Physics department home to pioneering researchers, committed teachers

Sept. 22, 2005 5:01 p.m.

Photo: Denise Applewhite

Princeton's Department of Physics has a long history of pioneering research in experimental and theoretical physics conducted by distinguished faculty members who also share the University's strong commitment to teaching at all levels.

The department's faculty includes some of the world's leading physicists in a variety of fields, including high energy; condensed matter; mathematical, biological and nuclear physics; and astrophysics. More than a dozen Nobel Prizes have been awarded to faculty and students of the department in recognition of their groundbreaking research.

Undergraduate concentrators in physics at Princeton learn about the structure of physical law and take part in its discovery, developing broadly applicable problem-solving skills. Physics majors are prepared not only for a career in physics but many other fields, such as consulting, medicine, law, teaching, biotechnology and engineering. The department has made its core requirements more flexible, allowing a greater variety of programs of study that satisfy the major requirements, and offers certificate programs in engineering physics, biophysics, finance and other fields.

The graduate program has two main goals: the development of a broad background in basic physics, and, through the completion of a thesis, the expansion of research abilities in a more specialized area. Graduate students are prepared for careers in research and teaching at the university level or research in industrial and government laboratories. The skills acquired or extended through intensive graduate work in physics -- quantitative reasoning, advanced computational methods, equipment and electronics design, and many others -- are also applicable to many other fields.

The department's history began with Joseph Henry, a onetime watchmaker's apprentice who became a legendary teacher and one of the most acclaimed research pioneers of the 19th century. Henry arrived on campus in 1832, conducted courses in natural philosophy and engineering, and performed a series of experiments in electromagnetic induction that put him at the forefront of the first golden age of science in America.

The auspicious legacy was extended by President James McCosh, who in 1873 brought to campus the renowned Cyrus Fogg Brackett. Along with fellow physicist William Magie and mathematician Henry Fine, Brackett laid a solid academic foundation for one of the world's leading centers of theoretical physics. In the 20th century, Princeton's prominence in relativity theory influenced Albert Einstein's decision to move to Princeton and led to his long friendship with the University during his tenure at the neighboring Institute for Advanced Study.