History of the School of Physics

Physics was first taught at the tertiary level in Australia at the University of Sydney. Since the University's beginning in 1852, John Smith, one of the three foundation professors, taught experimental philosophy, along with chemistry and Morris Pell, another of the three foundation professors, taught the mathematical parts of physics as part of mathematics.

Smith was appointed well before laboratory instruction became part of training in physics. After Smith's death, Richard Threlfall, fresh from working with J.J.Thomson at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, was appointed Professor of Physics in 1886. By 1888 Threlfall had built Australia's first Physical Laboratory which was acknowledged to be as good as any physical laboratory in the world at that time. This laboratory made a profound impression on contemporaries such as William Bragg and Ernest Rutherford, then commencing their careers, and became the model for the rest of the country.

Badham building, circa 1890

Threlfall's Physical Laboratory circa 1890. Now known as the Badham Building.

At the laboratory's completion, Threlfall pursued a vigorous and varied research program supported by his able assistant and successor in the Chair, James Arthur Pollock, and many of the final year physics students. Accurate measurement, at times astonishingly so (currents as small as 10^-13 amperes; 1 part in 500,000 for g, the acceleration due to gravity), was the touchstone of the program's achievement for which Threlfall was admitted to Fellowship of the Royal Society (FRS).

Pollock, as professor from 1899 to 1922, consolidated the research tradition assisted by his subsequent successor in the Chair, Oscar Vonwiller. They were joined in time by three other members of staff. Pollock is best remembered for being the first to describe the 'pinch' effect, a concept basic in plasma physics research, and for discovering a new class of ion in the atmosphere. Pollock too was rewarded with an FRS in 1916 while on active service on the Western Front.

The present physics building was built in response to the rapid expansion in student population following The Great War. It's design by Leslie Wilkinson, first Professor of Architecture, in Mediterranean style with classical details, specified its length to be exactly 1/10 mile ( to 3 significant figures). This was no doubt an architectural statement about the business carried on within its walls. Pollock died in office and never saw the building's completion in 1924. It had ample room not only for physics, but mathematics and cancer research as well.

Present School building at it

The present heritage Physics building, about the time of its completion in 1924.

Research between the wars was carried out with one fewer member of the permanent staff than before the Great War. Each member was responsible for a different field. Vonwiller concentrated on optics. George Briggs, after obtaining a Cambridge PhD under Rutherford, took nuclear physics. A newcomer from Oxford, Associate Professor Victor Bailey, specialised in ionospheric work. Edgar Booth, more of a generalist, co-authored a very popular text book for senior high school students with Phyllis Nicol, who was the second woman physics graduate from Sydney. Bailey was appointed to a Chair of Experimental Physics in the mid-thirties and is best remembered for explaining 'The Luxembourg Effect' - interference in the reflecting properties of the ionosphere used in short-wave radio broadcasts by a second transmitter located half-way between the first transmitter and receiver.

During the Second World War Vonwiller headed Optical Munitions work in the basement of the physics building which employed 140 people working a 144 hour week. The expertise developed here and at other physics departments was allowed to languish after the war and the basis of an indigenous optical industry dissolved. Bailey headed a radar training course of the highest calibre for the three services. Hundreds of operators who could service their own equipment were put into the battle theatres of the Pacific Islands and on board Navy ships. This story has yet to be told in full, having only recently emerged from wartime secrecy.

After the war Vonwiller retired and a successor was not appointed for seven years. Harry Messel, a Canadian wartime paratrooper and later Cosmic Ray theoretician under Erwin Schrodinger (who was one of the founders of Quantum Mechanics), was appointed in 1952 (one century after the first Sydney appointment) with a liberal warrant to rejuvenate the department. This he did with a vengeance: he increased the permanent staff to 21 including a team of full-time theoreticians, had the first electronic computer SILLIAC to be used in an Australian University built locally and established research in several departments with individual professorial heads to form a School of Physics. He also established the first Foundation in the British Commonwealth to get big business involved in funding research, something the rest of Australian Universities are now doing more than 40 years later. First named The Nuclear Research Foundation when expectations were high that private enterprise would be involved in power generation, it is now known as The Science Foundation for Physics within the University of Sydney. It still to this day funds professional support that enables Physics at Sydney to maintain its international reputation.


SILLIAC, shown opposite being operated by Pat Dunlop, entered regular use in July 1956.

Messel appointed Bernard Mills FRS to head Astrophysics and build the Mills Cross radio telescope and Robert Hanbury-Brown FRS to head Astronomy and build the Brown-Twiss stellar interferometer. Charles Watson-Munro, who had wide international experience in atomic energy at the top level, was chosen to head Plasma Physics and become part of the international effort to achieve power production through fusion of nuclei. Brian McCusker, his old boss from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, pursued research in Cosmic Radiation, which even to this day has particles of energy beyond what accelerators can hope to achieve. John Bennett became the first professor of computing in Australia and Stuart Butler was chosen to head Theoretical Physics. Butler had made outstanding contributions to the study of deuteron stripping reactions and was part of the Sydney team that solved the riddle of superconductivity but did not get THE prize that went to Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer.

Later Messel added a department of Applied Physics with particular emphasis on solar energy. He himself headed an environmental group based in the Northern Territory and centred on crocodiles. These reptiles were trapped, had transmitters attached to them, then were released and tracked remotely as part of the study of their habits. Whole river systems had to be charted accurately as part of a truly pioneering undertaking.

Messel also led in reform of science education. Summer schools for physics teachers quickly grew into International Science Schools for high school students. The students came from all states in Australia, as well as the USA, UK, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. The lecturers were international scientific leaders and not just confined to physics. He also assembled a team of scientists and science teachers to produce high school text-books pioneering an integrated approach to science teaching.

Messel retired in 1987 but did not soon quit the international or national stage, and he remained active in the Science Foundation for Physics until his death in 2015. His name and profile were used as the basis of the Messel Endowment, a public fund-raising effort that aims to provide sufficient funds to continue the International Science Schools in perpetuity. By 2008, that goal was largely achieved ($3.5M of $4.5M target pledged).

When Messel retired, his name was also used by the Foundation to inaugurate the Harry Messel Award for Excellence to recognise and reward excellence in contributions by staff (Academic and Professional) or research students to the School’s programs in research and teaching. Recipients of the Award are listed below.

Messel was the last of the permanent heads of school. Subsequent Heads of School have all served fixed terms. These were

  • Max Brennan (1988 - 1990)
  • Lawrence Cram (1991 - 1995)
  • Ross McPhedran (Acting) (Oct.1995 - Sep.1996)
  • Dick Collins (1996 - 2000)
  • Don Melrose (2001 - 2002)
  • Brian James (2003 - 2006)
  • Anne Green (2007 - 2009)
  • Clive Baldock (2010 - 2012)
  • Tim Bedding (2012 - 2018)
  • Celine Boehm (2018 - present)

Over much of the time since Messel's retirement, Australian science and tertiary education suffered a severe funding squeeze. In the School of Physics this resulted in a gradual reduction in academic and general staff. Staff employed in continuing Teaching and Research positions (previously called tenured positions) numbered around 40 in 1996, but had dropped to 20 in 2006. However, at the same time, the nature of the academic staff changed. The number of research-only positions funded by grants grew rapidly, more so in Physics at Sydney than elsewhere. In 2008, the School had over 80 Research-only staff. The School's teaching program rested with the Teaching and Research staff, but with increasing contributions from Research-only staff..

In 2008 there were around 100 postgraduate students pursuing Masters or PhD research programs. In addition, new postgraduate coursework programs in Medical Physics (established 2004) and Nuclear Science (established 2008) were beginning to attract significant numbers of students.

Despite funding difficulties in national research, the School successfully exploited funding opportunities as they arose and the School's research program continued to perform vigorously. Between 1991 and 1999, the Research Centre for Theoretical Astrophysics (RCfTA) under directorship of Don Melrose sought to bring together astrophysics interests within the School. Astrophysical programs continued to expand beyond the on-going optical interferometry (SUSI) and radio astronomy (MOST) programs of the old Astronomy and Astrophysics departments. Most astrophysics research is now under the banner of the Institute of Astronomy.

A deliberate plan to launch a new laboratory-based research effort led to the creation of the Physical Optics department in 1990, led by Colin Sheppard. This work continued until Sheppard's departure in 2003.

In other research areas, the School's traditional research departments also evolved over time as research interests changed. The key role of education in the School's work, led to the formation of the Physics Education Research (SUPER) Group. The High Energy Department evolved from earlier Cosmic Ray research and joined forces with physics at the University of Melbourne to build detectors for use at CERN to keep Australian physics at the leading edge of elementary particle research. Plasma and Applied Physics research evolved common interests.

The federal government's Federation Fellowship and Professorial Fellowship programs allowed the creation of significant new research groups around prominent researchers from within the School and attracted from overseas. These areas included photonics (leading to the formation of the CUDOS ARC Centre of Excellence), Astrophysics, Space Physics, Applied Physics, Condensed Matter Theory and Brain Dynamics.

Physics at Sydney continues to be measured against the best internationally and is one of the leading stars in the University's research portfolio.

More History

More detailed recent history of the School can be found in the School of Physics Annual Reports (2005 onward) or the Science Foundation for Physics Annual Report (from 1985; 2003 onward are on-line). Prior to this, the Science Foundation publication The Nucleus recorded Science Foundation and School of Physics activities from 1954 to 1979.

Recipients of the Harry Messel Award

Professor Harry Messel’s motto, adopted by the Physics Foundation, is 'the pursuit of excellence'. When Messel retired in December 1987, the Foundation inaugurated the Harry Messel Award for Excellence to recognise and reward excellence in contributions by staff (Academic and Professional) or research students to the School’s programs in research and teaching. The Award is made every two or three years and the winner is presented with a cheque and a medal.

  • 1989 Dr Rodney Cross for his contributions to the School’s research program in Plasma Physics.
  • 1994 Dr Brian McInnes for his contribution to teaching and for his vision as Director of First Year Physics for 24 years, and establishing the Sydney University Physics Education Research Group.
  • 1996 Dr Peter Robinson for his many contributions to teaching and for his research in theoretical physics, particularly space physics.
  • 1999 Mrs Elizabeth Hing for her decades of work in the First Year Physics Office, serving, advising and befriending undergraduate students, supporting the Director of First Year Physics, and assisting in many other ways within the School.
  • 2002 Dr Joe Khachan for his contributions to raising the profile of the School of Physics with the External Relations Committee, over and above his normal teaching and research load.
  • 2006 Dr John O’Byrne for his contributions to the School’s activities above and beyond expectations as head of Junior Physics, championing the alumni program, the School website, the introduction of on-line assignments, and many years of outreach including the Continuing Education, public lectures and books on astronomy.
  • 2009 Mr Duncan Campbell-Wilson for his outstanding achievements and leadership as MOST site manager for 20 years.
  • 2011 Professor Dick Hunstead for his outstanding contributions to the School of Physics over the past forty years, including research leadership in radio and optical astronomy, and dedicated supervision and inspirational mentoring of generations of students.
  • 2014 Ms Eve Teran for her work in the Physics Student Office and more recently as School Manager, serving students and staff over many years of great change in student administration. The School of Physics would simply not be as well run and well regarded without her efforts.