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2. Research and Teaching

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he pace of new discoveries in physics accelerated rapidly during this era, as the faculty size and specialties expanded. The faculty of four in 1905 had grown to thirteen by 1930, including Raymond T. Birge, Ernest O. Lawrence, and J. Robert Oppenheimer; future Nobelist Linus Pauling was a guest lecturer during that year as well.


The first faculty in the Physics Department had relied on an almost tactile sense of physical processes; new faculty brought acute theoretical insight. They were testing new ideas of electrons and matter, optics and vision, X-rays, the interpretation of atomic spectra, and quantum theory. Everywhere they were making research in these subjects, especially photoelectricity and various electron phenomena, the order of the day.


The department included the Optometry Division chaired by Ralph Minor, which later became Berkeley’s School of Optometry.


The Radiation Laboratory

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llumined by the stern-lantern of history, the Radiation Laboratory added more to science than could possibly have been imagined when it opened as a small annex to the department.


Originally called the Mechanic Arts Laboratory, then the Civil Engineering Testing Laboratory, this modest two story wooden structure was renamed the Radiation Laboratory when Lawrence and his equipment occupied it in 1931. Lawrence’s radiation experiments had begun two years earlier in a lab in the basement of LeConte Hall.


High-energy beams, nuclear science, heavy ion acceleration, radioisotopes – whatever the research focus, the “Rad Lab” at Berkeley would define physics in the coming decades – both at home and around the world.


Civil Engineering Testing Laboratory, The Future “Rad Lab, ” ca. 1925
Civil Engineering Testing Laboratory, The Future “Rad Lab” ca. 1925

[UARC PIC 10n:11]


In 1931, the Rad Lab moved into the former Civil Engineering Testing Laboratory, a 16,000 square foot wooden building constructed in 1885. Later, it was known as the “old” Rad Lab when the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory was built on the hill above campus. The building was razed in 1959 to clear a site for Latimer Hall.


A New Center for Research

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any in America lamented that European scientists had written “the language of the atom” in the quantum mechanical era. Perhaps, but Berkeley’s Physics Department was rapidly mastering the language, and in this period would join the first rank among research universities in physics.


The department’s successes greatly expanded the field in the United States, helping move the entire discipline toward the intellectual frontier. So noticeable was this disciplinary shift that in a 1928 article, Science congratulated Berkeley and identified its Physics Department as one of the new “Centers of Research,” along with such established programs as Chicago, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, and Princeton.


“’Centers of Research,’ a Reply” By Leonard B. Loeb, Karl T. Compton, Raymond T. Birge. Reprinted from Science, Vol LXVIII, No. 1757, August 31, 1928 “’Centers of Research,’ a Reply” By Leonard B. Loeb, Karl T. Compton, Raymond T. Birge. Reprinted from Science, Vol LXVIII, No. 1757, August 31, 1928
“’Centers of Research,’ a Reply” By Leonard B. Loeb, Karl T. Compton, Raymond T. Birge
Reprinted from Science, Vol LXVIII, No. 1757, August 31, 1928
[pg. 1, pgs. 2-3]
[BANC MSS 73/79 c, Ctn. 25]


“The chief cause of our failing in research, … we attribute primarily to the dearth …of able, original, well-trained men. This … is due to our rapid expansion and to disregard of the importance of research on the part of the public….”


A response by Berkeleyans to the Science article placing the University among the leading research centers in the United States.


A Priority on Teaching

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he popularization of physics at a relatively young college like Berkeley rested on the intellectual accessibility of the science to the entire student body. Departments at some institutions gave up the challenge; indeed, physics was becoming too complex for the layperson to understand. Not so at Berkeley, as the faculty continued to emphasize the importance of instruction and to make experimental physics as accessible as possible.


High-ranking faculty continued to hold impressive teaching loads and the department allowed students open access to its experimental lab shop, a rarity among research universities during this era.


Physics Classroom, LeConte Hall, ca. 1930
Physics Classroom, LeConte Hall, ca. 1930

[CU-68 Ctn. 3:8]


Graduate Study

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hile graduate instruction in physics was anticipated from the inception of the department, it took some time to prepare qualified students through undergraduate and advanced training. Indeed, it was not until 1903 that the Physics Department granted its first Ph.D.


Slow to start, the steady drumbeat of graduate education would grow at an unprecedented rate; with this development, Berkeley physics would harvest perhaps its greatest disciplinary rewards.


The first doctorate was awarded in 1903, but it wasn’t until 1905 that graduate courses were separately listed in the course catalog. There were only two specific courses – “Dynamics of Rotation” and “Precession and Nutation” – both taught by Professor Slate, who headed the department after LeConte’s death in 1881.


Announcement of Courses, 1903-1909, University of California, Berkeley Announcement of Courses, 1903-1909, University of California, Berkeley
Announcement of Courses, 1903-1909, University of California, Berkeley
[cover, 92-93] [308kh p.1, 308kh p.92-93]