Share This

Professor Birman To Receive Sakharov Prize For Human Rights

For about 35 years, Dr. Joseph L. Birman, ’47, Distinguished Professor of Physics at The City College of New York (CCNY) has advocated for the rights of repressed scientists, first in the former Soviet Union and later in China, Cuba, Iraq, Iran and the United States.  Now he is to be honored for “his tireless and effective personal leadership in defense of human rights of scientists throughout the world” as one of three recipients of the American Physical Society’s (APS) Andrei Sakharov Prize for 2010.

Professor Birman is to receive the award, named for the Russian theoretical physicist who became a dissident and received the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, at APS’ annual meeting, February 13 – 16 in Washington.  He will share the prize, which carries a $10,000 stipend plus travel expenses, with Dr. Herman Winick, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, and Dr. Moishe Pripstein, a Program Director with the National Science Foundation.Professor Joseph Birman 

It is his second award for his work on behalf of human rights of scientists.  In 2006, he received the Heinz Pagels Award from the New York Academy of Sciences.

A grandson of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Professor Birman’s involvement with repressed scientists began in the former Soviet Union when the government refused let to Jewish scientists emigrate.  These scientists formed a group called the “refuseniks.”

Professor Birman heard of their plight through the Committee of Concerned Scientists (CCS).  Starting in 1974 he traveled to Moscow on “official business” as a co-organizer of a US-USSR Bi-national Symposium. During those visits he was able to get from his hotel to an apartment where refuseniks would meet for a weekly “Sunday Scientific Seminar in Moscow” to discuss their work. 
At those encounters, Professor Birman developed a close kinship with the refuseniks and became determined to help them.  “I recognized that had my grandparents not come to America 100 years earlier I could easily have been in their position instead,” he explains.

Eventually, he made some 20 more trips to the former Soviet Union, conducting official business by day and meeting with dissidents by night.  Because the scientists were not allowed to work or earn livelihoods, Professor Birman and other supporters would bring in electronic products that the scientists could sell on the black market to make enough money to eat.  He made these trips knowing that the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret police, was watching him and could intercede at any time.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Professor Birman has supported persecuted scientists in several other countries.  Currently, he is working to help Dr. Arash Alaei and Dr. Kumar Alaei, two brothers who are medical doctors who have been imprisoned by Iran for trying to treat AIDS patients in rural areas.

His goal has been to put “pressure, noise, and a spotlight” on governments who repress scientists.  He actively writes letters to heads of governments and has traveled the world assisting those in need.  He serves on the Board of CCS and as an Honorary Board Member of Human Rights in China (HRIC).  In addition, he is a former chair and present member of other groups such as the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), APS Forum on International Physics and the American Association for the Advancement of Science Committee on Professional Responsibility.

Some of the scientists Professor Birman has helped in the past have become independent research scholars, such as Distinguished Professor of Physics Eugene Chudnovsky of Lehman College and Professor Emeritus Andrei Weissman of The College of Staten Island.  He has joint projects underway with colleagues in England, Israel, Cuba, and China, and was the chair of the Ph.D. committee at Nankai University for Dr. Jin Shuo, who is now a physics professor in Beijing.  In addition, the APS/People’s Republic of China Cooperative  Physics  Program in AMO (atomic, molecular and optical) and Condensed Matter Physics, which Professor Birman directed for its first three years, has brought 60 senior Chinese physicists to major U.S. laboratories for two-year research visits.

Professor Birman has taught physics and conducted scholarly research, including mentoring around 35 Ph.D. students, at CCNY since 1974, when he joined the faculty after 12 years as a Professor of Physics at New York University.  His research specialty is theoretical physics, especially group theory and symmetry in condensed matter, light scattering mechanisms, and superconductivity and nanophysics of hybrid excitons.  

A cum laude graduate of CCNY, Class of 1947, he received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1952, and was awarded the Docteur es Sciences, honoris causa, from the University de Rennes (France) in 1974.  He has published more than 300 articles in refereed journals and written a monograph: “Theory of Crystal Space Groups and Lattice Dynamics.”

To learn more about the Committee of Concerned Scientists and supporting human rights of repressed scientists, visit



Ellis Simon
p: 212.650.6460