University of Pittsburgh

Physics and Astronomy Highlights

in this section...
  • Prominent Faculty
    • Samuel Pierpont Langley
    • Cyril Hazard
    • Ted Newman
    • David Halliday
    • Irving Lowe
    • Bernie Cohen
    • Norman Austern
  • Famous Graduates
    • Vladimir Zworkin
    • Sidney Dancoff
  • Our Buildings
    • Allen Hall
    • Allegheny Observatory
    • Nuclear Physics Laboratory
  • Past Chairs

The Department of Physics and Astronomy has a long and distinguished history of innovative research and outstanding teaching from its founding in 1867 and the work of its first chair Samuel Langley to the efforts in a wide range of topics by the current faculty. 

Prominent Faculty

Samuel Pierpont Langley

Samuel Pierpont Langley (August 22, 1834, Roxbury, Massachusetts – February 27, 1906, Aiken, South Carolina) was an American astronomer, physicist, and inventor. He is best known as the inventor of the bolometer and as an aviation pioneer.  Prior to joining the University of Pittsburgh, he was an assistant in the Harvard College Observatory, and a chair of mathematics at the United States Naval Academy. In 1867, he became the director of the Allegheny Observatory and a professor of astronomy here at the University of Pittsburgh.

In 1886, Langley received the Henry Draper Medal from the National Academy of Sciences for his contributions to solar physics. His publication in 1890 of infrared observations at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh together with Frank Washington Very was used by Svante Arrhenius to make the first calculations on the greenhouse effect. Langley was also the founder of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

Cyril Hazard

Cyril Hazard revolutionized quasar observation and his work allowed other astronomers to find redshifts from the emission lines from other radio sources.

The first quasars were discovered with radio telescopes in the late 1950s. Many were recorded as radio sources with no corresponding visible object. Using small telescopes and the Lovell Telescope as an interferometer, they were shown to have a very small angular size. Hundreds of these objects were recorded by 1960 and published in the Third Cambridge Catalogue as astronomers scanned the skies for the optical counterparts. In 1960, radio source 3C 48 was finally tied to an optical object. Astronomers detected what appeared to be a faint blue star at the location of the radio source and obtained its spectrum. Containing many unknown broad emission lines, the anomalous spectrum defied interpretation — a claim by John Bolton of a large redshift was not generally accepted.

In 1962 a breakthrough was achieved. Another radio source, 3C 273, was predicted to undergo five occultations by the moon. Measurements taken by Cyril Hazard and John Bolton during one of the occultations using the Parkes Radio Telescope allowed Maarten Schmidt to optically identify the object and obtain an optical spectrum using the 200-inch Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar. This spectrum revealed the same strange emission lines. Schmidt realized that these were actually spectral lines of hydrogen redshifted at the rate of 15.8 percent. This discovery showed that 3C 273 was receding at a rate of 47,000 km/s.  

Ted Newman

Ezra T. Newman is an American physicist well known for his many contributions to general relativity and a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh. Newman was a prominent contributor to the golden age of general relativity (roughly 1960-1975). In 1962, together with Roger Penrose, he introduced the powerful Newman-Penrose formalism for working with spinorial quantities in general relativity. In 1963, Newman and two coworkers discovered the NUT vacuum, an exact vacuum solution to the Einstein field equation which has become a famous "counterexample to everything". In 1965, he discovered the Kerr-Newman black hole, an exact solution of Einstein's equations that describes a rotating black hole. 

David Halliday

Halliday is an American physicist widely known for his physics textbooks, Physics and Fundamentals of Physics, which he wrote with Robert Resnick. Both textbooks have been in continous use since 1960 and are available in twenty languages. Halliday attended the University of Pittsburgh both as an undergraduate student and a graduate student, receiving his Ph.D. in physics in 1941. During WWII, he worked at the MIT Radiation Lab developing radar techniques.

In 1946 he returned to Pittsburgh as an assistant professor and spent the rest of his career here. In 1950, he wrote Nuclear Physics, which became a classic text and was translated into four languages. In 1951 Halliday became the Department Chair, a position he held until 1962. Physics has been used widely and is considered to have revolutionized physics education. Now in its seventh edition in a five-volume set revised by Jearl Walker, and under the title Fundamentals of Physics, it is still highly regarded for its clear standardized diagrams, highly readable pedagogy, outlook into modern physics, and challenging, thought provoking problems. In 2002 the American Physical Society named the work the most outstanding introductory physics text of the 20th century. 

Irving Lowe

It must have been sensational to see, for the very first time, the nuclear spin precession on a scope through the resonant absorption of energy and even more directly by means of a free induction decay. The magnetic moments of inconceivably small particles had been put into a coherent motion! This was truly a great discovery by Felix Bloch, Edward M. Purcell, and their coworkers in the mid forties. The Second World War was just over, and the newly developed radio frequency equipment could be put to better usage.

Much has happened since then in the field of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). The chemical shift has been discovered by W.D. Knight, and W.G. Proctor and F.C. Yu, and exploited first for chemical analysis by Herbert S. Gutowsky. The scalar spin-spin coupling has been noticed. Pulse techniques have been introduced by Erwin L. Hahn and Henry C. Torrey. Fourier transformation spectroscopy, proposed by Russell Varian and Weston A. Anderson, has eased the sensitivity problem, and two-dimensional spectroscopy, conceived by Jean Jeener, has truly opened up new dimensions in spectroscopy. The structure determination procedures developed by Kurt Wuthrich and his group made NMR into an indispensable tool also for the molecular biologist. On the other hand, John S. Waugh, Alexander Pines, and Peter Mansfield, together with the magic angle spinning techniques of Raymond E. Andrew and coworkers and Irving J. Lowe, made high resolution NMR also feasible in the solid state. Finally, medical imaging by NMR, developed initially by Paul Lauterbur, led to a revolution in medical imaging. 

Bernie Cohen

Bernard Leonard Cohen was born June 14, 1924 in Pittsburgh, PA. He received his education at Case-Western Reserve University (B.S. 1944), University of Pittsburgh (M.Sc. 1947), and Carnegie-Mellon University (D.Sc. 1950).

Cohen was a Professor at the University of Pittsburgh from 1958-2012. He has been a staunch opponent to the so called Linear no-threshold model (LNT) which postulates that there is no safe threshold for radiation exposure.

Cohen has written six books, including Heart of the Atom (1967), Concepts of Nuclear Physics (1970), Nuclear Science and Society (1974), Before It's Too Late (1983), and The Nuclear Energy Option (1990). He has also written about 135 research papers on basic nuclear physics, about 200 scientific papers on energy and environment (e.g. nuclear power, health effects of radiation, radioactive waste, risks in our society), and about 60 articles in popular magazines such as National Review, Oui, Science Digest, Catholic Digest, and American Legion Magazine. Cohen has received the American Physical Society Tom Bonner Prize (1981) for his nuclear physics research. He was also elected to Chairman of the A.P.S. Division of Nuclear Physics (1974–75).

For his research on energy and environment, Cohen received the Health Physics Society Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award, the American Nuclear Society Walter Zinn Award, Public Information Award, and Special Award. He was also elected to membership in National Academy of Engineering, and to Chairman of the American Nuclear Society Division of Environmental Sciences (1980–81). 

Norman Austern

Austern is a nuclear physicist and a lover of literature, music, history, philosophy and archeology.

He earned a bachelor's degree from The Cooper Union in 1946 and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1951. He was a research associate at Cornell University from 1951 to 1954 and a scientist at New York University's Institute of Mathematical Sciences from 1954 to 1956. He was a Fulbright Research Scholar in Australia from 1957 to 1958 and from 1968 to 1969. He held several visiting professorships and fellowships in England, France and Japan.

Austern joined the Pitt physics faculty in 1956 as an assistant professor. He was promoted to full professor in 1962, and retired in 1994.

Austern played a leading role in the 1950's when Pitt research was central to understanding the structure of the nucleus. His specialty was theoretical nuclear physics, including nuclear reactions and electro-magnetic effects in nuclei. He published more than 100 journal articles. His textbook, Direct Nuclear Reaction Theories, was published in 1970. 

John Brashear 

John Brashear has his first glimpse of the moon at age nine. That influential view of the moon and Saturn stayed with Brashear for the rest of his life. After receiving a common school education until age 15, he apprenticed himself to a machinist and had mastered his trade at age 20. He worked as a millwright in a rolling mill in Pittsburgh, and pursued his love for astronomy at night, including building his own workshop from a three meter square coal shed behind his house, to construct his own refractor.

He eventually was able to dedicate his time to the manufacture of astronomical as well as scientific instruments, and performed various experiments. He developed an improved silvering method that would become the standard for coating first surface mirrors (known as the "Brashear Process") until vacuum metalizing began replacing it in 1932. Brashear patented few instruments and never patented his techniques. He founded "John A. Brashear Co." with his son-in-law and partner, James Brown McDowell, and his instruments gained worldwide respect. The modern optical firm currently known as "L-3 Brashear" now bears his name. Optical elements and instruments of precision produced by John Brashear have been used in almost every important observatory in the world.

In 1898 he became director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, continuing in this post until 1900. From 1901 to 1904, he was acting chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, after serving as a member of the board of trustees since 1896. 

Famous Graduates


Vladimir Zworkin

For his fundamental and crucial work in creating the iconoscope and the kinescope, inventor Vladimir Zworykin is often described as "the father of television". These basic technologies revolutionized television and led to the worldwide adoption of electronic television rather than mechanical television, a device which used synchronized moving parts to generate rudimentary pictures.

At the Petersburg Institute of Technology, Zworykin studied electrical engineering with Boris Rosing, who believed cathode ray tubes would be useful in television's development because they could shoot a steady stream of charged particles. After graduating from St. Petersburg in 1912, he studied X-ray technology with well-known French physicist Paul Langevin at the College de France in Paris. Both experiences influenced Zworykin's later work after he emigrated to the United States in 1919.

In 1920 Zworykin joined Westinghouse to work on the development of radio tubes and photocells. While there, he earned his Ph.D. in physics here at the University of Pittsburgh and wrote his dissertation on improving photoelectric cells. But electronic television's development captured his attention, and in December 1923 he applied for a patent for the iconoscope, which produced pictures by scanning images. Within the year he applied for a patent for the kinescope, which reproduced those scanned images on a picture tube. Electronic television was now possible.

Zworykin received numerous awards related to these inventions, especially television. They included the Institute of Radio Engineers' Morris Liebmann Memorial prize in 1934; the American Institute of Electrical Engineers' highest honor in 1952, the Edison Medal; and the National Academy of Sciences' National Medial of Science in 1967. 

 Other Distinguished Alumni 


Allen Hall

Allen Hall is a Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation Historic Landmark and the main building in the Physics and Astronomy complex. It is a six story building designed by J. H. Giesey and was dedicated on February 26, 1915, in a ceremony in which Richard B. Mellon and Andrew W. Mellon turned over the keys of the institute to University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Samuel McCormick.

Allen Hall is named for a former University of Pittsburgh Physics professor, Alex Allen, who arrived at Pitt in the 1930s and led a project for the construction of a cyclotron for producing radioactive isotopes for medical applications. This facility, called the Sarah Mellon Scaife Radiation Laboratory, was completed in 1946

The facade at the entrance of this building has a plaque to honor Madame Curie, commemorating the 100th anniversary in 1967 of her birth, the conferring of an honorary degree in 1921, her visit to the plants of the Standard Chemical Company, its role as a major radium producer and in the making of the gram of radium presented to Marie Curie by President Warren G. Harding, and the role of Glenn Donald Kammer, a University of Pittsburgh graduate who supervised its production. The plaque was unveiled on September 20, 1969 by the Archbishop of Kraków, Poland, Cardinal Wojtyła, who in 1978 became Pope Jean Paul II.

Allegheny Observatory

The Allegheny Observatory is an American astronomical research institution, and part of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh. The facility is listed on the National Register of Historical Places and is designated as a Pennsylvania state and Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation historic landmark.

The observatory was founded on February 15, 1859, by a group of wealthy industrialists calling themselves the Allegheny Telescope Association. The observatory's initial purpose was for general public education as opposed to research, but by 1867 the revenues derived from this had receded. The facility was then donated to the University of Pittsburgh. Among other research purposes, the observatory presently searches for extrasolar planets.

Nuclear Physics Laboratory

The beginning of the University of Pittsburgh Nuclear Physics Laboratory dates to the late 1930s when Alex Allen came to the University of Pittsburgh as a professor of physics with the goal of building a cyclotron for producing radioactive isotopes for medical applications. He obtained a gift from the Scaife family for this purpose, with the facility called the Sarah Mellon Scaife Radiation Laboratory. In 1946 construction was completed with the cyclotron delivering internal beams of 15 MeV deuterons, 7.5 MeV protons and 30 MeV alpha particles that were used for the production of radioactive isotopes. Subsequently Allen's main efforts were directed at getting reliable external beam and designing a high-energy resolution system for determining with high precision the energies of reaction products. For this effort, Roger Bender from the University of Wisconsin was hired in about 1948, and was soon joined by two other Wisconsin alumni, Jim McGruer and John Cameron, and in the mid-50s Karl Quisenberry from the University of Minnesota. High-resolution studies of energy levels in light nuclei were completed with several Ph.D. theses resulting. This program was able to draw on theoretical support in the physics department, involving Professors Ed Gerjoy, Phil Stehle, and later Norman Austern, Elizabeth Baranger, and Sidney Meshkoff.

In 1962, a grant of $ 1.65 million was obtained from the National Science Foundation for the purchase of the world's first 3-stage Van De Graff accelerator, and a $ 1 million gift was obtained from the Sarah Mellon-Scaife foundation for a building to house it.


Past and Present Departmental Chairs

2006 to present
David Turnshek
Professor and Department Chair
Ph.D., 1981, University of Arizona
Research: Cosmology and Astrophysics

David Jasnow
PhD, 1969, University of Illinois
Research: Collaborative Research Activities, Statistical Physics

Frank Tabakin
Professor Emeritus
Ph.D., 1963, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Research: Quantum Information, Theoretical Particle Physics

James V. Maher
Ph.D., 1969, Yale University

Eugene Engels
Professor Emeritus
Ph.D., 1962, Princeton University

Philip Stehle
Professor Emeritus

Myron P. Garfunkel
Professor Emeritus
Ph.D., 1951, Rutgers University

Frederick Keffer

David Halliday
Professor Emeritus
Ph.D., 1941, University of Pittsburgh

Max Laufer


Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Pittsburgh
100 Allen Hall
3941 O'Hara St
Pittsburgh PA 15260
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