Why do heavy and light objects fall at the same speed?
The major part of the new physics building is completed and Physics moves from the old Physics Laboratory (renamed the Metallurgy and Mining Building in 1963 and now home to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering).
Physics Head Frederick Seitz, in cooperation with Robert Sproul (Cornell), Harvey Brooks (Harvard), Charles Yost (Office of Naval Research), and Donald Stevens (Atomic Energy Commission), works to establish national materials research laboratories at several U.S. universities. (The first materials research laboratories will be established at three universities in 1960 by the Advanced Research Projects Administration. Illinois is not among them because of a political dispute between the congressional delegations of Michigan and Illinois.)
Daniel Alpert begins a project in CSL for computer-assisted instruction, which will come to be known as PLATO.
Della Mae Rogers McKeown retires as the departmental secretary after 47 years of service (and innumerable battles royal with Physics heads).
Felix T. Adler comes to Illinois with a joint appointment to Physics and "Nuclear Engineering" (although a separate Department of Nuclear Engineering will not be created until 1976). Adler will make the University into a national center for reactor science and engineering.
Daniel Alpert comes from Westinghouse, with joint appointments in Physics and CSL, and transforms the military-research-based laboratory into the Coordinated Science Laboratory for conducting totally unclassified basic research in physics and engineering. Future projects will include plasma and surface physics, atmospheric physics, and semiconductors.
Work is started on the new physics building. Wheeler Loomis deliberately builds the office and research wing first, knowing that the Illinois legislature has appropriated only half the money needed to complete the entire building, and also knowing that they will be hardpressed to turn down an additional funding request to build the classrooms.
Wheeler Loomis retires as head of Physics (although he will stay on as director of the CSL until 1959). Frederick Seitz, another individual of remarkable leadership skills and national connections, takes over as head of Physics.
The Digital Computer Laboratory, which has been offering classes to students since 1954, becomes a full department with Professor of Physics Ralph Meagher as its head. (A subsequent head, James N. Snyder, will also come from Physics.) The Department adds a computer programming requirement to its engineering physics curriculum.
John Bardeen, his postdoc Leon Cooper, and his graduate student Bob Schrieffer solve a 45-year-old puzzle by showing how superconductors can produce a lossless electrical current through the formation of pairs of electrons. The pairing concept that the trio elucidated (the BCS theory) will be used to explain puzzling properties of atomic nuclei, certain massively dense stars (neutron stars), and the superfluid phase of a rare isotope of helium (3He). The BCS theory will come to be considered the most significant contribution to 20th-century theoretical physics after the theory of quantum mechanics.
Loomis organizes a group of the Physics faculty to take an active role in the Physical Science Steering Committee project (with Francis Friedman and Jerrold Zacharias at MIT) to develop new curricula and materials for the teaching of physics in secondary schools after the Soviet launch of Sputnik shocks the American scientific establishment.
The Physics tradition of scientific outreach begins in a departmental effort to respond to increased public interest in the advances in physics with a series of open lectures, aimed at nonscientists. The first two lectures, "Left- and Right-Handedness in Physics" (given by Professor Hans Frauenfelder) and "Transient Visitors in the Physical World " (given by Professor J.D. Jackson), are highly successful, with more than 250 people in attendance at each.
John Bardeen (with William Shockley and Walter Brattain) wins the Nobel Prize in Physics for "researches on semiconductors and ... discovery of the transistor effect." (Wheeler Loomis had nominated Bardeen and Shockley for the prize.) The Physics faculty makes a candlelight procession to Bardeen's house with two cases of champagne to celebrate the announcement.
G. Kenneth Green (PhD, 1937), one of Kruger's former students, leads the design, construction, and operation of the 30-billion-volt Alternating Gradient Synchrotron proton accelerator at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
After 20 years of lobbying and wrangling with the Board of Trustees, the University Building Committee, and even the State of Illinois General Assembly, Wheeler Loomis gets plans approved for a new physics building, to be located on the northeast corner of Goodwin and Green streets.
Thirty-eight faculty members sign an open letter to the Atomic Energy Commission in support of beleaguered physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and warn that "scientists of ability and integrity" will hesitate to accept advisory positions in the government if they are to be punished for voicing unpopular views.
Two young postdocs, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, explore the so-called parity laws of elementary particle physics; Murray Gell-Mann comes back to Illinois for the summer to work with them. (Yang and Lee will share the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics.)
Professor Harry Drickamer, Chemical Engineering, initiates collaborations with the solid-state physicists "to learn something about high-pressure techniques." (Drickamer will turn into one of the world's greatest innovators in superpressure science, developing numerous novel techniques for basic research in physics, chemistry, and biology.)
Illiac I goes online on September 22.
Wheeler Loomis recruits John Bardeen, a solid-state theorist at AT&T Bell Labs, to bolster the nascent Illinois solid-state experimental program. He receives a joint appointment in the Department of Electrical Engineering, further strengthening the ties between Physics and EE.
Hoping to avoid the mass exodus of Urbana researchers and graduate students that occurred during World War II, Dean of the Graduate School Louis Ridenour works with Loomis to establish the Control Systems Laboratory (CSL) in Urbana to keep some of Illinois' best physicists at home while simultaneously drawing attention to the University's science and engineering contributions.
Temporary quarters are set up on the fourth floor of the Physics Laboratory and Fred Seitz is named director; he is joined by Professors of Physics Arnold Nordsieck, Chalmers Sherwin, Gerald Kruger, Ralph Meagher, Ernest Lyman, Robert Hulsizer, Henry Quastler, and Leo Lavatelli. (Eventually, nearly one-third of the Physics faculty will be transferred temporarily to CSL, and the CSL directors from 1951-1970 will all be Physics professors—Fred Seitz, Wheeler Loomis, Daniel Alpert, and W. Dale Compton (PhD '50).
Funded by grants from all three branches of the Armed Services, the CSL focuses on radar and on possible uses of the new digital computers. (Major achievements will be the invention of the electrostatically supported gyroscope and coherent Doppler radar.)
Murray Gell-Mann, an instructor at the University of Chicago, is attracted to the University of Illinois because Wheeler Loomis can use CSL money to pay summer salaries—about the only source of summer money for theorists at the time. He spends two productive summers in the fourth-floor Physics "penthouse," working with Francis Low on what will come to be known as the Gell-Mann-Low equations of particle theory—the beginnings of renormalization group methods. He reports that it is so hot in the penthouse that they have to write everything in ink, because pencil notations get too smudged from the sweat. (Gell-Mann will win the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics.)
Maurice and Gertrude Goldhaber leave Illinois for Brookhaven National Laboratory, primarily because the University will not provide suitable employment for Gertrude Goldhaber.
Arnold T. Nordsieck finishes building his "differential analyzer"—an analog computer capable of solving complex equations and drawing curves—out of $700-worth of war surplus materials. Clones will subsequently become the first computers at the California Radiation Laboratory (later Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) and at Purdue University.
Wheeler Loomis and Frederick Seitz, along with other members of the department, sign an open letter to President Truman, protesting the zeal with which hydrogen bomb research is being undertaken and urging caution in its development and use.
The 300-MeV betatron (more powerful than that called for in the original design) goes online.
The outbreak of the Korean War sends Wheeler Loomis back to Massachusetts as director of Project Charles, the development of air defenses for the United States against Soviet attack. ("Project Charles" will lead to the establishment of the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT, of which Loomis will be the first director.) Gerald M. Almy becomes acting head, as University president George Stoddard grumbles, "Of course, the trouble is, there are not enough Wheeler Loomises to go around."
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