History of Physics and Astronomy at Notre Dame

History Image


The University was founded in 1842.


Father Joseph Carrier, C.S.C. returns from France with a research grade astronomical lens gifted to the University by Emperor Napoleon III. The lens, polished by French scientist Léon Foucault, is still in use today, installed in a telescope on the roof of Nieuwland Science Hall.


Hiring of the first Professor of Physics. Until 1934 the department was devoted entirely to teaching service courses for other academic areas, and this remains an important part of our teaching function.


A separate astronomy department was formed, but it was dissolved in 1940.


An M.S. degree program in physics was established in 1934, an undergraduate degree in 1937, and a Ph.D. program in 1939. The first major research efforts were the construction of a Van de Graaff electron accelerator in 1934 and a somewhat larger one in 1939. These were used in some important early work in the electrodisintegration of nuclei.


By the early 1940s the department had eight faculty members, all with Ph.D.‘s. The major areas of research interest were nuclear physics, high-polymer (rubber) physics, theory, and electron emission from metallic surfaces. These remained the primary areas of interest until the early 1960s by which time the faculty had grown to about 20 members. With the retirement of senior faculty, research in high-polymers and in electron emission had come to an end by the early 1960s.


A program in low temperature physics and superconductivity was started. An important development of this era was the establishment of the Nuclear Structure Laboratory with an eight-MEV tandem accelerator. During this period research in theoretical atomic physics developed which led to the hiring of experimentalists in this area during the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1980s several faculty members active in semiconductor physics were also added. This period saw an increased understanding of the fundamental forces and quark interactions, leading to the founding of a high-energy/particle physics research group in the department.


The department expanded into astrophysics with a partnership in the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT), and the development as a world leader in nuclear astrophysics. Notre Dame led the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics  that included MSU, the University of Chicago, and other institutions around the country.  Research interests included galactic evolution, archeoastronomy, nucleosynthesis in the early universe, supernovae, neutron star mergers and particle astrophysics. The partnership in the LBT naturally led to development of an astro-instrumentation group. 


Today the department includes 45 tenure and tenure-track faculty members; 20 research and teaching faculty members; ~20 postdoctoral researchers; more than 100 graduate students and ~100 undergraduate physics majors; and a number of supporting staff members. The major research areas include astrophysics, condensed matter physics, nuclear physics, and high-energy/particle physics. Whenever needed, the research groups have reinvented themselves and have successfully reset their focus towards the newest research directions.