Locklin on science

Ave Atque Vale: Marty Halpern

Posted in history by Scott Locklin on March 12, 2019

My pal Marty Halpern died over a year ago now. He was one of my oldest and closest pals who still had some presence in Berkeley. Though he was only a quarterly visitor to Berkeley in recent years, we kept in touch as best we could, and it was always like old times when we’d talk on the phone or see each other in person for some red meat and man talk.

Our first meeting was very Berkeley, and is still one of my favorite “Locklin being an idiot” stories. I was still a long haired grad student, just getting started on deadlifts and presses in the Berkeley 24 hour fitness place; it must have been late 2002 or early 2003. Marty Gutzwiller’s book on quantum chaos fell out of my locker while I was showering; it was one of those yellow Springer-Verlag books immediately recognizable as a physics text. When I got out of the showers, a large nude man was standing there reading the other Marty’s book. It’s not every day I’m confronted with large nude men reading books that fell out of my locker, so I probably said something somewhat rude like,

“What are you doing.”

“Oh, is this yours”

“Yes, it was in my locker”

“You know something about physics?”

“Yes, I study physics.”

“I know some physics too.”

At this point my eyes are rolling, and I figure I’m confronted with some Berkeley loon who is going to tell me how his quartz crystal gives him psychic powers. As soon as he introduced himself, I knew who he was; Marty Halpern, the eminent high energy physicist from UC Berkeley who helped invent the second generation of supersymmetric string theory.


As fellow physics nerds who enjoy lifting weights we became fast friends. We didn’t have even vaguely similar tastes in physics; his stuff was all high energy, tending towards noodle theory. Mine was experimental low energy. I don’t think either one of us understood each other very well when we talked about such things, and of course, my own knowledge of my field was ridiculously shallow compared to his. Yet we had some spirited conversations on the topic, as well as my later topics of quantitative finance and data science. Mostly though, that was work talk. Guys who do mathy things who also like lifting weights, shooting guns, eating red meat, being guys  and not taking shit from any pasty  nincompoops; that’s real talk.

Marty and I both appreciated our Robert E. Howard Conan books and our John Carter of Mars novels. In our own ways we lived these science fiction ideals in our daily lives as best we could in this degenerate age. Neither one of us cared much for the state and trajectory of modern life; America and western civilization in general was looking pretty weedy and green about the gills. Even physics wasn’t looking real healthy. It’s tough having such opinions while living in Berkeley. Berkeley is a place where the prevailing wisdom seems to be that everything is gonna be awesome because … cell phones or intersectionality or whatever. Then again, it’s great having proper friends in such places; a friend is a friend at all times, it is for adversity that a brother is born.

His hat, not mine

He was also a link to the physics past for me. I never got the chance to meet Heisenberg, Feynman, Abdus Salam, Schwinger; Marty did. Physics people love to hear about the stories of the great heroes of that era -ole Marty actually knew these guys in some capacity. I remember once he pulled out a Koran to make some point at a dinner party -turned out Salam gave that to him. That was pretty cool.


I think the below eulogy from the physics department captures some of his personality; the Limberger cheese incident being particularly choice (though his practical jokes … they were much better, actually), but it seems to be biased towards his early achievements on the career front.


One of the things they left out: Marty’s thesis adviser was Walter Gilbert, a Nobel Prize winner. Gilbert started as a physicist, but ultimately went into medical research, winning the Nobel for DNA research, and as I understand things making a decent pile of loot for learning to make insulin from toilet water. Oddly, Marty started as a sort of pre-med biologist himself (his dad was a doctor who served in WW-2), and ended as a physicist out of curiosity. Marty always told the stories about how Gilbert figured he and Marty were pretty smart, but guys like Schwinger were SO DAMN SMART he might as well go into biology for lack of competition. Marty just liked dat physics though.


To add a little color to what they describe as his early career; I think his Westinghouse prize project was actually building a tic tac toe “computer” out of relays; a considerable achievement back in the 50s when all knowledge of computers and digital logic was pretty obscure.


Another thing I know about from Marty’s career, he spent quite a lot time at CERN, enjoying the convivial physics to be had there, as well as developing his palate in the local restaurants (pro tip from Marty; avoid the Michelin rated places with too many stars; they’re just phoning it in -2 stars are often the sweet spot). I think he was really happy there. He also had a deep fondness for the Niels Bohr institute. Amusingly, he told me about this guy Predrag Cvitanovic at the Neils Bohr who told similar jokes to mine. This was the only person at the Niels Bohr I had the vaguest chance of  knowing anything about. I read das book and exchanged a few bantz anyway. Should I ever make the ridiculous money, I’ll make sure there is some kind of Halpern fellowship at the NB Institute. To troll Marty’s ghost, which, considering the nature of our friendship, I think he’d appreciate, I’ll make sure the recipient of such a fellowship works on semiclassical physics.

FWIIW for all your electronics nerds who think you need whatsapp, slack, discord, ‘tardbook, texting or whatever ridiculous communication application to keep in touch with friends; after he retired, since he didn’t need to send LaTeX to collaborators any more, ole Marty didn’t even use email. He considered it a waste of his time. Friends use the telephone and meet in person.

Marty told me a lot of wise stuff; some of which I will never repeat.  He left his friends at a bad time, and we miss him terribly, but then, there never is a good time.


“Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.”



Professor Martin Brent Halpern – World Renown Theoretical Physicist died in Tucson, AZ on January 21, 2018.

As a child, Martin Brent Halpern was drawn to chemistry experiments and other physical concepts such as tesla coils, perhaps to the consternation of his parents, Dr. Melvin Halpern and Blanche Halpern. Marty enjoyed playing practical jokes with his pals, including an infamous stunt involving a pound of limburger cheese. He was also active in the Boy Scouts for many years.

As a teen, Marty focused on the sciences, winning the Westinghouse Science Talent Search at the age of sixteen. His work in the field of physics began as a chemistry and math major at the University of Arizona, where he was University Valedictorian. As Marty’s questions became more fundamental, his professors directed him to the physics department and Marty changed his focus from pre-med to physics, going on to earn a PhD in physics from Harvard in 1964.

During his post doctorate studies, he was awarded a NATO fellowship at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland (1964-1965), a post-doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley (1965-1966), and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton in 1966-1967. While at UC Berkeley finishing his post doctorate, he was invited by Julius Robert Oppenheimer to Princeton on a fellowship in the late 1960’s. He returned to UC Berkeley, quickly moving up the ranks from assistant professor to full professor, from 1972 until he retired as emeritus.

He greatly contributed to Quantum Field Theory, String Theory and Orbital Theory, among others. He was a co-discoverer of affine Lie Algebra with Korkut Bardakci. He returned to CERN most summers and for a one-year sabbatical in 1996 to continue his research.

Outside of physics, Martin was a life-long, avid weight lifter, a devotee of books, theater, film and music, as well as a passionate comic book collector. Armed with a sense of humor and a well-traveled passport, Martin Halpern was able to explain the laws of physics in creative and colorful ways to his daughter, the filmmaker Tamar Halpern, as well as to his grandson, and his second wife (of over 39 years) Penelope Dutton Halpern. Marty fulfilled a lifetime dream of retiring to his childhood hometown of Tucson, Arizona in 2012.


7 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on March 13, 2019 at 9:21 pm

    >Friends use the telephone and meet in person.

    Introverted friends send text through computers even when they know each other’s numbers and can actually meet in person. Just sayin. Also regular calls with no e2ee are cuck because can’t discuss your plans to topple the government.

    >whatsapp, slack, discord, ‘tardbook

    Proud to never have used any of that:)

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 14, 2019 at 8:08 pm

      Sure, I email my pals who live down the street when I know they’re in front of the computer all the time.
      The point is, Marty lived in his head his whole career, and was on the computer from back when it had giant tape drives, but he preferred analog interactions. He was right! I strongly suspect when/if I retire, I will back way off from being as online as I am by dint of my profession. It really doesn’t offer much beyond video telephone for actual human interaction.

      • Anonymous said, on March 18, 2019 at 7:37 pm

        Based on the text of your post and the photos of him hanging out I’d never peg him as an introvert. But then I’m closer to the end of the spectrum where one lives as a hikki, so… I actually hate phone calls — I lose more energy on arranging a visit to my dentist than on doing pushups — and I’ve never made a video call in my life:) But that being said, I do appreciate offline activities, can easily spend several days offline. Once you can entertain yourself without the internet there isn’t much purpose in spending much time on it. It’s rather unfortunate though that bits of advice like ‘learn to cook a new meal’ or ‘build some arduino thing’, etc often sound hollow and pretentious.

        >It’s tough having such opinions while living in Berkeley.

        Can relate. Once you’ve ticked enough boxes as a weirdo (whatever it means) you’re largely on your own, so better be asocial or have friends.

  2. Toddy Cat said, on March 14, 2019 at 3:17 pm

    Guys like that are a rarity at any time, and particularly today. Thanks for sharing your memories of really interesting man. May God be with him, and you.

  3. Melchizedek said, on March 18, 2019 at 5:44 am

    What Toddy Cat said.

  4. Tamar Halpern said, on September 4, 2019 at 10:50 pm

    Hi Scott. I just stumbled on this while trying to prove I have two degrees at USC to get my car insurance lowered. How’s THAT for an intro from Marty’s daughter? Thanks for this beautiful and accurate posting about my dad. I feel like I just unearthed a treasure-filled chest and I’m taking it all in. I’m dazzled. Yours, Tamar Halpern

  5. Robert Tretiak said, on August 26, 2020 at 11:25 pm

    I finally posted my recollections of Marty from our boyhood days 70 years ago in Tucson. They are on the other link–memories. If you haven’t seen Tamar’s great movie, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, by all means go onto Amazon and buy it. I generally do not post on any social media, but this is an exception. Bob Tretiak (edited out contact info)

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