School of Physics and Astronomy

Search site

History of physics at Leeds

Physics was established as an academic discipline in Leeds in 1874 with the founding of the Yorkshire College of Science. Lord Cavendish (from the same family as Henry Cavendish and son of the Duke of Devonshire) was a local MP and member of the council of the Yorkshire College.  Following his murder in Phoenix Park in 1882, the College established the Cavendish Chair of Physics in his memory.  Notable holders of the chair have included W Stroud (formed the company Barr and Stroud) 1885-1909, W H Bragg (his experimental X-ray work for which his Nobel Prize was awarded was done in Leeds) 1909-1915 and E C Stoner 1951-1963, famous for magnetism and more recently recognised, astrophysics.

Historic instruments
The School has a collection of more than 600 scientific instruments used in the School for teaching and research over the last 100 years. Over 100 of the most significant objects in the collection have been photographed, and can be viewed in both low and high resolution versions via LUDOS (Leeds University Digital Objects). Highlights include instruments used by Nobel Prize winner William Bragg.

The School acknowledges the financial support of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society in obtaining the images.

Research in Leeds was dominated by solid state physics until the arrival of J G Wilson in 1952 who initiated cosmic ray research and built cloud chambers. From 1976 through 1987 AA Watson used the Leeds Haverah Park array to extend cosmic ray research. He then led observational efforts at the South Pole. Now, the high energy research is dominated by the Pierre Auger Observatory (Argentina), the result of a collaboration involving 15 countries initiated by Nobel laureate J Cronin (Chicago) and Watson.

Other astrophysicists at Leeds are prominent in the Whipple and Veritas projects. In 1996 J E Dyson arrived to establish an observational/theory group that now numbers 6 including T W Hartquist (arrived 1998) and P Caselli (the School's first female professor who arrived in 2007). The group is now led by Hartquist and focuses mainly on all areas of star formation from survey exploitation through spectroscopic line diagnosis of dynamics, astrochemical and magnetohydrodynamic modelling, and feedback.

The emphasis of Leeds' gamma-ray research is shifting towards observations at complementary wavelengths. Data from Auger is revealing the origin of the Universe's most energetic particles.

Find out more about current astrophysics research at Leeds from the Astrophysics Group web pages.

Condensed Matter Physics
After the death of E C Stoner in 1963, solid state physics came under the guidance of J S Dugdale (1965-1987) where the group focus was on electron transport and magnetic properties of bulk metals. With the arrival of G J Morgan (1969) the emphasis shifted to the study of quantum interference effects in disordered and glassy metals. In 1989 the group acquired an MBE machine and worked on giant magnetoresistance and magnetic multilayers.

The group currently comprises 4 academic staff and is led by Hickey (appointed 1990, chair 2000) and works on spintronics, structural and magnetic properties of materials using scattering techniques, and carbon-based material. Most of the material is nano-structured through lithography or other means and the emphasis is on electron-transport and quantum entanglement.

Find out about current condensed matter physics research from the Condensed Matter Group web pages.

Molecular and Nanoscale Physics
In 1990 D. Batchelder was appointed to form a new group. His background was polymer physics and Raman scattering. With S D Evans (1991) and D A M Smith (1994) they started new activity on molecular physics and were instrumental in setting up the Centre for Self-Organising Molecular Systems. The group currently numbers 4 staff and is led by Evans. The research centres on fluid-surface interactions, nanostructured materials and biomembranes. Increasingly, the activity of the group is leading towards biophysics (with 2 new academic appointments) in the areas of single molecule spectroscopy and, bio-inspired nanomaterials for photonic/electronic materials (supported by 1 new academic appointment) to bring the strength of the group to 7 academic staff.

Find out more on the Molecular and Nanoscale Physics Group web pages

Soft Matter Physics
Polymer physics in Leeds was established in 1970 with the arrival of I M Ward (though retired, still an extremely active member of the department at 80+ years of age). Prof Ward was responsible for a huge effort in mechanical properties of bulk polymers contributing to basic science and industrial application in equal measures. This effort culminated in the founding of the Polymer IRC in 1989, an organisation that still flourishes today with a growing industrial and academic membership, and playing a key role in the Technology Strategy Board's new Polymer Innovation Network. TCB McLeish arrived in 1993, assuming the role of head, and was Director of the IRC from 2003 to 2009. Today the group is led by M E Ries and numbers 11 staff using closely-integrated experiment, theory, and simulation to study liquid and solid polymeric phases, macromolecular architecture and dynamics, statistical physics of complex fluids and biophysics.

Find out more from the Soft Matter Group web pages.

Theoretical Physics
Vlatko Vedral was appointed to the Centenary Chair of Quantum Information in 2004 and built a group of 5 theoreticians and 2 experimentalists.  The work is focused on the theory of many-body entanglement and coherent manipulation of atoms and photons for information processing and most recently, the search for coherent phenomena in biological systems. The experimental work is on the cavity-QED implementation of controlled inter-atom quantum gates, mediated by light. An additional experimentalist, B Varcoe, was appointed in 2008. The group now numbers 9 members of staff and is led by A Beige.

Find out more at the Quantum Information group web pages.

To learn about the history of our school and past & present academics, please visit here.