The Gamma Chapter: 98 Years of Sigma Pi Sigma at Penn State

Share This:




The Gamma Chapter: 98 Years of Sigma Pi Sigma at Penn State


Kendra Redmond, Editor


Shelter Island Conference participants pose for photograph in June 1947. From left to right: I. I. Rabi, L. C. Pauling, J. H. Van Vleck, W. E. Lamb, G. Breit, D. A. MacInnes, K. K. Darrow, G. E. Uhlenbeck, J. S. Schwinger, E. Teller, B. B. Rossi, A. T. Nordsieck, J. Von Neumann, J. A. Wheeler, H. A. Bethe, R. Serber, R. E. Marshak, A. Pais, J. R. Oppenheimer, D. Bohm, R. P. Feynman, V. F. Weisskopf, H. Feshbach. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Marshak Collection.

When Richard Robinett became director of undergraduate studies for the Penn State University (PSU) physics department in the early 2000s, the Sigma Pi Sigma chapter was struggling. He revived the chapter in 2003, and it has held an induction ceremony every year since, including during the challenging, pandemic-induced times of “remote everything.” During each of these inductions, the chapter revisits the legacies of two of its earliest and most influential members.

The Penn State chapter is among the oldest in the society, younger only than the alpha chapter at Davidson College (1921) and the beta chapter at Duke University (1925). It became the gamma chapter thanks to Marsh W. White, then a graduate student in physics at Penn State.


A group photo from Penn State's 2023 Sigma Pi Sigma induction. Photo courtesy of Richard Robinett.

“I’d been dreaming of some sort of good society for the physicists,” White recalled in a 1996 interview recorded shortly after his 100th birthday.1 When he saw a brief mention in Nature that Sigma Pi Sigma had been established at Davidson College, his eyes lit up.

“I right away got in touch with them, and very quickly we sent in a petition and got an acceptance to establish a chapter at Penn State,” he said. That was in 1926. White would go on to become the first person to receive a PhD at Penn State University—in any field—and become a physics professor there.


Marsh W. White circa 1954.
Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè
Visual Archives.

White was a pivotal figure in Sigma Pi Sigma’s development. He served in national leadership positions for 60 years—as Sigma Pi Sigma’s executive secretary (1930–67), president (1968–70), and historian (1970–90). He played instrumental roles in shaping Sigma Pi Sigma and its merger with the American Institute of Physics Student Chapters. That merger created the Society of Physics Students (SPS), which became official on April 22, 1968—White’s 72nd birthday.

In 1975, the Society of Physics Students established the Marsh W. White Award to support SPS chapter outreach events. The award has funded hundreds of SPS chapter outreach projects, with several new ones added each year.


The original charter of Penn
State's Sigma Pi Sigma chapter,
dated 1926. Marsh White's
name appears third in the
first column. Scan courtesy
of Richard Robinett.

The history of Sigma Pi Sigma at PSU also includes the story of David Bohm, a Pennsylvania native inducted in 1938 as a PSU physics major.2 After PSU, Bohm went to Caltech for one year and then to the University of California, Berkeley, where he did research with J. Robert Oppenheimer. Security issues kept Bohm from working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, but he made key contributions in many areas of physics—plasma physics (Bohm diffusion), condensed matter physics (Bohm-Pines predictions of plasmons), and quantum mechanics (via the Aharonov-Bohm effect).

“[Bohm] was one of the participants at the 1947 Shelter Island Conference, which led to many advances in quantum field theory, especially QED,” says Robinett. Today, the PSU physics department recognizes the best all-around student each year with the David Bohm Award.

6 - feature - PSU5 - bricks.jpg

Colorful bricks painted by graduating SPS members occupy a prominent place in Penn State's SPS lounge. Photo courtesy of Dennis Hartmann.

As students have come and gone from PSU’s Sigma Pi Sigma and SPS chapters through the years, each leaves their own legacy. Many have opted to leave a visual legacy, too—since before Robinett joined PSU as a physics professor in 1986, graduating SPS members have painted a brick on the wall of the SPS lounge. “Not every SPS member who graduates chooses to paint a brick, but there are many great designs,” Robinett says. As the 1940s-era building prepares for renovations, the chapter is preserving all of the designs in a high-resolution format to carry forward.


David Bohm's name appears at the top of the 1938 induction page of Penn State's Red Book. Scan courtesy of Richard Robinett.

Robinett advised PSU’s Sigma Pi Sigma and SPS chapters for 20 years, up until his retirement in 2023. “I’m very proud of the achievements of all of our physics undergraduates over the last 20 or more years that I’ve been working with them, and especially the SPS members who can juggle coursework, research, and departmental community activities,” he says.

Robinett fondly recalls the time his wife, an ordained minister, performed the wedding of two alums who had been SPS officers. Half of the venue was filled with former physics majors, some of whom had traveled across the country to attend. “That type of community, fellowship, and professional networking is a great example of what SPS has done and can continue to do,” he says. 

  1. The interview with Marsh White was recorded in celebration of the 75th anniversary of Sigma Pi Sigma and played at the Diamond Jubilee, the 1996 Physics Congress. It’s available on the SPS YouTube channel at
  2. Bohm’s signature appears in the chapter’s induction book alongside that of Charles H. Townes, who was visiting from the Duke University chapter for the ceremony. Townes would later earn a 1964 Physics Nobel Prize for his work on lasers.

Marsh W. White Awards

SPS awards of up to $500 are available for chapter programs or events that promote an interest in physics or astronomy among students or the general public. Applications for the Marsh White Award are due November 15. Learn more and read about past award-winning projects at


More from this Department