Physics Department history reflects U of L story

The history of the University of Lethbridge is one of bold beginnings and independent ideals, traits that are reflected in the histories of the individual departments on campus. The evolution of the Department of Physics and Astronomy may embody that more than any other.

"Our story is really the story of the University," says department Chair and associate professor Dr. David Siminovitch. "For us, in particular, there were some moments it could have gone quite badly and we might not even be here, but we are and we've triumphed."

The department's story has caught the eye of the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) and is featured in the latest edition of its quarterly magazine, Physics in Canada.

"CAP approached me several years ago to do this but I just didn't have the time," says Siminovitch. "Finally, a couple of years ago I sat down and said if I don't do it now, I'm never going to do it. I literally set aside two weeks where I dropped everything else and worked on writing the history of our department. Since then I'd spent a week here or there polishing it."

For Siminovitch, who came to the University in 1990, the exercise proved to be very enlightening.

"There was a lot that happened before me," says Siminovitch.

"I had some help from the department and particularly from Dr. Arvid Schultz, one of the founding members, and from Drs. Keramat Ali and David Naylor. It was very satisfying for us to get it done and the nice thing is, it now goes into something that is read by virtually every member of the Canadian physics community, including faculty members but also graduate and undergraduate students."

The department's history spans four decades, each of which has significant milestones, taking the department from its establishment in 1967 as an independent unit of the Faculty of Arts & Science focused principally on teaching to today's comprehensive research and development group.

Over the past 40-plus years, the department's maturation has been anything but linear, and Siminovitch points to a particularly poignant period in history when the future of physics at the University was in question.

He describes a department lacking support as it approached its second decade, with a low sense of morale and experiencing high rates of attrition. In 1979, academic vice-president, Dr. Owen Holmes, requested an external, independent review of the department. Its resulting report was frank and blunt, recommending as a bare minimum step to rebuild and strengthen the department that two new faculty be recruited immediately, both active in experimental physics.

"Firstly, they had the good sense to go outside the University to find out what they should do," says Siminovitch. "Then they had the courage to act on the recommendations, hiring both Dr. Ali and Dr. Naylor. The rest really is history. They did right back in 1979 and the department is alive and well because of that."

With the history now written and published, Siminovitch encourages other University departments to look into their pasts and to put down their own histories.

"I view this as both telling our story but also telling our story at a very important moment in the University's history," he says. "The nice thing now is that this history lives on the web ( and it is dynamic, so we plan to continually update it, not only as we move along year to year but also adding to our past as more stories emerge."

This story first appeared in the January edition of the Legend. For a look at the Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.