Sam Bard Treiman, 1925-1999

Sam Bard Treiman, Higgins Professor of Physics emeritus, died on November 30, 1999 at the age of 74. He made notable contributions to the modern theory of elementary particles, was a renowned teacher of graduate students and mentor of young theoretical physicists and, in a wider university setting, played a critical role in the steady strengthening of the sciences at Princeton during his forty-six years as a member of this faculty. 

Sam Treiman was born in Chicago on May 27, 1925 of immigrant parents. He entered Northwestern University in 1942, intending to study chemical engineering, but soon discovered a love of physics. World War II interrupted his studies, and he served in the US Navy from 1944 to 1946, doing duty as a radar technician in the Philippines. After the war, he resumed his education under the GI Bill at the University of Chicago, where he majored in physics and earned the degrees of BS (1949), MS (1950) and Ph.D. (1952). During this time he met and married a young student of psychology, Joan Little, who was to be his constant companion for the next forty-seven years.

The postwar years were exciting times at Chicago. Enrico Fermi and a crowd of talented young associates were studying the exotic states of matter created in high-energy collisions at the new accelerators and, in the process, creating the new science of particle physics. A few hardy souls chose to pursue this physics through cosmic rays, which gave access to even higher energies than accelerators (but were much harder to work with). Treiman, attracted by the science, but perhaps undecided between experiment and theory, chose to do calculations concerning the nature of the cosmic radiation for John Simpson, a talented cosmic ray experimenter. Even while he was writing his thesis, however, "strange'' particles, not obeying known conservation laws, were being discovered in cosmic ray experiments. Treiman soon became far more interested in the new particles, and the theoretical puzzles they posed, than in the cosmic rays that had produced them and embarked in earnest on a career in theoretical particle physics.

That career was to unfold at Princeton, where he rose from Instructor in 1952 to Professor in 1963; a rapid rise propelled by a series of important contributions to theoretical particle physics. These included a phenomenological analysis of parity and time-reversal violation in nuclear beta-decay which set the framework for all subsequent experimental studies of space-time symmetry breaking in nuclei; and a relation between strong- and weak-interaction properties of the proton and neutron, known to history as the Goldberger-Treiman relation, and which was a giant step on the road to the Standard Model. He continued to make notable contributions to science for the next two decades. A later contribution, of which he was particularly fond, because of the way it tied together all his favorite subjects, was the demonstration that space-time symmetry violation in the weak interactions, when combined with Big-Bang dynamics could explain the existence and amount of matter in the universe. His many achievements in particle theory led to his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1972. An account of his science would not be complete without at least a mention of his deep respect for experiment and his continual effort to make his work relevant to the concerns of experimenters. Experimenters, in turn, delighted in consulting him because he never displayed the characteristic arrogance of theorists and always appreciated how devilishly difficult experiments often are.

Treiman was known and admired, not only for the quality and influence of his science, but also for his ability to encourage and inspire the younger generation. Sam was an exceptional teacher as well as a gifted scientist, and his classroom lectures were legendary for their clear explanations of the newest ideas in particle theory with a minimum of fuss and formalism. His effectiveness as a mentor was perhaps even more remarkable. He engaged his students and young colleagues in a continuing Socratic dialog in which he communicated his deep love for scientific ideas and his fierce devotion to clarity and quality of thought. The most outstanding of the many beneficiaries of his attention were eventually responsible for many of the advances that established the Standard Model. Others also went on to successful careers in physics and now play important roles in the physics institutions of this country. His exceptional contribution as a teacher of graduate students was honored in 1985 with the Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers. Beyond the physics, his students and young colleagues also remember with great fondness the interest taken by Sam and Joan in their personal lives and the warm hospitality offered over the years in the Treiman home on McCosh Circle.

Treiman’s distinction as a scientist, not to speak of his judgement, civility and devotion to duty, led inevitably to his being sought out for other tasks. As an academic leader he devoted all his energy to advancing the agenda of scholarly excellence: working to the highest standards oneself and recognizing and nurturing this quality in others. He had a profound effect on his own department, both as Chair from 1981 to 1987 and as a highly respected counselor at all times. Treiman served the wider University as Chair of the University Research Board from 1988 to 1995 and as a member of the C3 on several occasions. In these capacities he was deeply involved in the development of the Princeton Materials Institute, the creation and growth of the new departments of Molecular Biology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, as well as major changes in Geology and the Engineering School. His intelligence and lucidity, coupled with his transparent lack of any agenda other than that of making Princeton home to the highest quality of science gave special weight to his frequently sought advice to deans, provosts and presidents. Sam's influence on this institution cannot be given a simple summation. It was felt in countless personnel decisions, both within physics and outside of it; his vision of science as an enterprise is embodied in the many institutional decisions that changed the course of science and engineering as it is practiced here. So much bears his personal stamp, but because of his characteristic modesty, very little bears his signature.

His many friends respected and admired the scientist and academic leader but loved, and now sorely miss, the man. One thing we miss the most is his charming and self-deprecating wit. It lay at the heart of his persona and was an important factor in his effectiveness in debate and counsel: Sam's ability to see wry humor in the face of serious issues lightened many a difficult moment, gave warmth to all of us, and was something he took great pleasure in sharing. Unfortunately, the tone prescribed for this exercise precludes our telling any of the many Treiman jokes or stories. Sam, were he before you, would not have allowed himself to be so constrained: he was an enemy of solemnity in almost all occasions.

Sams don't come around very often. He was an ornament to this university and left it a far better place than he found it. We were privileged to know him.