About Us

The Physics Department has about 40 faculty who teach and carry out research in the fields of astrophysics, high energy nuclear physics, high energy particle physics, laser and condensed matter physics, and theoretical physics. We have about 20 undergraduate physics majors and 100 graduate students in the department. The department's research is carried out on campus in the Pupin Laboratories, Schapiro Hall, and nearby Nevis Laboratories, and at many off-campus laboratories and sites.

For a list of department chairs click here.

Our Heritage

Columbia Nobel Laureates

The diversity of educational opportunities that now exists at Columbia has grown out of a long and distinguished tradition of physics teaching and research. I.I. Rabi, Polykarp Kusch, Willis Lamb, Charles Townes, T.D. Lee, James Rainwater, Leon Lederman, Melvin Schwartz, and Jack Steinberger all received the Nobel Prize for work done while they were members of the physics faculty. Horst Stormer received the Nobel Prize after joining the Columbia faculty. Rabi, Rainwater, Lederman, and Schwartz also received their doctorates from Columbia, as have six more Nobel laureates: Robert Millikan, Julian Schwinger, Leon Cooper, Val Fitch, Arno Penzias, Norman Ramsey, and Martin Perl.  Furthermore, Schwinger, Cooper, Schwartz and Ramsey graduated from Columbia College. Columbia graduates, along with many scientists who spent their formative years here, have gone on to make extraordinary contributions to science as researchers, teachers, and intellectual leaders.

Of all the Physics Nobel Laureates that were associated with Columbia, 13 received the award for their work in theoretical physics, and 16 for their experimental discoveries; 11 were Columbia PhD's in Physics and 10 performed their prize-winning research in Pupin.

One Hundred Years Ago

The graduate department was formally established in 1892, although the roots of graduate physics can be traced to the opening of the School of Mines in 1864. In 1899, the American Physical Society was founded at a meeting at Columbia.

At the beginning of this century, Lorentz's work led to Einstein's theory of relativity and Planck's black-body radiation formula introduced the concept of quantum which culminated in the discovery of quantum mechanics. All of our modern scientific and technological developments - nuclear energy, atomic physics, molecular beams, lasers, x-ray technology, semiconductors, superconductors, supercomputers - can be realized only because we have relativity and quantum mechanics. To humanity and to our understanding of nature, these are all-encompassing.

The Columbia Physics Department has played a significant role in several of these developments.

In May 1899, the American Physical Society was founded at Columbia. The Earnest Kempton Adams Fund was established in 1904 enabling the department of physics to invite distinguished scientists to Morningside. H.A. Lorentz was appointed EKA Lecturer in 1905-1906 and Max Planck in 1909. One of the most important works of Lorentz, The Theory of Electrons, was written during his stay at Columbia.

The Second World War Years

Pupin Laboratory, the home of the Physics Department, was a leading research center by 1931.  At this time, Harold Urey (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, 1936) discovered deuterium and George Pegram investigated phenomena associated with the newly-discovered neutron. In the fall of 1938, Fermi decide to leave Italy because of Fascism. He wrote to George Pegram regarding this possibility and received every encouragement. When the news of his Nobel Prize arrived, Fermi realized he had the perfect opportunity. I.I. Rabi's contributions to the development of atomic and molecular physics and some of the basic discoveries in nuclear fission by Enrico Fermi and his collaborators ushered in a golden era of fundamental research.

Pre-World War II work on the spins and magnetic moments of atoms and nuclei led to post-war experiments by Kusch and Henry Foley on the magnetic moment of the electron and to Lamb's work on the fine structure of hydrogen - experiments that were crucial to the development of quantum electrodynamics. In the same period, work on weak interactions led to the theoretical prediction and subsequent observation of maximal parity nonconservation in the landmark nuclear physics experiments conducted by C.S. Wu and in pion- and muon- decay experiments at Nevis Laboratories - where Columbia's cyclotron was commissioned in 1950. Microwave techniques developed by Columbia faculty members during the war were later used to explore molecular spectra.  The observation of large nuclear quadrupole moments stimulated the introduction of the unified nuclear model by James Rainwater.  Molecular spectroscopy also led Townes and his collaborators to the development of the maser - the microwave precursor of the laser.

Theoretical research in the 1940s involving close collaboration with the atomic physics experiments emphasized calculations in quantum electrodynamics.

Although this work continued, it was during the 1950s that the main focus shifted to high energy physics and properties of subatomic particles. T. D. Lee and his collaborators, together with their students, made major strides in understanding the symmetries of subatomic particles which culminated in the prediction and discovery of parity and charge conjugation symmetries in the weak interaction.

The Beginning of High Energy Physics

The desire to investigate matter on an increasingly fine scale has led to experiments using beams of increasingly high energies. The Nevis cyclotron and the accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory were used in a number of experiments.  Rainwater and Fitch explored the structure of nuclei by observing x-ray transitions in muonic atoms; Richard Garwin and Leon Lederman observed parity nonconservation in pion and muon decay; and Lederman, Schwartz, and Steinberger proved that the muon neutrino was distinct from the electron neutrino.

By the 1970s, particle physicists were seeking even higher energies.  Columbia experimenters spread out to accelerators in Europe and the new Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory west of Chicago.  They carried out work on neutrino interactions, photon and hadron interactions, and production of lepton pairs. To this day, Columbia experimenters remain at the forefront of research in these laboratories.

Towards the Future

In recent years, there has been a marked expansion of fields in which Columbia faculty members are engaged. The fields of astrophysics and condensed matter physics are now strongly represented in the Physics Department. Although some of the questions that are asked and the tools used to answer them were inconceivable 50 years ago, one aspect has not changed: Science at Columbia continues to be done by people who care deeply and passionately for the truth.

Columbia Physics in the Fifties

Columbia Physics in the Fifties: Untold Tales by J. Sucher

Columbia Physics in the Fifties: Untold Tales by L. Lederman

Recollections of Graduate School Days by A. Sessler

L.H. Thomas, A Biographical Memoir, by J.D. Jackson

J. Rainwater, A Biographical Memoir, by V.L. Fitch

Columbia Physics 1955 - 1965: A Personal Memoir by M.J. Tannenbaum

"Bubble Chamber Physics at Columbia, by N. Gelfand"

Columbia Physics in the Sixties

Columbia Physics 1955 - 1965: A Personal Memoir by M.J. Tannenbaum

"Bubble Chamber Physics at Columbia, by N. Gelfand"