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Department History

A History of the Physics & Astronomy Department (1967-2010)

Lethbridge skirts the western edge of the Palliser Triangle, a semiarid area spanning southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Every May and June, the vivid colours of the cacti flowers that decorate the coulees of the university campus are a reminder of the region’s arid climate.

Palliser’s expedition of 1857-1860 found the area quite unsuitable for agriculture, but during the 1870’s, John Macoun, a Canadian botanist, concluded that it was ideally suited for agriculture and would become successful wheat land because rainfall occurred when it was needed. Now, dryland farming and irrigation have made the Lethbridge/Medicine Hat area one of the most fertile in Canada, responsible for growing a significant portion of our pulse, mustard and canola crops.

And what of physics? It is the birthplace of two of the only three Canadians to win the Nobel Prize in physics: Bertram Brockhouse, born in Lethbridge, and raised on a farm in Milk River, and Richard Taylor, born and raised in Medicine Hat. (Richard Taylor won the prize in 1990, and Bertram Brockhouse in 1994.)

It is also home to the University of Lethbridge, which recently celebrated its 40th Anniversary. The University's Department of Physics has in the last 43 years undergone a remarkable transformation: originating as a teaching unit in the Lethbridge Junior College, it has more than doubled in size, and with research-active faculty, and a new focus on graduate studies, was able to graduate its first three PhD students over the last year (December 2009 – December 2010). Learn more about the history of that transformation by decade in the menu on the left.

From Junior College to the present: Four decades of history

The department's history spans four decades, each of which has significant milestones. The first "decade" (1967-1980) saw the establishment of the department as an independent unit in the Arts & Science Faculty of the fledgling university. Faculty members’ principal duties were teaching, and research activities were limited.

The second decade (1981-1990), with the hiring of Keramat Ali and David Naylor early in the decade, and Godfrey Gumbs mid-decade, saw the establishment of research as an important activity for faculty and students.

The third decade (1991-2000) completed the transformation of the department from one that had been devoted to teaching, to one in which all faculty were also active in research. Following the establishment of a Master's program in the faculty, it also saw the graduation of the department's first MSc student in 1996.

The fourth decade (2001-2010) witnessed a period of tremendous growth, consolidation and maturation in the department's research and teaching activities. In 2003, Adriana Predoi-Cross joined as the department's first female member, and as the university's first NSERC University Research Fellow for Women in the natural sciences. David Naylor's Astronomical Instrumentation Group (AIG) grew to become the university's largest research and development group.

After the addition of theoretical physicists Saurya Das (in 2003), and Arundhati Dasgupta (in 2008), the nucleus of a Theoretical Physics Group (TPG) was formed, headed by Mark Walton. Philippe Teillet, formerly Senior Research Scientist at the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing (CCRS), joined in 2006, initiating the formation of a Remote Sensing Group, and new initiatives in remote sensing at the department, university and provincial level. Following the establishment of a PhD program in 2003, this decade also saw the graduation of the department's first Ph.D student in 2009. Each of these decadal periods in the department’s history is now described in more detail via the menu on your left.