Making connections: The return of the oldest key

9 June 2014

One of the greatest honors in serving as the director of the Society of Physics Students is having the opportunity to play a role in keeping the historical traditions of the physics honor society, Sigma Pi Sigma. The honor society forms what might be considered the largest physics alumni association in existence, and the history contained in the “red book” records of Sigma Pi Sigma membership goes back to the very first members at Davidson College in 1921, predating the inception of AIP. In fact, AIP began developing its own student sections around 1951, spurred by close association with Sigma Pi Sigma, which became an Affiliated Society of AIP that same year. The story of the 1968 merger of AIP student sections with Sigma Pi Sigma is legendary, involving a very long meeting, with lots of cigars, that ultimately gave rise to the Society of Physics Students.[i]

For more than 90 years, the names of honor society members have been recorded. After the merger with AIP, the records left Penn State to reside in the AIP/SPS National Office. The value of the attention given to Sigma Pi Sigma record keeping hit home last fall when the office received a very old insignia key from an anonymous sender. It was a delightful mystery, which was solved by taking a walk through history in the red books.[ii] It turned out that the mystery key was given to the 26th member of Sigma Pi Sigma at Davidson College: Assistant Professor of Mathematics, William N. Mebane, Jr., in 1923. Discussions with family members resulted in a request that the key be returned to Davidson.

Working together to solve the mystery of the key had generated excitement among the national office, and preparing for its return stimulated interest and curiosity in the other stories that might be held in those red books. The story of Sigma Pi Sigma carries significance to me as a woman physicist and the first woman director of Sigma Pi Sigma. I find it deeply meaningful that it took only a few short years for the leaders of the grass-roots physics group to make an important decision of inclusion:  in order to flourish, the fraternity must become a society so that all practicing physicists could be included. The first women were inducted in the second chapter, Duke University, in 1928, but the first woman was not inducted into the Davidson chapter until 1978.[iii]

Suancy delivers oldest Sigma Pi Sigma key to Davidson CollegeIt was my privilege to be the courier of the lost key back to its origin at Davidson. Each year, in physics departments around the country, advisors gather with high-achieving students and retell the story of that small group of students at Davidson in 1921 who had the foresight and wherewithal to start something that has persisted across generations. I have repeated the story myself many times, showing the photo of the first ten members in the Davidson red book [PHOTO INSET]. So, on April 27, I set out for North Carolina with the actual red book (not a photo of it), along with that oldest key, to be part of the induction ceremony at Sigma Pi Sigma’s oldest chapter. Since Sigma Pi Sigma began as a fraternity (at the then all-male Davidson), the chapter is often referred to as the “Alpha Chapter of Sigma Pi Sigma.” The “return of the key” spawned an air of excitement among students and faculty at Davidson. They were awarded a Sigma Pi Sigma Chapter Project Award aimed at strengthening alumni connections in the physics department, centered around the return of the historic symbol of the chapter. A large ceremony was planned, during which the oldest key would be presented to the newest key holder in the Davidson record. It was a great honor to make the presentation to a young woman named Grace, the last one to sign the book for the induction class of 2014.

The bold forward thinking of that handful of students at Davidson College in 1921, followed by the AIP and Sigma Pi Sigma leaders in 1968, has remained unmatched in other disciplinary societies. The ongoing commitment to building and nurturing a community based on the common experience of physics is at the root of AIP’s existence. The tens of thousands of names written in the over 550 red books in the SPS National Office are witness to that history and continued relationship. Since 1968, SPS has evolved along with the community of students and mentors that it serves, finding innovative ways to cultivate education and professional development for scientists of all kinds, at all different kinds of places, all at the beginning of their physics-based journey. AIP and its Member Societies can take great pride in this unique, long-term commitment to the undergraduate physics community and the unique organization that connects the newest physicists with a rich past.


[i] For a great description of the full history of Sigma Pi Sigma, see Peggy Dixon’s account, found online at http://www.sigmapisigma.org/history.htm#.

[ii] For a complete account of the key mystery, watch for the upcoming Radiations Spring 2014 issue.

[iii] The first matriculating class of women entered Davidson in the fall of 1973.