History of the Department

The University of Calgary is a relatively young institution, established in 1966 from a branch of the University of Alberta. However, the study of physics in the Calgary area predates the university’s formation. The first established physics presence was a cosmic ray station constructed at Sulphur Mountain near Banff in 1957 as part of International Geophysical Year activities. The Department of Physics was instituted in 1963 and has the distinction of graduating the first master’s student in the history of the University of Calgary.

In the beginning, the department’s research specialties were cosmic rays, biophysics and paramagnetic resonance. The field of upper atmospheric research was added in shortly after. Astronomy at the University of Calgary began in early 1970s with a donation of land from Sandy Cross. This lead to the construction of the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, which opened in 1972. At the same time, mass spectroscopy and stable isotopes research were introduced into the department. By 1971, the number of faculty members in the Department of Physics reached 22, and remained close to this level for the next three decades.


The department was renamed the Department of Physics and Astronomy in 1989. Upper atmospheric research evolved into space plasma physics and faculty replacements were used primarily to consolidate excellence in the areas of space physics and astrophysics. In 2002, space physics and astrophysics were recognized as outstanding research strengths within the university.

During the late nineties, the department aimed to develop a new area of atomic and molecular physics. An iCORE chair was established in quantum information science in 2003. In 2004, quantum information along with atomic, molecular and optical physics merged into a quantum optics research group. Links were established with research colleagues in the Faculty of Medicine and an active graduate program in medical physics was developed. The newest research area, complexity and bioinformatics, was added in with the arrival of three new faculty.

Since its rapid growth, the Department of Physics and Astronomy has evolved into one of the best research departments in Canada. It has an international reputation in space physics and astrophysics. Under the stewardship of faculty members and with the help of dedicated support staff and graduate students, the department has also worked to develop an undergraduate and graduate teaching program. It provides rigorous training and imparts the intellectual adventure of physics and astronomy to new generations.

Photo taken at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory.