October 20, 2016

Physics Department Looks at Its Storied History

A group of current and former members of the physics department met Thursday to discuss the department’s history and contributions to the state of physics and superconductivity. Those present included Hellmut Fritzsche, retired professor and former chairman of the physics department at the University, along with physicists Gene Parker, Kathy Levin, Peter Freund, and Steve Meyer. 

The colloquium on Thursday at the Kersten Physics Teaching Center began with a brief segment from Fritzsche, who began his work at the University of Chicago in 1957. During his tenure, he served as director of the Materials Research Laboratory from 1973 to 1977, and as its chairman from 1977 to 1986. As chairman, he spearheaded the founding of the Kersten Physics Teaching Center. 

Throughout his career, Fritzsche worked with 35 Ph.D. students. These students’ achievements include the creation of semiconductors—amorphous materials with electrical traits—that work at very low temperatures, the study of semiconductors used in solar panels, and the exploration of transmutation doping as examined in semiconductors. 

“It was a different time at the University of Chicago. We did not have your technology and resources as you all do now to conduct physics. Now enjoy it as much as you can. History is now in your hands, and I wish you luck,” Fritzsche said. 

After Fritzsche spoke, four other physicists affiliated with the University continued the discussion of the “heritage of the physics department,” including some of its unique features and the problems the field faced before the digital revolution. 

Parker, a solar astrophysicist, has been involved with the University’s efforts in physics since 1955. He is a prominent expert in the fields of solar wind and magnetic fields. Levin, a professor in the department, discussed her involvement in solid state physics and superconductivity. She also touched upon her early involvement as one of few women in the department, and how she began as part of a “young, sparkly group of people in 1975, when so many changes and reorganizations were happening.” 

Freund, a theoretical physics professor, spoke of his work and contributions to particle physics and string theory. 

“Part of the reason I love this department is that there is a specific scientific atmosphere created here which we enjoy and which leads us to do good work. I ask myself: What are the conditions for this atmosphere to exist? And there are two conditions. On the one hand, there is the organization, and the other, there is the democracy of the group,” Freund said. 

Concluding the panel was Meyer, whose work extends to the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, which focuses on investigating cosmological observables of the universe in its earliest state. 

“The thing I think this department strives on enormously is the interaction between its members and the support we give each other for the science we are doing, as well as the interest that everyone takes in each other’s research,” Meyer said.