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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Environmental activist and scholar Martin Sage dies Feb. 3

Sage founded local chapter of the Sierra Club

March 22, 2012, by Staff Reports

Environmental activist and scholar Martin Sage, professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, died Feb. 3, 2012. He was 76. Although he retired in 2008, Sage remained active in the department and in his research in the field of vibrational spectroscopy.

Sage’s scholarship focused on understanding the vibrations of atoms and molecules and the forces that influence the vibrations. In vibrational spectroscopy, the frequencies of infrared radiation absorbed and emitted by molecules are measured and interpreted to provide scientists with information about the way molecules vibrate and the forces between the atoms (the “interatomic potentials”).

“Martin was particularly interested in highly-excited or large-amplitude vibrations, in which the vibrating atoms move relatively large distances from their resting positions,” says Jerry Goodisman, a long-time colleague and friend. “These vibrations are difficult to describe and are very sensitive to the finer details of the interatomic potentials.” 

Sage used different interatomic potentials to calculate the absorption and emission frequencies corresponding to highly excited vibrations, as well as the intensities of the absorbed and emitted infrared radiation. The calculations required complicated algebraic methods, which Sage developed to obtain his results.

Sage was a model citizen of the chemistry department and the greater University community.  “Martin could always be counted on to offer balanced, thoughtful positions on matters of departmental and University governance as well as on faculty rights and privileges” says Laurence Nafie chemistry colleague in vibrational spectroscopy and former department chair (1984 to 2000).

In addition to his scholarship, Sage was very active in environmental issues and in the Central New York community. In 1972, he and his brother, Samuel, founded the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter Iroquois Group. Members of the local group fondly remember the first meetings held in the Sage’s living room.  As the group’s co-political chair and a member of the statewide Sierra Club political committee, Sage helped influence state and national environmental policy and advocated for a wide-variety of environmental issues. He and his brother organized the first Earth Day celebration in Central New York in 1970, and during the 1980s, Martin served on the Syracuse Conservation Advisory Council.

Sage also served on the boards of the Outer Comstock Neighborhood Association, the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music, the Syracuse Park Conservancy, and Canopy. He was also active in the Syracuse Area Middle East Dialog, Feeder Watch, Tree Steward, the Eastern Lake Ontario Dunes Coalition, and the Onondaga County Mycological Society.

Sage brought his scholarship and dedication to environmental conservation into the classroom by co-founding the University’s interdisciplinary program in Science, Technology, and Society, for which he created coursework.  He also directed the program for many years. Sage held a Ph.D. from Harvard University in chemical physics. He did postdoctoral work at Brandeis University and went on research leaves to Tel Aviv University and Oxford. Before his appointment at SU, Sage was on the faculty of the University of Oregon.

Sage is survived by his wife, Gloria; his son, Daniel; and his brother, Samuel.