budding field of string theory. Together with his colleague and close friend Professor Korkut Bardakci, he discovered a new type of symmetry and mathematical structure within string theory, known as an Affine Lie Algebra. He also made important discoveries in the field of quantum solitons and dual formulations of gauge theories. He had the insight to study new systems that later proved to be of great importance in the field, and he was one of the first people to appreciate the significance of the ground states of a certain, at the time obscure, strongly interacting quantum mechanical system described by matrix variables. His seminal work from 1985, “Supersymmetric Ground State Wavefunctions” (Nuclear Physics B. 250(4):689-715, co-authored with Mark Claudson) studied the system, which over a decade later proved relevant to the development of quantum gravity and M-theory.

He was a gifted teacher, a charismatic lecturer, and a devoted mentor to graduate students. His Conformal Field Theory and String Theory classes at UC Berkeley have had an impact on several generations of theoretical high energy physics students. He encouraged his graduate students in their pursuit of academic careers, and indeed among his many students some have achieved top positions in academia. His graduate students included Zvi Bern, Hue Sun Chan, Kenneth Clubko, Jarah Evslin, Craig Helfgott, Niels Obers, Lorenzo Sadun, Warren Siegel, and John Wang.

Professor Halpern was witty, and he liked to challenge authority and question norms, but always with candor. And he worked hard, assiduously developing his new ideas, writing notebooks full of equations until the wee hours in his office in Birge Hall. He retired from UC Berkeley in 2005, and moved back to his hometown of Tucson, together with his spouse Penelope Halpern. He continued to develop his ideas in theoretical physics, constructing the theory of the general current-algebraic orbifold.

Professor Halpern was raised Jewish and had great interest in world religions, as well as history, politics, literature, theater, movies, and music. He was an avid weight-lifter, and enjoyed regular workouts as well as good food. He also traveled around the world, and he regularly visited Berkeley after his retirement.

He is survived by his wife Penelope Halpern, his daughter, filmmaker Tamar Halpern, and his grandson Jordan Halpern Schwartz, a film composer.

Ori Ganor