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UCL HEP Group History

29 Feb 2024

UCL Physics & Astronomy: Departmental History

The official history of Physics and Astronomy at UCL is Bill Fox's Departmental History 1826-1975.

Jim Grozier is currently preparing a History of Early High Energy Physics Research at UCL. In the course of this research, any information which comes to light and is relevant to the Physics & Astronomy Department as a whole, rather than just HEP (and especially information that is not available from Fox) will be temporarily posted here, in anticipation of the Departmental history itself being overhauled and updated at some time in the future.

The Physics Building

The new Physics Building was completed in 1953 and officially opened in May 1955 by Sir James Chadwick; a Nature report on the new building includes a detailed description of the building. The lower ground floor was not partitioned into small labs as it is now; the report says that "the greater part of the floor is occupied by the electron accelerator laboratory, which extends along the whole length of the floor and over about two-thirds of the width". [Nature No. 4468, June 18 1955, p. 1069]. This laboratory was home to the UCL microtrons.

This new building was smaller than the present one; it extended from the present entrance off the North Cloisters to the eastern end of the teaching labs (where indeed an indentation can be seen from the outside). The building facing onto Gordon Street, which is now an integral part of the Physics Building, was originally occupied by Chemical Engineering, having been built in 1931. There was a gap between these two (whose width extended roughly from the entrance to Lab 1 to the far side of D17), which was filled in around 1967, with the Gordon St building acquiring an extra storey.

This completed the physics building in more or less the format we see today, including the extension on one floor into the old Seamen's Hospital - the current union/maths building at 25 Gordon Street, on the corner of that street and Gower Place. Clearly this unification was part of the master plan as far back as the early 1950s, for the new physics building was built with floors that exactly lined up with those of the Chemical Engineering building - so that today one hardly notices the "join" as one walks from one to the other through the filler section. This alignment does of course mean a mismatch in ceiling and floor heights between the new building and the existing Wilkins Building, which explains all the steps at North Junction, at the west end of Physics.

Physics and Astronomy

The separate Departments of Physics and Astronomy were merged on 1 October 1972 to form the current Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Research Groups

Fox, quoting from Massey's 1973-4 report, lists four main groups into which the Department's research work could be classified, namely:

  • Atomic and Molecular Physics
  • High Energy Physics
  • Astronomy and Space Research
  • Image Processing

Heads of Department

Heads of Department from 1827 to 1975 are listed, with dates, in Bill Fox's history.

Since 1975 there have been five Heads of Department:

  • Franz Heymann (1975-87)
  • Bob Wilson (1987-93)
  • Brian Martin (1993-2004)
  • Jonathan Tennyson (2004-11)
  • Jonathan Butterworth (2011-)