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Special Feature: Congress Then & Now: Highlights from Sigma Pi Sigma Congresses


Sigma Pi Sigma was founded as a local honor organization at Davidson College, NC, on December 11, 1921. The local society was so successful that a movement for nationalization was started in 1925. By 1968 there were 170 chapters.

On April 22, 1968, Sigma Pi Sigma joined with the American Institute of Physics (AIP) Student Sections to form the Society of Physics Students (SPS). It continues to operate as a fully recognized honor society within the SPS, a unique arrangement in student organizations.

Sigma Pi Sigma is national in scope, with chapters located at colleges and universities across the country. Over 400 of the 689 SPS chapters now include an active Sigma Pi Sigma chapter. The total historical membership is more than 58,000.

The History of Sigma Pi Sigma

by Peggy Dixon, Sigma Pi Sigma Historian

October 1996

The Beginning Years

The idea for Sigma Pi Sigma started at Davidson College, NC, in 1920 when five undergraduates joined by four faculty members formed an organization which would recognize superior scholarship in physics, encourage and stimulate them in their scientific work, and bring those interested in physics into a closer association (see the pictures of the 5 charter members at left). Formal action was taken on December 11, 1921. In the next months they named the organization Sigma Pi Sigma as the Greek letter name to stand for “Scholarship Physics Society.” It was called a “fraternity” as was the custom at that time; the early group patterned themselves after the social fraternities with “secret” practices such as handshakes as part of the initiation, and non-members were barred from attending meetings.

The Davidson chapter spent much effort creating the lasting insignia for the organization. They devised the pin and crest with the dynamo, electric light bulb, lightning bolt, and the standard voltmeter (shown at right). The symbolism on the pin portrays the three essential attributes of a true scientist: accuracy, knowledge, and creative energy. The standard voltmeter is symbolic of accuracy, the light bulb typifies knowledge, and the dynamo creative energy, or the ability to do research. The lightning flash on the seal is symbolic of an agent of nature—electricity—which has been made of inestimable value to mankind by physics. The Greek words are “phoosika” signifying “physics” and “skepsos” signifying “knowledge.”

Soon after its formation the Davidson chapter wanted to affiliate with some national student physics organization, but found that no such group existed. So they decided to start one. They wrote to thirteen physics departments explaining Sigma Pi Sigma and asking them to form chapters. This correspondence resulted in the formation of a second chapter at Duke University in 1925. A young graduate student at Pennsylvania State University read an article about this new chapter and was quite interested in the idea. His efforts resulted in the third chapter of Sigma Pi Sigma at Penn State in 1926. This fellow was Marsh White, whose belief in the concept and ideals of Sigma Pi Sigma was so great that he has been an active participant for SEVENTY years!! Most activities, events, and official acts during these 70 years have involved Marsh White). Many members know him from his signature on their membership card. Or perhaps they remember his participation at their installation ceremony. The longevity of Sigma Pi Sigma as an honor society depended mostly on the efforts of Marsh White at each critical moment.

In 1927 three more chapters were formed at Centenary College, Furman University, and the College of William and Mary. In 1928 the first National Convention of Sigma Pi Sigma was held at Davidson College. National officers were elected and Marsh White became Secretary/ Treasurer. He established the national office at Penn State with a part-time secretary and whatever help he could scrounge from the Penn State physics department. In 1931 the second National Convention was held at the University of Kentucky, marking the tenth anniversary of the young honor society. The third National Convention was at Purdue University in 1934 when the organization had grown to 19 chapters. At this convention Sigma Pi Sigma was changed from a fraternity to an honor society, removing all elements of secrecy, but requiring membership dependent on scholastic excellence and acceptance by the chapter members. Services to the department, such as sponsoring lectures, were included in the society’s mission as well as the social activities.

At the time of the tenth anniversary letters were read from the five charter members. These letters showed that an education in physics provided the fundamental learning for many careers. All five of them remembered fondly their participation in the founding of Sigma Pi Sigma. This remembered enthusiasm for Sigma Pi Sigma activities and physics education has been a characteristic of Sigma Pi Sigma members through the years, even though some have had careers outside the discipline of physics. Many members credit their career success with the contacts they've made in Sigma Pi Sigma: “through knowing these people (Sigma Pi Sigma officers) I applied for and received an NSF academic year fellowship;” “on a trip to install a new Sigma Pi Sigma chapter, I suggested that my companion apply for the position of physics department chairman—which he received!”

The Golden Years

During the Depression the fledgling society doubled from 20 chapters in 1931 to 43 in 1941 (see Table 1). The National Council, a group of officers and executive committee members elected by the member chapters, wanted to see if they could affiliate with other professional organizations and inquiries were sent. In particular the Council desired to attain membership in the Association of College Honor Societies (ACHS). This association was formed in 1925 to recognize skill and leadership credentials. The objective of ACHS is “to encourage all ... honor societies to join forces for the establishment and maintenance of desirable standards and useful functions in higher education.” To this end they help prospective member societies meet these standards. Thus, at the Purdue Convention in 1934, Sigma Pi Sigma removed all the secrecy from the initiation ceremony and opened meeting attendance to non-members to meet ACHS requirements. The national office of Sigma Pi Sigma worked for a decade with ACHS until Sigma Pi Sigma became a member Society in 1945. Marsh White became the Sigma Pi Sigma representative to ACHS and held many offices within it over the years, including Vice President and President from 1947 to 1951. Sigma Pi Sigma also became an associated society of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1936, and in 1956 became an affiliated society of AAAS Section B (Physics). Once again, these efforts were due almost solely to the work of Marsh White.

Sigma Pi Sigma was now recognized by many professional societies. In 1930 a newsletter called The Radiations of Sigma Pi Sigma was started as the official publication for all members, including alumni. The Bulletin was published very simply (usually mimeographed) for the officers and active chapter members. In 1994 the The Radiations newsletter was revamped into a glossy magazine and renamed Radiations: The Official Publication of Sigma Pi Sigma. The magazine is now published and mailed to members and alumni twice per year.

During the decade of the 1940’s Sigma Pi Sigma again doubled the number of chapters to 87 in 1951 (see Table 1). The small operation at Penn State kept the original Membership Information Cards (MIC’s) from all the chapters and communicated regularly with all through Radiations and The Bulletin. The total membership by this time was approaching 12,000. It had already become a monumental task to keep track of so large a membership.

The new spurt of growth due to the returning GI’s from World War II put quite a strain on the office at Penn State. Fiscally, the growth meant that funds available from membership fees were inadequate to balance the budget. Thus, in 1953-54 the Executive Council instituted a policy for the annual solicitation of alumni members for voluntary contributions toward the support of the national office. These were called “alumni dues.” By 1969 about 6,000 members were making contributions totalling about $30,000. The alumni dues policy is unique among honor societies and this fund over the years has increased the services to undergraduate student members.

In the early 1950’s approaches were made to the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in hopes of developing a closer association between Sigma Pi Sigma and AIP, and Sigma Pi Sigma became an affiliated society of AIP in 1951. Partly as the result of these discussions, AIP instituted its Student Sections program in 1950. These sections were to help physics clubs on campuses form an affiliation with the professional physics societies. As there were no academic requirements for membership, more students were eligible to participate. AIP collected dues which provided the individual members with a subscription to Physics Today, a membership pin, and an opportunity to subscribe to AIP publications at reduced rates. During the 1950’s there was competition for new chapters between Sigma Pi Sigma and the AIP Student Sections.

Sigma Pi Sigma was also growing in numbers. Near the end of the decade it was decided to get more volunteer help to keep contact with the over 100 Sigma Pi Sigma chapters. The country was divided into 12 districts, roughly 10 chapters per district, and a Councilor was elected for each district to install new chapters and help chapters with any problems. At this meeting was one person who is still playing an important role in Sigma Pi Sigma—Worth Seagondollar, a member of the Diamond Jubilee Committee—who has been actively involved with Sigma Pi Sigma since he started as a chapter adviser at the University of Kansas in 1950! Worth held all the offices in Sigma Pi Sigma prior to the merger to form the Society of Physics Students and continued on the SPS Council for several years, all the time being adviser to the students at Kansas followed by North Carolina State University. His is truly a unique record—more than forty years as an active Sigma Pi Sigma adviser while an active researcher plus years as department chair as well as President of Sigma Pi Sigma.

The Merger

The decade of the 1960’s was one of great activity and growth for both Sigma Pi Sigma and the AIP Student Sections. More people were involved at the national level on the Sigma Pi Sigma Council, particularly Worth Seagondollar, Vincent Parker, Stanley Ballard, Donald Tendam, and C. G. “Pete” Shugart. At AIP Donald Cunningham, Arnold Strassenburg, Peter Kahn, and Leonard Olsen helped expand services to the Student Sections. At the same time small groups were actively discussing the possibility of merging. During the meeting of the Sigma Pi Sigma Council in Oak Ridge, TN on June 15-16, 1965, AIP Director Van Zandt Williams discussed topics regarding the education of future physicists and suggested ideas on how the two groups might share these goals. During the summer of 1965 the Sigma Pi Sigma officers discussed their position on merger. They had decided to grant Marsh White’s request to be relieved of his job (after 30 years!) and desired to hire a full-time professional physicist. However, they had neither a suitable candidate nor the money to pay a salary. The Sigma Pi Sigma officers presented their ideas for merger to the national council meeting in April 1966. The vote was for merger 12 to 2. Vincent Parker, then Chancellor of Sigma Pi Sigma, and President Seagondollar met with the AIP officers to prepare a revision to the merger proposal. However, Williams died suddenly, and the merger talks were suspended. While AIP was searching for a new director, Strassenburg, director of the AIP Education and Manpower Division working with Olsen, chairman of the Student Sections Advisory Committee and Ballard, President of Sigma Pi Sigma, started the merger negotiations moving again. In August 1966 the AIP Governing Board gave its unanimous approval to the merger plan. It should be mentioned here that Marsh White and Worth Seagondollar spent several years negotiating with ACHS so that Sigma Pi Sigma could remain a member society after the merger.

In the meantime Sigma Pi Sigma had solved some financial problems and had found a suitable candidate, C.G. Shugart, for the full-time executive-secretary post. The society called a special convocation to be held in December 1967 at Purdue University to thoroughly discuss the merger. Worth Seagondollar, as President, chaired the two-day meeting. The meeting size was astonishing—200 delegates representing 90 chapters (shown below). There were several invited talks both for and against the merger and much heated discussion. At the beginning of the meeting it was apparent that most chapter representatives were opposed to the merger. Many felt strongly that it would degrade the honor of belonging to Sigma Pi Sigma. H. William Koch, the new director of AIP, described how Sigma Pi Sigma would fit into the AIP structure—and his personal enthusiasm for the merger. Presiding officer Worth Seagondollar said he “never worked harder in my life!” He allowed everyone to have his say and yet kept to the agenda (while he “chain-smoked 75 cigars!”). The final vote on the articles of agreement between AIP and Sigma Pi Sigma was for approval by 1 vote more than the minimum required! Items in the agreement covered personnel, conditions of transfer of about $50,000 accumulated Sigma Pi Sigma funds to the AIP if the new organization worked well (after 5 years), and conditions under which Sigma Pi Sigma could withdraw both membership and funds from the new organization “if things did not work well.”

After some minor changes to the constitution were made, the Society of Physics Students was born on April 22, 1968 (Marsh White’s 72nd birthday!) when the officials of AIP and Sigma Pi Sigma signed the Articles of Agreement.

The Modern Years

The Society of Physics Students began its existence with a constitution that combined the best of its “parent” organizations. Pete Shugart who had just replaced Marsh White as the Sigma Pi Sigma executive secretary was hired by AIP as the first Director of Sigma Pi Sigma. All Sigma Pi Sigma chapters were enrolled as SPS chapters. The national Council of SPS was made up of the officers plus elected Councilors (faculty) and Associate Counci-lors (students) representing colleges in the 12 zones that Sigma Pi Sigma had used during the previous years. The Sigma Pi Sigma President, elected only by Sigma Pi Sigma chapters, served on the SPS Council. Marsh White was the Sigma Pi Sigma President on the first SPS Council. Other officers included the director of AIP (Bill Koch), the director of Sigma Pi Sigma (Pete Shugart), the chairman of the SPS Council (Vince Parker), the director of the AIP Education and Manpower Division (Arnie Strassenberg), and the director of the AIP College Physics Program (Peter Kahn). The SPS Constitution states that Sigma Pi Sigma is a special group of SPS members who attend colleges having Sigma Pi Sigma chapters, who have attained the high scholastic standards required, and who have been elected into membership. Such a joint venture as exists between SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma is unique among honor societies and Sigma Pi Sigma is proud of its success in this endeavor.

The first SPS Council met in April 1969 in conjunction with the Washington, DC, APS (American Physical Society) meeting. There were 21 members at this meeting—a very good number for such a young organization. After one year of existence within SPS, Sigma Pi Sigma had installed 35 new chapters and reactivated several more! Most of this activity was due to Pete Shugart’s visits to over 100 campuses in his first year on the job. Shugart resigned after two years to return to academia full-time, but his guidance at the beginning got Sigma Pi Sigma on a firm organizational footing. Shugart continued his association as a chapter adviser and was Sigma Pi Sigma President from 1972 to 1976.

The administrative, supervisory, fiscal and executive secretarial duties for Sigma Pi Sigma are handled by the Director of Sigma Pi Sigma. Dion Shea was hired by AIP to be the new Director of Sigma Pi Sigma in 1970, a position he held until 1987.

In 1973 after Sigma Pi Sigma had its “trial” run, the Sigma Pi Sigma Trust Fund assets were given over to AIP by the trustees White, Parker, and Seagondollar “to be used only for the improvement of undergraduate physics student organizations or the promotion of educational student activities.” The first of these awards, named the Marsh W. White awards, were set up to be awarded to chapters “to support projects designed to promote interest in physics among students and the general public.” These awards continue to be given.

At the 1979 Council meeting it was suggested that the society establish a journal for the publication of undergraduate research papers. The first issue of The Journal of Undergraduate Research in Physics, JURP, was published in 1982 with Rexford Adelberger as the editor. The publication continues to be published by the SPS at Guilford College, where many tasks are performed by volunteer help.

During the next years the Constitutions of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma were revised into one document, but the Sigma Pi Sigma items are separate sections. In 1976 the executive committee was expanded to include an associate councilor to give the student perspective.

By the 1970’s a significant increase was seen in the number of women majoring in physics. Since 1974 women have been elected to the council, both as councilors and associate councilors every year. From the late 1970’s the new Sigma Pi Sigma members have been about 15% women, many chapter officers. Karen Johnston, past president of AAPT, had her first national office as an associate councilor in 1978. The current Sigma Pi Sigma president is Jean Krisch, former SPS President and adviser to the SPS chapter at the University of Michigan.

The decade starting in 1975 saw great activity in new programs instituted by the Council: Outstanding Chapter awards, start of publication of JURP, Outstanding Adviser Award, and scholarships to partially support the senior undergraduate year of physics majors. All of these programs are funded by the Sigma Pi Sigma alumni “dues” monies. Sigma Pi Sigma has continued to award research grants to undergraduate chapters. These grants were started by the AIP Student Section using funds from the Bendix Corp., later Allied Signal. When these funds were no longer available the Sigma Pi Sigma Trust Fund took over.

Many new volunteers came forth to fill Council positions and lead the way to new programs: Rex Adelberger (editor of JURP for all issues), Ray Askew (councilor, Sigma Pi Sigma President, at-large member of council), Peggy Dixon (councilor, Sigma Pi Sigma consultant, historian), Bob Fenstermacher (councilor, Sigma Pi Sigma president), Leroy Humphries (councilor, council president), Reuben James (councilor, Sigma Pi Sigma president), George Miner (councilor, Sigma Pi Sigma president, at-large member of council), and Dick Waring (councilor, Sigma Pi Sigma president).

The last ten years have seen changes in the AIP structure, moves of the Sigma Pi Sigma office from New York to Washington, DC and then to College Park, MD. The AIP structure change meant that Director Koch changed to Executive Director Ken Ford and then to CEO Marc Brodsky. Don Kirwan was Sigma Pi Sigma Director from 1988 to 1994, during the moves. John Rigden was acting Sigma Pi Sigma director until Dwight E. Neuenschwander, a Sigma Pi Sigma chapter adviser, became Sigma Pi Sigma Director in 1995. About 2,000 new Sigma Pi Sigma members are inducted yearly. Numbers of new members decreased during the moving years, but they have returned to the previous level.

The union with AIP Student Sections to form SPS has been very good for Sigma Pi Sigma if the growth in chapters is any indication. There were 135 active Sigma Pi Sigma chapters in 1968 and currently there are over 460! The number of active SPS chapters is now over 600. Because of the continued growth, the country was re-divided into 18 zones with about 35 chapters per zone. This has meant an increase of 50% in council members. Over the years the society has been very fortunate to have staff and administrators who are as dedicated as the volunteers.

Sigma Pi Sigma has been an integral part of all the SPS programs. The generous yearly contributions of the alumni members support all the SPS/Sigma Pi Sigma awards. Recently funds have been granted to support travel to the International Conference of Physics Students for several undergraduate students to give papers.

In 1989 the Council proposed having more regular Sigma Pi Sigma convocations, so that new members could have a chance to attend a national Sigma Pi Sigma convention. The first one in 25 years was held in Dayton, OH, in the fall of 1992, followed by the Sigma Pi Sigma Diamond Jubilee in November 1996 in Atlanta, GA. At these convocations all Sigma Pi Sigma members are invited to participate in the discussions regarding current issues in physics education, employment issues, and social issues related to physics.

All of this has come about through the dedication of the advisers and officers who believe in the principles set forth at Davidson College 75 years ago: “Sigma Pi Sigma—An organization which would recognize superior scholarship in physics, encourage and stimulate members in their scientific work and bring those interested in physics into a closer association.