The founder of this Department over a century ago was Dewitt Bristol Brace, who came to Nebraska in 1887, after receiving his doctoral degree in Germany under Hermann Helmholtz. The following year the Department was established with Brace as chairman. Under his leadership it grew rapidly both in facilities and in reputation for scholarly research.
Brace was able to do forefront research that was recognized by contemporaries around the world, despite being handicapped by a lack of funds. One of his projects was to measure the effect of motion on the double refraction of light, a subject of intense interest at the time because of its bearing on the question of the luminiferous ether, alleged to pervade space. This work was one of four experiments that disproved the ether theory and as such may have influenced Einstein in his development of the theory of relativity. In 1901, Brace was elected Vice President of the American Physical Society (APS). His untimely death in 1905 brought a very promising career to an end (and prevented him from serving as President of the APS). At the time of his death, tributes came to the University from many prominent scientists, including Nobel Laureate Ernest Rutherford.
Although a Ph.D. in physics was awarded in 1896 (which was the first Ph.D. in the U.S. west of the Mississippi), the present Ph.D. program in physics was initiated after World War II and the first degrees were awarded in 1953.
The Department's circumstances improved dramatically in the 1960's when two major grants stimulated substantial growth in the size of the Department as well as in the scope of its research and teaching activities. A sum of $1.25 million comprised of a National Science Foundation grant, a gift from the Behlen family of Columbus, Nebraska, and University funds, permitted the construction of Behlen Laboratory of Physics, which was dedicated in 1965. Then in September 1969 the Department received an $811,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's Science Development Program to increase the size of its permanent staff from 19 to 29. At the same time, new equipment was purchased and additional personnel were added to the shops. Further expansion occurred in 1971 when the Department took over part of Ferguson Hall.
The study of astronomy at Nebraska began in 1894 when Professor Goodwin D. Swezey came here from Doane College. The modern program, however, began in the early 1970's when four astronomy faculty members were hired and the Behlen Observatory was built. The Observatory, completed in 1972 at the Mead Field Laboratory, was made possible by a $300,000 grant from the Behlen family. The Observatory facilities are continually updated and now include full computer control and modern digital imaging technology.
The Department has approximately 30 faculty members. The largest research groups are in Atomic, Molecular, Optical, and Plasma Physics, Condensed Matter Physics, and High Energy Physics. An overview of the Department's research programs, grant and contract funding, and research facilities is provided in the annual A.I.P. listing for the Department as well as in the Department's Graduate Studies and Research booklet, both of which are available from the Department Main Office 208 Jorgensen Hall.
In May 2010, the Physics & Astronomy Department moved into its new building, Theodore Jorgensen Hall, named for Ted Jorgensen, who was a University of Nebraska physics graduate and professor.
Professor Jorgensen was born in Connecticut but grew up on the sparsely populated region of northwestern South Dakota. His parents were the only source of his education before he enrolled at the University of Nebraska in 1923. He and a friend had ridden their motorcycles to Lincoln. By 1935 he had earned two degrees at Nebraska and a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. While he was at Harvard he mastered the techniques of Chinese cooking, something he was well known for.
He was on the faculty at Nebraska from 1938 to 1975 except for a three-year interval in the 1940s when he was invited to Chicago and later to Los Alamos, NM to join the group of scientists assembled to develop an atomic bomb.
Jorgensen’s research on the Manhattan Project gave him ideas for areas of research in atomic collision that required the use of an ion accelerator which he built with the help of two graduate students and the department machinist. Jorgensen obtained support from the Atomic Energy Commission and many students and faculty members utilized the accelerator. The work started by Jorgensen brought Nebraska to the forefront of atomic collision research.
Professor Jorgensen was well liked as a teacher and was the first in the department to receive a Distinguished Teaching Award. He was department chairman for three years. In 1994 he published a book on the physics of golf that was so popular that it was translated into other languages. He was 100 when he died in 2006.