A Murder at the American Physical Society
A half-century ago, a rejected scientist turned violent.
“I just shot a girl,” a dark-haired man said as he walked out of the American Physical Society offices. “Call an ambulance.”
After that, the dark-haired man stepped into an elevator, rode nine stories down, and boarded a train to Boston. It was July 14, 1952.
Back inside the building, people gathered around the 20-year-old secretary, Eileen Fahey, who was slumped over, with five 0.22-caliber bullets lodged beneath her skin. She died later that day.
As police attempted to uncover both the killer’s motive and his identity, speculation first turned to love triangles. But this murder had nothing to do with romance: It was all about electrons, and the killer’s crackpot theory that they didn’t exist.
A sketch of the suspect soon went out in newspapers, and a Columbia University professor recognized the familiar face. He had taught this man at Boston University in 1946: It was Bayard Peakes, a veteran whom the Air Force had discharged for “dementia praecox” (now schizophrenia). He never finished his Boston University studies and had moved back home to Bangor, Maine. There, he kept increasingly to himself, but sometimes showed up at Neona Towne's ice cream parlor because she knew electronics—and he was developing his own ideas about them. "But his stuff was away over my head," Towne told Parade. “He wasn’t all there, and he knew it.”
He would often shake his head and tell her, “I'm sick up here.”
In 1948, he sent a 33-page version of his“electronics” idea to the APS for publication: So You Love Physics, the paper was called. “Did you know that the electron never existed?” it began. “Then read this booklet through and become brilliant.” The reviewers rejected it.
Peakes then made 6,500 copies and sent them to thousands of APS members, including Einstein, hoping to get the word out himself. A few years later, the APS did allow Peakes to give a no-electrons talk at their meeting, although they had rejected his paper. In fact, they would let anyone give a presentation—and still do today.
When APS Secretary K. K. Darrow first found Peakes’s proposed 1952 presentation, titled “The electron does not exist,” he suggested Peakes be placed on their list of “eccentrics,” whose presentations a committee could reject.
But then, the physicist Luis Alvarez, who later discovered that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs, made a motion: Every APS member (and anyone introduced by a member) should have a right to give a 10-minute talk—no rejections. They should not stop Peakes from speaking, he said, and they should not stop anyone else.
Peakes’s no-electron theory thus led to the APS’s “free speech” policy, which remains in effect. Anyone can talk for 10 minutes about any physical idea, as long as they have a membership card or an invitation. These talks go into a special session, where cold fusion and overturning Einstein are the norm. But the words make it into the air and onto the record.
That acceptance wasn’t enough for Peakes, though. He wanted to be taken seriously. Although he was slated to speak at the meeting, he went to Bangor to buy a gun. And then he went in search of his establishment enemies. Finding none in the office, he killed the first person he saw: Fahey.
On July 17, 1952, police arrested Peakes as he left a dance hall. He confessed immediately. “Yes, I’m the naughty boy,” he said.
In his confession, he described his brief interaction with Fahey.
“Have they dropped the electronic theory?” he asked her.
“I don’t know anything about it,” she replied.
Before she could say more, he fired the gun at her.
“I just wanted to kill somebody,” he told police. “I was going to shoot anybody. It was my book. They wouldn't look at my book. They wouldn't even look at it."
Peakes had done the calculus: Shooting people gets you in the papers. And if you shoot physicists because they rejected your theory, your theory gets in the papers.
And he was right: After he was caught, everyone heard about his pseudoscientific ideas. Everyone knew the name of his paper. He became famous. In one meta-newspaper image, he smiles while holding up another newspaper headlining his crime.
Peakes died in 2000, but the electron lives on, impervious to his thoughts on its existence.