Locklin on science

A review of “The Man Who Solved the Market” (and “the Captain”)

Posted in Book reviews, history by Scott Locklin on November 29, 2021

Most systematic hedge funds are a racket; they either got lucky, or have a strategy that only works in one market regime. There’s a couple of hedge funds out there who have beat expectations year after year. Ed Thorpe’s Princeton Newport and its successor TGS Management is collectively one of them. Rentech is the one that lasted the longest, and is best known. They’ve also got the biggest bags and the principals were and are much more admirable people than the TGS principals. It helps that I actually know some of the people in the Rentech story, and people like Jim Simons are friends of a number of friends of mine, so it’s something I know a little bit about on a personal level. Rentech is also remarkable for the sheer density of actual great men involved. People who accomplished great things before and after their Rentech days. Let us name some of the names: Lenny Baum, Nick Patterson, Sandor Straus, Elwyn Berlekamp, James Ax, Bob Mercer, Henry Laufer, Robert Frey, Peter Brown and Jim Simons himself. It’s a lineup of machine learning, statistics and fundamental mathematics rock stars. They’re all very different personalities as well: though they were welded into one of the greatest and most successful firms which ever existed. The story is sort of like the great WW-2 movie, Kelly’s Heroes.

Probably the most important fact about this book is the fact that it was an unauthorized history of Rentech. As such, the people who talked were people with grievances; grievances dating back in some cases to the 1970s. I’m not sure how aware the author was of this psychological dynamic, but it was evident in the extreme to me. There are lots of specific examples I could point out where the history listed is questionable. This is valuable though, as by highlighting the social fractures, we can learn a lot about how Simons managed to weld these oddballs into a money-making machine. Imagine if Kelly’s Heroes was told from the point of view of harvesting anecdotes from Oddball, Petuko, Big Joe, Willard and the German Tank Commander. That’s what we have here. Actual anecdotes from Kelly (aka Jim Simons) and some of the other important characters is missing. And of course old beefs are going to seem more important to some people than they really were to everyone else at the time.

Simons always had hustle; he built a world class mathematics department at Stony Brook mostly through personal charm. He was also always a risk taker; driving a Vespa with a gang of scooter nerds from the East Coast to Columbia (oddly many of the known details of this trip are left out) before he went to grad school.

One of the amusing things about this account is the sepia toned 70s-ish of it the early days. Simons got up in the spirit of the times; being fired from the code-breaker squad for opposing the war in Vietnam, spending time on a psycologist’s couch -later doing primal scream therapy and having an early marriage go spectacularly sour. James Ax was also a stereotypical man of that time; a competitive, angry, genius womanizer-misanthrope living on a boat.

The early experiences of Simons and Lenny Baum are illustrative; they started out with an actual algorithm running on a PDP-11. This in itself was a huge innovation. Baum was one of the creators of the Hidden Markov Model; a tool which has direct applicability to financial problems. I assume they were using something like this, probably looking for trending states. They had problems with it though; one must remember at the time they were inventing a lot of things. Even using data from a database in making trades was pretty innovative, let alone using decent statistical modeling in making the trades. For a while they were just winging it trading on logic and instinct, to varying degrees of success, but ultimately this wasn’t a satisfactory solution for anyone. The stories are familiar to anyone who has ever tried it: discretionary trading is extremely stressful.

The next iteration, Axcom, was with James Ax and Sandor Straus. In this period the models grew more mathematically sophisticated; still using Markov ideas on Straus’ rapidly growing collection of intraday data. I think Sandor Straus deserves credit as the world’s first “data scientist.” His account of cleaning data is probably the earliest one of performing this task. Cleaning data is the fundamental task that defines data science as a role: statisticians and economists buy clean data from somebody. The team also used a lot of Kernel Regression in this era; something I know is still an important part of Rentech and its spinoffs, but which seems to be of little interest to anybody else but me; hell I can’t even get TDA people to look at it. The real breakthrough came, however, when Elwyn Berlekamp showed up, became a majority shareholder in Axcom and moved the firm into the Wells Fargo building in Berkeley. It’s obvious in hindsight Berlekamp treated it as a probabilist involved in error correction codes would; developing a technique for using multiple edges in one unified trading system. Though the book doesn’t say so he also probably added a rational bet-sizing system for optimizing to the geometric mean: a really sweet thing that only someone like Berlekamp would have thought of (to be fair, Thorp definitely thought of it as well). The team also narrowly avoided being caught up in a commodities broker going tits up in this era, which probably would have killed them in those days. It’s good to be lucky as well as smart.

Berlekamp and Simons had a difficult long-distance relationship, as remote work wasn’t a thing back then excepting for frequent phone calls. Frequent phone calls are incredibly annoying to people who are concentrating deeply. Eventually Simons bought him out and moved the rodeo to Long Island. Two important figures from the post Berlekamp days was cryptographer Nick Patterson and mathematician Henry Lauffer who were responsible for various of the innovations that we take for granted today, and a few which people would no doubt like to have access to. Robert Frey was also recruited from the Stab Art world. Another set of key hires in the 90s were Bob Mercer and Peter Brown; a couple of speech recognition specialists from IBM research (there’s that Markov model stuff again), and David Magerman, a programmer also from IBM research. Taciturn saturnian Mercer and talkative mercurial Brown seemed like Castor and Pollux; opposites who meshed well together like a couple of gears, grinding out wonderful results. Brown is still CEO of the company.

Magerman, on the other hand, seemed like an asshat. He converted the company from C to C++ to make himself more valuable (a complete waste of time; 90s era C++ mostly just adds complexity for no obvious benefit over C) and blew up a live trading system by backdooring a computer. Magerman seemed to bring some computer science discipline to a company filled with sloppy-coder mathematicians and he was obviously a crucial guy who solved important problems, but the dude was a jerk. People who are good at programming are often perfectionist mindset types; meticulous people who can track down a subtle bug or manage large amounts of complexity. Unfortunately what you get with that mindset are often …. jerks. People who throw things when they don’t get their way: jerks. People who think 90s era C++ was worth using, despite nobody else in the company being able to use it: jerks. People who raise hell with OSHA because the CEO is a heavy smoker: jerks. People who alienate their boss and benefactor with sperdo like “why don’t you liiiike meeeee” behavior: jerks. People who have the CEO removed because he voted for the wrong political candidate: jerks.  I’ve known people like this throughout my career and have endeavored to always see the best in them I possibly could. Frankly his story in this book convinced me to never hire a person like this excepting as contractors. They bring bad luck, bad social interactions and you should banish them from your village. It’s an astounding account in part because it must have largely been told to the author by Magerman himself.

One of the keys to its success: Rentech shared the loot. People who uncovered new alphas were important, but fixing code, cleaning data….. all received big bonuses when the company did well, which aligned everyone’s incentives. Lots of work is necessary, but not so sexy, and this keeps people working on the necessary. The company, at least in the earlier days also seemed to have tremendous mission intensity; just like other type-1 organizations such as the Sidewinder era of China Lake. One of the things that didn’t work so well: new employees shitting on the old employees who to their mind “didn’t do anything anymore.” Not sure if they ever found a way to deal with this. Probably by paying people more. One of the things which stuck out was Simons knowing what his company was worth, and taking large performance fees: Simons had after a long struggle a genuine golden-egg-laying goose, and he wasn’t giving these returns away to goofballs who only wanted to pay 2 & 20. It was also amusing that many thought Rentech to be some kind of Madoff like scam; I have acquaintances who went through the interview process and thought it might have been some weird money laundry for Columbian drug dealers (he did make friends in Columbia from his early scooter trip there). Through the whole arc of Rentech, Simons had an awful lot of terrible luck in his personal life, which is really unfortunate as he seems like a genuinely nice person.

The rest of the history laid out here is boring HR drama, so I won’t talk about it. It’s more interesting to focus on the great years, and how they made it succeed. Big brains working together as a team, with great intensity and great rewards.

Bonus review: During one of the Simons video interviews (with James Ax’s son) he also mentions a book popular back in his day called “The Captain” by Jan de Hertog. This is definitely a period piece; a sequel to a book that was a sensation under the Nazi occupation of Holland, on a young tugboat captain. Very intense, as it involved running German blockades. While it’s a great read for entertainment purposes, it’s also got some important leadership lessons, as he pointed out. It is a very good book for this sort of thing; being decisive, motivating very different groups of people, distracting people who need to be distracted and generally being a combination matador and stage magician. The crew in The Captain were a bunch of non-motivated odd ducks who needed to be convinced to follow the eponymous character, as well as being motivated to do a good job in general. Half of the early drama in the story was dealing with this.


Edit add: Ben Gimpert had a nice review back when the book came out, making notes of a lot of the interesting technical bits: https://blog.someben.com/2019/11/notes-on-man-who-solved-the-market-jim-simons/


Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math

Posted in Book reviews, history, physics by Scott Locklin on May 16, 2021

My pal Bill Dreiss suggested I have a look at this one the other day. I had seen Frau Dr. Professor gabbling on in various videos circulating among the nerdetariat; never really listened as I don’t have time for podcast type entertainments, and certainly not in the subject of high energy physics, which is a field I am mostly contemptuous of. She seemed fairly sensible; an earnest and apparently well-meaning person who is disillusioned with the direction of high energy physics. She also seemed a little late to the party; I came to virtually the same conclusion on my own while I was still in grad school, just looking at the behavior of high energy guys in physics departments. Woit and Lee Smolin wrote fairly convincing take downs of noodle theory back in 2006, though I suppose they didn’t go after the larger enterprise of High Energy Theory as a field. Apparently her book made people in my old physics department REALLY MAD. In fact one of the last things my late thesis advisor Chuck Fadley said to me before checking out for the great unknown was a strong recommendation I read this book. I had clean forgotten, but I remember being in the hotel in Hamburg and being confused (post Sauna and beer) why he was trying to get me to read some German lady’s pop science book, and chalked it  up to his illness. Sorry Chuck: you were right, I should have read it when you said.

My old boss: almost always right

Hossenfelder describes the group madness of the high energy physics community. It really is a sort of mass hysteria; literal tens of thousands thousands of presumably high IQ people are gripped by it, and it’s accelerated and intensified by the internet, which makes peer pressure and communication practically instant. It’s also encouraged by the pyramid scheme nature of generating new PhDs with nothing better to do. Consider the average high energy theorist; they are effectively doing the kind of work they did in grad school; working on “cutting edge” problems in the latest woo. The average paper I’d say represents approximately the kind of mindset and work effort of a couple dozen (90s era, pre solutions websites) JD Jackson homework problems. It’s not that this stuff is easy; neither were JD Jackson problems. I’m just saying these guys are grinding the proverbial organ box like trained monkeys rather than, you know, being curious and thinking about things. Their “field” is a sort of shared delusion about what people should be working on, based on what everyone else they know is working on, and ridiculous hero worship of the 1920s theoretical physics community. And “aesthetics” and various quasi philosophical views about how their godless universe will conspire to be “aesthetic” and “natural” to them for some reason.

One thing she hammers on is the idea that “aesthetics” is bullshit (something I mentioned in 2009). Most of physics isn’t particularly aesthetic or beautiful. Physics is weird and often surprising. Frankly, so is mathematics, biology, human nature, the appearance of the universe: just about everything is weird and surprising. The only people who think the world around them isn’t weird and surprising are navel gazers who don’t get out much. In particular the idea that certain physical constants would be conveniently sized for perturbation theory (aka “naturalness“) is just fucking insane. La Hossenfelder talks about it, but doesn’t emphasize how crazy this is, but it’s rather like assuming your checkbook will always have 00 in the cents columns because it’s more convenient for you that way. Or that useful hashing functions will have lots of 00s on randomly generated numbers. This numerology assumes  that the universe will conspire to make itself understandable with current year fashions in mathematical tools used by the clown car that is contemporary theoretical high energy physics.

The book has an odd style (I assume it’s a translation) and is a combination of editorializing, layman didactics and interviews with important figures in the field. Some of the choices of didactic effort are peculiar; explicitly calling out matrices as tables of numbers while describing perturbation techniques and various group theories as some kind of woo. As the interviews go on, you get the feeling that physicists and cosmologists are not great people. They’re kind of … losers. She never exactly says this, but on some inner emotional level she must be thinking it, because that’s how all her interlocutors come off; sweaty palmed, lost, over grandiose, goofball nerds.

And let’s face it; postwar theoretical high energy physics has been a big basket of failure.  Sure we have electroweak theory from the early 50s which was verified in the 70s. What has come of it? It’s been 70 years. 70 years after Maxwell we had television. 70 years after quantum mechanics we had pentium chips. It’s been 70 years guys; where’s my electroweak technology? Really we all know there will never be a technological implication to electroweak theory. Which makes it not some great achievement of humanity: it makes it irrelevant to the point of being a sort of theology for nerds. The field of theoretical high energy physics (and frankly the experimental part) itself is, in every respect, a failure rather than something for humans to be proud of. While it is difficult to master the mathematics involved in it, that’s not much of an argument that it should actually be worthy of respect. Respectable branches of physics make predictions and produce results in the physical world. High energy theory ought to be about as respectable as any other cult: at least those people handing out flowers in the airport are giving people beautiful flowers. For all I know, the indoctrination of airport-flower-people involves similarly difficult mental gymnastics. The very difficulty of the indoctrination is arguably what makes them so reluctant to give it up: career as sunk cost fallacy.

The various interviews are filled with dispiriting LARPing (Live Action Role Playing for those of you that don’t speak /chan). From the twittering astrophysicist wearing a NASA insignia from the 1960s, back when NASA wasn’t the DMV for rockets, to the various famous wrinkley brain scientists play-acting at profundity as if they were at the head of a successful, relevant and respected profession, rather than the fools who helped lead a failed intellectual enterprise into a ditch. Hossenfelder’s book exposes the whole squalid enterprise for the LARPy failure that it is. The people involved in it aren’t great savants anyone should be paying attention to; they’re losers. Like most losers, they’re only dimly aware of their failings; if losers were self reflective they’d probably find a way to, like, not be losers.

There were a few bits and pieces I was only dimly aware of; the latest experiments demonstrating what losers the theorists are, the odd Witten-victim condensed matter guy developing some goofy qubit based cosmology. My favorite such thing was actually from her blog; pointing out that the one time the noodle theorists thought they could make a useful calculation involving measurements in the world of matter, they failed. That’s ridiculously damning; for all the alleged brainpower put in service of noodle theory, they failed utterly in their attempts to be, you know, actual scientists making testable predictions.

String theorists’ continuous adaptation to conflicting evidence has become so
entertaining that many departments of physics keep a few string theorists around
because the public likes to hear about their heroic attempts to explain everything.
Freeman Dyson’s interpretation of the subject’s popularity is that “string theory is
attractive because it offers jobs. And why are so many jobs offered in string
theory? Because string theory is cheap. If you are the chairperson of a physics
department in a remote place without much money, you cannot afford to build a
modern laboratory to do experimental physics, but you can afford to hire a couple
of string theorists. So you offer a couple of jobs in string theory and you have a
modern physics department.”

Women named Sabine were at the beginnings of great things in the past. Her politely bullyciding high energy theorists into non-existence would be a great boon both to physics and the human race. It’s a shame more people didn’t listen to Phil Anderson back in the day, or John Horgan’s numerous educated outsider criticisms, but if this Sabine woman manages it: I, for one will be grateful. What makes physics powerful is the combination of mathematics with experiment: nature holds you accountable for your success or your blunders -not your dimwitted nerd friends on the tenure committee. The High Energy clowns play acting as Pauli or Einstein like figures are not physicists; they’re at best live action role players or overt mathematical mountebanks occupying seats which would be better issued to tribologists, fluid mechanists or optical physicists. If we can nudge the profession back to, you know, things like the scientific method and testing things involving matter, (quantum computers definitely don’t count) maybe humanity will get somewhere.

well played Dr. Hossenfelder

Great physicists: Pyotr Kapitza

Posted in history, physics by Scott Locklin on May 8, 2021

Pyotr Kapitza is one of those physicists whose greatness isn’t fully appreciated. In fact, I think other than the memory of him in the low temperature community, weirdoes who are Nobel Prize autistes, and a few mentions in L&L books, he’s largely forgotten in the West (I assume there are Russian language biographies as his son ended up a famous TV personality ). Not only was he a very great physicist, he was also a great man in every way. Principled, a leader and talented in multiple fields; his enormous indirect influence was almost important as his direct contributions. A biography of Kapitza would make for wonderful reading.

He was a Russian-Pole who landed in Cambridge working for Rutherford in the 1920s. He proceeded to make big contributions in ultra-high magnetic field physics, low temperature physics (liquefaction of helium), and he created the enormously influential Kapitza club.

The idea of the Kapitza club was that young physicists were too deferential to older ones, and older ones too dismissive. The lectures were done informally with chalk and board only, with jokey Kapitza introductions to loosen people up. Guys like Dirac, Hartree and Heisenberg built courage and had big ideas here which changed the world. These were invite only affairs, done in student housing; much like early Christianity met in the catacombs to avoid detection by the establishment of the day. It was unapologetically elitist group (again; invite only), but also radically egalitarian. Kapitza would warm them up by making deliberate blunders in his introductory remarks which he encouraged shy people to correct to get into the spirit of things. Very much in the spirit of the ancient Greek philosophers.

“In setting up the Kapitza Club in October 1922, he [Kapitza] had shaken his postgraduate colleagues out of their lethargy and persuaded them to attend a weekly seminar on a topical subject in physics. The talks usually took place in Trinity College on Tuesday evenings, after a good dinner. The speakers, normally volunteers from the club’s members, spoke with the aid only of a piece of chalk and a blackboard mounted on an easel and had to be prepared for a series of interruptions, mediated by Kapitza with the quick wit and elan of a modern-day game-show host.”

Those of you who are still in the game should take note. In this era of mediocrities, “company men,” policed speech codes and professional and personal cowardice: such meetings and societies are the only way to drive scientific research forward. People have tried inclusiveness for decades now and the results are in: it doesn’t work. Forming tightly knit, non-hierarchical groups of elite minds who are interested in science rather than all the bullshit that goes with it in “fn-leeerb merp derp science” current year is the only way forward. I encourage all kinds of people to try this; exclude more people: exclude most people, you’ll get more done. Finding scientific shitlords willing to do a presentation via chalkboard is a great filter. Doing this for F=MA tier shit is difficult, having a bunch of fellow loons who will throw buns at your head when you goof up on some arcane and novel subject: even better.

Though Kapitza was primarily considered an experimental physicist, he could hang with the greatest theorists. He and Dirac came up with a cute quantum diffraction effect in one of these BS sessions which was later proved out. This is sort of the Platonic ideal of a physicist to my mind; you have to be able to roll with the theorists, but you have to be able to deal with matter. That’s what physics is, after all: the study of matter. Others who had this quality were Fermi and Oppenheimer. While some theoretical and experimental specialists were required even back in those days; it was expected that even the most allergic-to-experiment theorists like Wolfgang Pauli would be able to think deeply about matter and experimental apparatus. Even if such apparatus would spontaneously combust if Pauli were in the same room with it. This is something that is forgotten by contemporary noodle and symmetry fetishists playing in the particle soup.

Kapitza was kidnapped by the Soviets while visiting his parents and did most of his important work in the Soviet Union. As a pioneer in liquid helium research he was the first to discover superfluidity which he eventually won a Nobel Prize for (oddly shared with Penzias and Wilson). He also worked closely with Lev Landau whose book is why I remembered Kapitza -for a cute little effect called the Kapitza pendulum; a sort of mechanical phase locked loop that is marvelous and beautiful in its action.

Incidentally he didn’t come up with the actual mechanical effect: someone told him about the effect described many decades ago. Kapitza was the one who sat down, did experiments and figured out the detailed math that explains it. This is the type of thing that could theoretically have been done by anyone using simple apparatus; it is literally F=MA tier physics. Kapitza, a man who had already done his Nobel prize winning work; arguably work which would earn him two Nobels in current year, a man who helped develop the Soviet atom bomb: he didn’t think it was beneath him to figure this out. Proper physicists rather than career drudges are actually curious. It’s on page 714 volume 2 of his collected works if you’re curious; a really beautiful piece of work. In fact open his collected works at random and it’s filled with treasures like this. The previous paper in this collection was on how the wind induces waves on the sea. First paper in volume 3 is a learned seminar on the Russian cod liver oil business.

For his next couple of important contributions he developed industrial scale processes for air liquefaction, microwave oscillators and new contributions in plasma physics. As a scientific administrator he made contributions to the Soviet nuclear program and founded multiple technical journals and the Kapitza Institute. Any of these contributions would have made him a first rate scientist, scientific administrator and technologist; the fact that he managed to fit them in one life is amazing and awesome.

Beyond all this, he was a badass with a life filled with appropriately Russian tragedy. He drove an ambulance on the Polish front in WW-1, his wife and two children died of the 1919 flu afterwords, and in Soviet times he both stood up to arch commie monster Beria and lived, and was the only member of the Russian academy of sciences who never joined the Communist party.

Kapitza was a universal man; not only did he contribute numerous physical and mathematical inventions to his field, he was a great administrator, and a good man who made the world and all the people around him better wherever he went. Despite great tragedy he lived an admirable and courageous life. People like this do not go into physics or any kind of scientific endeavor any more. Maybe a few applied math people in startups or hedge funds for considerably lower stakes.

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.