Back to the beginning

December 18, 2007

A colleague who went through the physics graduate program at the University of Toronto several decades before I did surprised me last week by presenting me with a fascinating bit of the physics department’s history. The department was originally founded in 1887, and the graduate program was established a decade later. Where the department was located at that time, I don’t know, but in 1967 it moved into a new building: the McLennan Physical Laboratories at 60 St. George St. It was, and is, an awful building — why everyone should have been so enamored of Soviet architecture, I’ll never know — but it was new and spacious and marked a period of major growth in the department’s stature.

The historical artifact that my colleague dug up is a brochure outlining the opening ceremonies and the inaugural lectures for the new building:

MacLennan brochure - front

The inner pages of the brochure outline the series of lectures that were scheduled to celebrate the grand opening. They are worth looking at:

MacLennan brochure - interior

(click to enlarge)

The festivities commenced with an address by Gerhard Herzberg, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry (1971), and at that time a director at the National Research Council. He spoke on “The problem of the diffuse interstellar lines”; I’m not sure what problem he was referring to. Anyone?

Next was Charles H. Townes, who had won the Nobel Prize in physics just a few years earlier (1964) for his role in the invention of the maser and, later, the laser. His address was a propos: “What an intense laser beam does to matter and vice versa”.

The second day of celebration saw four lectures. The first was delivered by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, he of the Chandrasekhar limit, the derivation of which I remember as one of the most elegant and illuminating in the physics literature, a beautiful combination of quantum mechanics and astrophysics. He would later (in 1983) be awarded the Nobel Prize for physics.

The French physicist Alfred Kastler was next, speaking on optical pumping, the technique for which he is best known, and for which he received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1966. Do I detect a pattern here?

After lunch was Mark Kac, a Polish mathematician who emigrated to the United States. Unfortunately, he never won a Nobel Prize. Neither is he the Kac of Kac-Moody algebras, as I had suspected. To his credit, he does have an Erdős number of one.

Finally, an address by Robert Dicke, known to me through Brans-Dicke theory, an extension of General Relativity that adds a scalar field to the usual gravitational field equations. It’s an interesting theory that is still taught today, though I don’t think many people believe it is correct.

And with that, the opening ceremonies of the McLennan Labs came to a close. An auspicious beginning!

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2 Responses to “Back to the beginning”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    Wow, that was quite a line-up. And I should think you should mention that Dicke invented the lock-in amplifier, which is far more important that Brans-Dicke theory (which you do hear about sometimes, if only because it was an interesting idea). He was an excellent experimentalist who was very involved in early CMB experiments — a mentor to many of the current generation.

  2. cburrell Says:

    There’s a simple explanation for my having overlooked Dicke’s other accomplishments: I didn’t know of them. Thanks for filling out the picture.


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