Our History

Students in Physics Lab

"I am mindful that scientific achievement is rooted in the past, is cultivated to full stature by many contemporaries and flourishes only in a favorable environment. No individual is alone responsible for a single stepping stone along the path of progress, and where the path is smooth, progress is most rapid. In my own work, this has been particularly true."

-Ernest O. Lawrence, New York Times, 1940

Physics at Berkeley has a long history of game-changing research, pioneer scientists, world-class students, and Nobel prizes. After World War I, the University invested tremendously in the department and helped to make the West Coast a hub for physics research. Ernest O. Lawrence had been wooed away from Yale, and in 1931, he invented a unique particle accelerator called the cyclotron. By charging particles to high energies and then casting them at a target, the atomic nuclei would smash open. 

Thus, the era of high-energy physics and “big science” was ushered in and continued to grow as World War II loomed. Italian physicist and student of Enrico Fermi, Emilio Segrè, came to Berkeley to work in Lawrence’s Rad Lab. He joined experimental forces with Owen Chamberlain in order to discover the antiproton. While experiments were getting bigger and bigger, a strong and renowned tradition of theoretical physics flourished under J. Robert Oppenheimer, who also led the effort to develop the atomic bomb. 

Other builders of this department include Donald Glaser, who invented the bubble chamber at the University of Michigan before coming to Berkeley, and Luis Alvarez, who tweaked Glaser’s bubble chamber by substituting hydrogen for ether, thus producing an even clearer track of speeding particles. Both were Nobel Prize-winning experiments that vastly increased our knowledge of the atom, and changed the course of nuclear science. They, like Charles Townes who invented the laser before coming to Berkeley, took the freedom that went along with their Nobel Prizes and turned their research to different but highly rewarding areas of physics research, thus helping the department grow strong in areas such as biophysics and astrophysics.

The spirit of discovery that inspired these physicists continues today to inspire our faculty, post-docs, grad students, and even undergrads. They’re sending missions to the sun to study solar plasma, discovering the amazing properties of graphene, uncovering the mysteries of dark matter, making huge contributions to neutrino science throughout the world, seeking alternatives to string theory, capturing antimatter and much more. Physics at Berkeley continues to transform the way we view the Universe as well as spark world-changing, technological revolutions.