Perkowitz, Sidney 1939-

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Perkowitz, Sidney 1939-


Born May 1, 1939, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Morris and Sylvia Perkowitz; married Sandra Price; children: Michael Abram. Education: Polytechnic University (New York, NY), B.S., 1960; University of Pennsylvania, M.S., 1962, Ph.D., 1967.


Home—Atlanta, GA. Office—Emory University, Physics Department, N216 Mathematics and Science Center, 400 Dowman Dr., Atlanta, GA 30322. E-mail—[email protected]; [email protected]


General Telephone and Electronics, research physicist, 1966-69; Emory University, Atlanta, GA, assistant professor, 1969-74, associate professor, 1974-79, professor, 1979-87, chair of physics department, 1980-83, Charles Howard Candler professor of Physics, 1983—. University of California—Santa Barbara, visiting professor, 1983-84; Atlanta College of Arts, adjunct professor of humanities, 1989; Southeastern University Research Association, visiting scientist, 1990-91. Consultant at institutions, including Santa Barbara Research Center, 1983-87, National Research Council of Canada, 1988-91, and National Institute of Science and Technology, 1990-94.


American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Physical Society, Society for Literature and Science (vice president), Phi Beta Kappa.


American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow; Grants from Sloan Foundation, Research Corporation, National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, TRW Corporation, Korea Institute of Science and Technology, Lockheed Corporation, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and others.


Optical Characterization of Semiconductors: Infrared, Raman, and Photoluminescence Spectroscopy, Academic Press (San Diego, CA), 1993.

(With W. Murray Bullis and D.G. Seiler) Survey of Optical Characterization Methods for Materials, Processing, and Manufacturing in the Semiconductor Industry, U.S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology (Gaithersburg, MD), 1995.

Empire of Light: A History of Discovery in Science and Art, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1996.

Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 2000.

Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids, Joseph Henry Press (Washington, DC), 2004.

Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2007.


Sidney Perkowitz is a professor of physics at Emory University, where he has taught since 1969. Described as "an elegant writer" by Michael Skube in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Perkowitz is the author of two highly technical textbooks as well as four science books geared for the more general reader.

In Empire of Light: A History of Discovery in Science and Art, Perkowitz combines his own interest in art and aesthetics into "a cogent overview of our complex responses to light," wrote Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman. Perkowitz explains the complexities and paradoxes of light, discussing its many properties, such as its constant velocity and the importance of the speed-of-light constant to science; light's ability to assume the form of either a wave or a particle, a characteristic important to quantum science; and its effects on both living and nonliving matter. He looks at the cultural and religious responses to light and how light evokes ideas of spiritual purity; how artists use light in their compositions; and how concepts of light underlie fundamental advances in science and scientific instrumentation. He includes summaries of theories of light that have existed throughout history, plus a detailed explanation of the role of light in the time immediately following the cosmic Big Bang. He examines the mechanics of human visual comprehension and how the retina evolved to perceive and process visual images made up of light. "In a wondrous, mind-expanding tour of the visible world," Perkowitz "gracefully weaves science and aesthetics" as he examines the nature of light and its place in human perception and history, commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Seaman concluded that the book is "outstanding."

Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos explores how foam is ubiquitous, and how it takes on forms that are sometimes not perceived as foam. The head on top of a glass of beer or carbonated soda is familiar, but foam takes on edible form in a variety of breads, meringues, and whipped creams. "Each is a complex alliance between chemistry and physics that manifests itself as a palatable foam, and the author pursues this alliance from the kitchen to the laboratory," remarked G.C. Barker in Science. Pumice stone is a type of foam, as are cork and sponges. The science of foam provides us with packing peanuts, styrofoam containers, fire-suppressing materials, foams designed to immobilize terrorists or attackers, insulating foams, and a phenomenal substance called aerofoam, an ounce of which has an interior area equal to that of a football field, and which boasts a total of fourteen record-setting physical properties. "NASA, its developer, has great plans for aerogel," explained Jocelyn Selim in Discover.

"No simple state of matter, foam is not a true solid, liquid, or gas, but bubbles of gas within a liquid or solid," Selim commented. Foam can demonstrate a remarkable property called sonoluminescence, in which each bubble in the foam converts sound to light. On a cosmic scale, the very structure of the universe "was recently discovered to be foamlike: galaxies lie on a gossamer network of bubbles with great expanses of nothingness inside," stated a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

Library Journal reviewer James Olson called Universal Foam "a pleasant, even delightful book, clearly intended for the general reader." The book is "a report full of surprises about foam's polymorphic guises," remarked Gilbert Taylor in Booklist. "Foams can be viewed on galactic and quantum scales," Barker observed, "from the three-dimensional structure of the universe to the fluctuations at the origin of space-time; Perkowitz makes this range both accessible and enjoyable to explore."

Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids offers "a comprehensive yet compact survey of robotics and bionics," noted New York Times Book Review critic Dick Teresi. Beginning with the idea of prosthetic limbs as the earliest manifestation of bionics (the first recipient being Hindu queen Vishpla, from about 2000 B.C., "who replaced a leg lost in battle with an iron one," Teresi noted), Perkowitz tracks the repair and enhancement of human bodies through hip replacements, artificial knees, and man-made blood vessels. Perkowitz speculates that retina implants to improve vision or cure blindness, computer-chip brain implants to increase mental capacity or alter emotional states, and other forms of human/machine symbiosis will become commonplace within the first few decades of the twenty-first century. Robots, cyborgs, androids, and other wholly mechanical constructs that mimic human behavior will continue to improve, and artificial intelligence will continue to increase "to the point where it produces useful silicon brains," he remarked in an interview on the Web site. "The question of when AI will equal human intelligence, while catchy to ask, suffers from not knowing exactly how to define human smarts, and is maybe better left unanswered," Perkowitz remarked in the interview. Choice reviewer G. Trajkovski called Digital People "an informative book" for those interested in the history, current status, and potential future of robotics. A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that "as a history of humans' fascination with artificial life—both real and fictional—this book is informative."

In Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World, Perkowitz examines the history of science fiction movies. By his reckoning, Hollywood has produced approximately 1,400 science fiction films over the course of its history, which breaks down to approximately one a month at the time of the book's writing. He provides readers with an overview of the genre, paying particularly close attention to the film output of the 1950s, which is an era that produced a large number of motion pictures, resulting in what some have referred to as a "golden age" of science fiction films. Part of the reason for this increase in the production of science fiction movies was the boom in real-life technology that lent itself to cinematic adventures. He questions whether science is depicted well in the movies as a whole, and includes his thoughts on which films did a particularly good job of including science and which were spectacularly inaccurate or unbelievable. A writer for the Hollywood Reporter opined: "Perkowitz presents the information in an accessible manner, but the text feels like a high school science lecture delivered by a teacher eager to engage students with pop-culture relevance. However, Carl Hays, in a review for Booklist, called the book "an entertaining, maybe indispensable guide for film buffs everywhere."

Perkowitz once told CA: "Though I wanted to be a scientist from an early age, writing was always a close second as a career choice. My early heroes and heroines were equally balanced between scientists and writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.D. Salinger were special favorites. My work is not so much driven by a ‘who’ as a ‘what’—the desire to tell the science accurately, but simply.

"My lucky writing quality is that I seem never to be completely stymied when I sit at the computer. If original inspiration doesn't flow, then I enjoy revising what I've already written until a new idea kicks in. I couldn't write without a computer, and especially without a laptop. My way of avoiding the solitary loneliness of the writer is to work on my laptop in coffee shops. I don't need absolute quiet to write, and the presence of people—even though I'm generally not interacting with them—provides just the right level of minimal companionship.

"To my surprise, I find that the most creative ideas come when I'm thinking about something else or not thinking very hard at all. When my mind is in idle, it seems to make connections that wouldn't occur when it's in high gear or trying hard to focus on a particular goal. To my further surprise, I've found that writing nonfiction has loosened me up for fiction as well. I've written three works for the stage and a screenplay.

"Empire of Light is probably my favorite simply because it was first, but also because its mixture of science and art excites my passion, and leads to a writing style that is probably as lyrical as I can get with scientific subjects. Overall, I'd like my books to make people say ‘oh, wow,’ because nature and the way we understand it are equally wonderful. But you never know what effects your books will have. One reader of Empire of Light wrote me something like this: ‘I hope you won't mind if I tell you this, but I'd like you to know that your book brought me closer to God.’ Empire of Light is not about religion or God, and this response is one that I could never have anticipated, which makes me treasure it all the more."



American Scientist, November, 2000, review of Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos, p. 547.

Atlanta Constitution, October 9, 2000, Joe Earle, "The Physics of Foam Captivate Emory Prof," review of Universal Foam, p. D1.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 5, 1997, Michael Skube, "Book Waits to See Light of Day," review of Empire of Light: A History of Discovery in Science and Art, p. L8.

Booklist, September 1, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Empire of Light, p. 48; December 1, 1996, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Empire of Light, p. 664; June 1, 2000, Gilbert Taylor, review of Universal Foam, p. 1823; November 1, 2007, Carl Hays, review of Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World, p. 22.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, November, 2004, G. Trajkovski, review of Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids, p. 515.

Discover, July, 2000, Jocelyn Selim, review of Universal Foam, p. 116.

Guardian (London, England), April 21, 2001, Andrew Brown, "Air Apparent: If Codes and Cod Sell, Why Not Foam?," review of Universal Foam, p. 10.

Hollywood Reporter, December 10, 2007, review of Hollywood Science, p. 24.

Library Journal, July, 2000, James Olson, review of Universal Foam, p. 132.

New York Times Book Review, May 16, 2004, Dick Teresi, "The Humanoid Condition," review of Digital People, p. 31.

Publishers Weekly, July 1, 1996, review of Empire of Light, p. 47; May 29, 2000, review of Universal Foam, p. 68; March 1, 2004, review of Digital People, p. 58.

Science, July 21, 2000, G.C. Barker, review of Universal Foam, p. 398.

Science News, October 9, 2004, review of Digital People, p. 239.


Emory Department of Physics, (October 9, 2008)., (December 17, 2004), John C. Snider, interview with Perkowitz.

Sidney Perkowitz Home Page, (October 9, 2008).


Something You Should Know, August 15, 2003, Mike Carruthers, transcript of audio interview with Perkowitz.