University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

History

Al Nier
Professor A. O. C. (Al) Nier circa 1940 with the mass spectrometer he used to isolate Uranium 235.

Physics at the University of Minnesota began in 1889 when the University recruited Frederick S. Jones as its first professor of physics. The first Physical Laboratory, now called Jones Hall, was completed in 1902. Construction of the front portion of the current physics building, the John Tate Laboratory of Physics, began in 1927. Located on the historic central mall of the Minneapolis main campus, the building has been expanded and extensively remodeled almost a half dozen times since then. Tate Laboratory now houses extensive up-to-date equipment and facilities for teaching and research in most major areas of physics.

Physicists associated with the University of Minnesota have won six Nobel prizes [J. Bardeen (two), W. Brattain, A. Compton, E. Lawrence, and J. Van Vleck]. Professor J. Valesek discovered the phenomenon of ferroelectricity in Rochelle salts in the 1920s. Professor J. Tate edited the Physical Review at Minnesota from 1926 to 1950, while otherwise carrying on a distinguished career in teaching and research. Under Tate's guidance, the journal went from a secondary journal, to become one of the most important peer-review physics journals in the world. Using the technique of mass spectroscopy, Professor A.O.C. Nier first isolated a detectable amount of U-235 in the basement of Tate Laboratory on February 29, 1940.

In the immediate post-World War II era, Minnesota was a leader in cosmic-ray and nuclear physics. Minnesota physicists Phyllis Freier, Edward Ney and C. Jake Waddington discovered the first evidence of heavy ions in cosmic rays. Thus began the stellar tradition in balloon, rocket and satellite-borne research in space physics and astrophysics that continues to this day.

In nuclear physics, Professor J. Williams, as Atomic Energy Commissioner, helped develop the national atomic energy program. He also led an effort which brought to the University a series of increasingly powerful accelerators to study nuclear structure, which culminated in the installation of a large tandem van der Graaf. Experimental and Theoretical Nuclear Physics thrived with the commissioning of the tandem. Major modern machine and electronics shop facilities were developed to meet the needs of the nuclear structure and space physics programs.

From the 1960's through the mid 1980's physics developed strong programs in particle theory and experiment, condensed matter theory and experiment, while continuing in the areas of space and nuclear physics. During this period the Astronomy Department was created, and the History of Science and technology program was started. Space physics research was carried out using satellites and balloons built at the University. University physicists participated in the study of moon rocks and in the investigation of the Martian atmosphere.

In the late 1970s, the first detector was built in the Soudan Mine in northern Minnesota, to search for proton decay. This broadened the activities of the particle experimental group beyond accelerator-based physics. It was the beginning of a major underground research activity, which today is focused on the study of neutrino oscillations.

The Northwest Area Foundation facilitated the hiring of five new faculty members in the first half of the 1980s, which helped to strengthen physics at Minnesota. These faculty members are now among the leaders of current major research programs of physics. In 1987 the Theoretical Physics Institute (TPI) came into existence as a consequence of a major gift by the late William Fine a real estate developer with a life-long interest in theoretical physics. The Institute, with its staff of seven faculty-each professors in physics, is a major international center of research in theoretical physics. On January 9, 2002 the name of the Institute was changed to the William I. Fine Theoretical Physics Institute.

The department has continued to build on its historical tradition, while strengthening its programs in areas such as elementary particle physics and condensed matter as well as opening new avenues such as biological physics.