and Sciences][Stanford University]
Department of Physics

Historical Faculty Information

Departmental History Awards

Physics Department History

The Early Years, 1891 through the 1930's

Stanford University opened in 1891, with the Department of Physics among the very first departments at the new University. As the Register for 1891-92 indicates, five courses in physics -- both laboratory and classroom -- were offered to the inaugural class of enthusiastic young men and women. Research was not far behind, however. By the early 1900s, research on X-rays had begun, first under the direction of David Webster, and later under Paul Kirkpatrick. It was not until the arrival of Swiss physicist Felix Bloch, however, in 1934, that physics research at Stanford truly caught fire. A refugee from the Nazis, Bloch was only 28 years old when he answered David Webster's invitation to join the Stanford faculty. Yet he had already made extraordinary contributions to physics, through his theory of electron transport, the Bethe-Bloch equation of the stopping power of fast particles in matter, the theory of ferromagnetism, his invention of spin waves, and Bloch walls. Soon after he arrived at Stanford, Bloch, together with Berkeley physicist Robert Oppenheimer, organized a joint seminar on theoretical physics that met alternately at Stanford and Berkeley. Many of the leading physicists of Europe and the United States traveled to the West Coast to speak at these seminars, and many came to Stanford as summer visitors. By the mid-1930s, Stanford was recognized as an important center for physics, despite the fact that geographically it was considered far removed from the center of "civilization!"

The Middle 1930's through the 1960's

Encouraged initially by Enrico Fermi to do experimental physics because, among other things, it was "fun," in 1938 Bloch (in collaboration with Luis Alvarez) made the first experimental measurement of the magnetic moment of the neutron, marking the beginning of the work for which he is perhaps best known. By the end of the Second World War, Bloch, working with Bill Hansen and Martin Packard, had succeeded in observing nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in condensed matter by the method of nuclear induction. For these discoveries, and the discoveries made with this technique, Bloch shared the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physics with Harvard's Edward Purcell. It was Stanford's first Nobel Prize. NMR has since become the most important spectroscopic technique in chemistry and biology, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an imaging technique based upon it, is considered the greatest advance in medical imaging since the discovery of X-rays in 1895.

In the late 1930s, Research Associates Russell and Sigurd Varian, working in collaboration with their mentor, Professor Bill Hansen, invented the klystron, a high-power microwave source and amplifier. The klystron was rapidly developed during World War II for use in radar, navigation, and blind-landing devices for aircraft. But Hansen, whose own contribution to the klystron was the resonant cavity called a rhumbatron, was interested in using the klystron for the acceleration of particles. And by 1947 he had built the first linear electron accelerator, the Mark I, which accelerated electrons to 6 MeV. Then, just four years later, Edward Ginzton and Marvin Chodorow completed the Mark III, a 1-GeV electron accelerator. It was the Mark III that allowed Robert Hofstadter to study the charge and magnetic structure of nuclei and nucleons, work that earned him the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Stanford Linear Accelerator Center

Hansen's work has continued to be highly fruitful. In 1967, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), a national facility designed to hold a new two-mile accelerator, was completed and running, and nine years later, Stanford's Burton Richter shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the Psi/J-particle. In 1988, Mel Schwartz, a long-time member of the department, shared the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the muon neutrino, though this work had been done earlier at Brookhaven. Then, in 1990, Dick Taylor shared the Nobel Prize for his studies of deep inelastic scattering, which showed the existence of point-like objects in nucleons, now recognized as quarks. In 1995, Martin Perl won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of a new elementary particle known as the tau lepton.

Quantum Mechanics and Leonard Schiff

Shifting focus to another area of investigation, we come to Leonard Schiff, whose book, Quantum Mechanics, published in 1949, provided the means by which several generations of physicists learned this subject. Schiff had become department chair in 1948 and, together with Bloch, had formed an appointments committee that gave the department clear international stature in short order. A nuclear physics group was built up under Walter Meyerhof and Stanley Hanna; an Institute for Theoretical Physics was soon established; and, under the direction of Wolfgang Panofsky and Robert Hofstadter, the High Energy Physics Laboratory was organized.

In 1971, Sandy Fetter and Dirk Walecka published Quantum Theory of Many-Particle Systems and later Theoretical Mechanics of Particles and Continua, sustaining the line of superb graduate texts initiated with Schiff's Quantum Mechanics. Both volumes evolved from the authors' elegant and inspiring graduate lectures on these subjects, modeled on the Schiff dictum: excellence in teaching goes hand-in-hand with excellence in research -- a theme still emphasized in the department today.

Low Temperature Physics

Paul Kirkpatrick's pioneering research on reflecting X-ray optics and holography continued throughout the 1950s. In the late '50s Bill Little and, shortly thereafter, Bill Fairbank joined the department to establish low-temperature laboratories. In 1961, Fairbank and Bascom Deaver discovered flux quantization while Little and Ron Park discovered quantum interference effects in superconductors, both precursors to the SQUID. Fairbank's earlier work on high-Q cavities led to his proposal in 1961 for a superconducting accelerator, eventually brought to reality at Stanford in collaboration with Mike McAshan, Alan Schwettman, Todd Smith, John Turneaure and Perry Wilson. This, and the klystrons of the earlier era, have become the enabling technologies for many of today's accelerators relying on superconducting cavities like CEBAF and LEP at CERN, as well as linear colliders currently under discussion.

Little's controversial proposal in 1964 for a high-temperature, organic superconductor stimulated much interest in low-dimensional and organic conductors. This was followed in 1969 by the discovery of two-dimensional superconductors and, in 1975 at Stanford, polymeric superconductors. We now know of many organic superconductors; studies of these, the fullerenes, and the high-transition temperature ceramic superconductors have become a vigorous area of condensed-matter research.

Art Schawlow joined the Stanford faculty shortly after he invented the laser, in collaboration with Charles Townes, at Bell Laboratories in 1958. An exciting time followed, as new and powerful advances were made in optics and laser spectroscopy. Ted Hänsch and Schawlow pioneered the development of Doppler-free high-precision spectroscopy and other powerful laser techniques that have made possible new and fundamental studies of atomic and molecular systems. In 1981 Schawlow shared the Nobel Prize for physics for the discovery of these new techniques in laser spectroscopy. Since then, Steve Chu, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997, has taken these optical techniques to yet another dimension, with "optical molasses" (the cooling of particles in a light field to microkelvin temperatures), the laser trapping of atoms, and the development of optical tweezers for biological experiments. Recently, Mark Kasevich has returned to Stanford from several years at Yale. His very broad interests include both pure and applied physics; they range from Bose-Einstein condensates in optical lattices (which provide an important analogy to condensed-matter systems) to high-precision gravimeters and gyroscopes based on atomic fountains and interferometers.


Astrophysics is on the upswing in the department, and now includes theoretical studies on a wide range of exotic topics complemented by enterprising experimental programs. These have included participation in the Gamma-ray astronomical observatory, EGRET (initiated by Hofstadter in the 1970s and subsequently under Peter Michelson's direction), and the current development of GLAST, a next-generation large-area orbiting gamma-ray telescope, also led by Michelson. Searches for dark matter in the form of elementary particles such as WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles) have been developed by Blas Cabrera. The calculations of primordial elemental abundances by Wagoner, the discovery of giant luminous arcs due to gravitation lensing by Petrosian, and the elucidation of inflation and phase transitions in cosmology by Linde are major cornerstones in cosmology and astrophysics. Roger Romani's research focuses on black holes and neutron stars and he has been instrumental in initiating Stanford's membership in the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, a 10-meter spectroscopic survey telescope at MacDonald Observatory in Texas. Sarah Church, an experimentalist working on observations of the cosmic microwave background, joined our department in 1999, further enhancing our astrophysics program. Phillip Scherrer leads an ongoing major study of solar physics relying on data from NASA satellites. In 2002, Stanford received a major gift that led to the formation of the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC), based both at SLAC and in the Physics Department.  Roger Blandford became the Director of KIPAC, and Steven Kahn the Deputy Director, in 2003.  In 2004, Tom Abel, a theoretical astrophysicist, and Steven Allen, an experimental astrophysicist, were hired with joint faculty appointments in Physics and SLAC.

Gravity Probe B

A new experimental test of the general theory of relativity was proposed in a classic paper by Schiff in 1960. It suggested the measurement of the minute precession of a gyroscope orbiting a rotating gravitating body. Fairbank and Robert Cannon from the School of Engineering then initiated a program to develop the technology and attain the necessary sensitivity. The Gravity Probe B Project, as it is known, now under the direction of Francis Everitt, has evolved into the top-priority scientific experiment in gravitational physics for NASA. The first space flight is anticipated within the next few years.

Condensed Matter Physics

Condensed-matter physics at Stanford is led by a group of enthusiastic faculty who are breaking new ground. Robert Laughlin shared the 1998 Nobel Prize for his explanation of the quantum and fractional quantum Hall effects. Doug Osheroff, the 1996 co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of superfluid 3He, is a leading experimentalist in the area of quantum solids and fluids and other properties of matter very near to absolute zero. Sandy Fetter, who has made important theoretical contributions in vortex structures found in superfluid 4He and 3He, is active in the theory of Bose-Einstein condensates. Aharon Kapitulnik is a low-temperature experimentalist studying high-Tc superconductors and the metal-insulator transition (a quantum phase transition). Sebastian Doniach is a theorist studying superconductivity and flux pinning in superconductors as well as various biophysics problems. Shoucheng Zhang, who applies quantum-field-theoretic techniques to condensed-matter problems such as the fractional quantum Hall effect, is especially noted for his invention of the “SO(5)” theory that unifies antiferromagnetism and superconductivity, as a possible model for high-Tc superconducting materials. Blas Cabrera performs experiments on superconductivity such as measuring the Cooper pair mass and studies of vortex pinning, and uses the unusual quantum effects found in condensed matter at low temperature to develop novel detectors for particle astrophysics. David Goldhaber-Gordon studies quantum dots, which are artificial atoms fabricated from mesoscopic structures on semiconducting films. Hari Manoharan uses the scanning tunneling microscope to create atomic-scale structures on the surfaces of metals and semiconductors.  Steve Kivelson, who joined the Physics faculty in 2004, plays a leading role in the theoretical physics of correlated electron systems.

Other Disciplines

Finally, both theoretical and experimental particle physics continue to thrive at Stanford. Leonard Susskind and Savas Dimopoulos, the main authors of technicolor and supersymmetry as extensions of the Standard Model, along with Renata Kallosh, a leading expert on supergravity and superstring theory, form the nucleus of a dynamic and synergistic particle-theory group that is closely linked to our astrophysics, condensed-matter, and SLAC theorists. Stephen Shenker, a world leader in theoretical particle physics and string theory, is the Director of the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics. In addition, Shamit Kachru and Eva Silverstein, two string theorists, have joint appointments in the Physics Department and SLAC, thus strengthening the already strong ties between the two entities.

On the experimental side, Stan Wojcicki will study neutrino oscillations using a neutrino beam created at Fermilab and an underground detector in Minnesota. Wojcicki is currently spokesperson for the MINOS experiment, which should reveal whether or not neutrinos actually oscillate, and if so, will be able to measure the oscillation mode and mixing parameters. Patricia Burchat is one of the leaders of the BABAR experiment at the B factory facility at SLAC, which explores CP violation in the decays of B mesons. Giorgio Gratta has recently completed an experiment searching for neutrino oscillations with the Palo Verde reactor and is now working on experimental studies of neutrino properties and astrophysics with the KamLAND detector in Japan. Gratta is also active in developing new techniques in particle detection.

In addition to research in the Physics Department and at SLAC, graduate students in Physics have access to research projects in Applied Physics, Electrical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and collaborative efforts with the Medical School. A major factor in Stanford's successful history of innovation has been the ease of collaborations across disciplinary and departmental boundaries; this tradition continues today. 

Suggestions, corrections, or comments about this website?
Contact the webmaster with our comment form