A Brief History of the Department of Physics and Engineering Physics

The discipline of physics has existed at the University of Saskatchewan since 1910. Some early physics faculty members who achieved international prominence include Gerhard Herzberg, whose research in molecular physics led to a Nobel Prize in 1971, and Harold Johns who led the world in the use of (high-energy) radiation  for the treatment of cancer, first with the 22 MeV betatron (commissioned in the physics department  in 1947), and later with the development of Cobalt-60 cancer therapy. This tradition of  excellence and innovation has continued into the present era with two of our current faculty having been elected Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada.

In the 1950s Balfour Currie, who was an outstanding researcher in Auroral and Atmospheric Physics, developed undergraduate courses in meteorology and climatology, and a graduate program of ‘Upper Atmospheric Physics’ concerned primarily with aurora and airglow. This activity led to the founding of the ‘Institute of Space and Atmospheric Studies’ in 1957. In 1958 Harvey Skarsgaard joined the faculty and initiated a research program in Plasma Physics.  He developed the world’s first plasma betatron, which attracted world attention to the work in Saskatchewan. This work led to the eventual formation of the ‘Plasma Physics Laboratory’, which continues as a major research group in the Department. In 1962, the Linear Accelerator Laboratory was opened under the leadership of Leon Katz. Housing a 160-MeV electron linear accelerator (LINAC) it replaced the betatron and Nuclear Physics became another major research focus in the department.

Throughout this period, the Department offered Majors and Honours Physics programs in the College of Arts and Science and a Bachelor of Engineering program in Engineering Physics in the College of Engineering. There was also an active graduate program with about 50 graduate students in M.Sc. and Ph.D. programs. An addition to the Physics building was opened in 1966, which expanded our laboratory space for teaching and research and provided superb teaching theatres.

In the 1970s, the Plasma Laboratory began development of the tokamak system for plasma confinement and study of fusion processes. From within the Institute of Space and Atmospheric Studies (ISAS), Alex Kavadas created the ‘Space Engineering Division’ for the development of experimental systems for Rockets & Satellites, and became president of what is now SED Systems Ltd. The LINAC was upgraded to 300 MeV during this time.

In the early 1980s, the Linear Accelerator Laboratory, under the directorship of Henry Caplan, was awarded a grant to build a Pulse Stretcher Ring EROS (Electron Ring of Saskatchewan), creating large duty factor electron beams that allowed nuclear physics experiments not before possible. The facility became known as the Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory (SAL) and was a mainstay of the department’s experimental subatomic physics research program and became an international user facility.

As information and communication technology became more important, students flocked to the Department, especially in Engineering Physics. Indeed the dominant program taken by our students is now a B.E. in Engineering Physics, often taken simultaneously with a B.Sc. in Computer Science.  In 1990 the process was initiated to change the name of the Department to the ‘Department of Physics and Engineering Physics’ to reflect the changes in our clientele and our orientation.

The 1990s have been extraordinary years in the life of the Department, leading to changes in teaching programs and research-unit focus.  There has been a major turnover of staff and a rejuvenation of the Department.  These younger people have had an excellent effect on all aspects of the operation of the Department.  The teaching program in Engineering Physics is strong, as evidenced by consistently high rankings in the Gourman report, and is fully accredited by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB). The Honours program in Arts and Science is small in numbers but high in quality, with graduates achieving recognition with the top College and University graduation awards, and placing well in National and International competitions. Innovative program changes have occurred. Interdisciplinary links between Physics, Mathematics and Computer Science have been made, and a very popular minor in Astronomy has been introduced.

The Research Groups are flourishing. CFI funding for the ‘Canadian Light Source’ (CLS) was announced on April 1, 1999. Its establishment will have a profound impact on all Science Departments in the University, and on Saskatoon. A condensed matter research group has been established in the department in conjunction with this development. The Department has appointed three faculty members in this area. Akira Hirose has been appointed as a Canada Research Chair and we have nominated two other Canada Research Chairs in material science. Research themes in the Plasma Physics Laboratory are being expanded to include plasma based material science and a tenure track faculty position has been created in this area.

ISAS scientists, who study both terrestrial and planetary atmospheres, and the near-Earth space environment, are providing national and international leadership in satellite programs and in ground-based networks of observing systems. They have several large ongoing research projects, including the OSIRIS spectrometer, which was successfully launched in February 2001 on board the Swedish Odin satellite. One member is now the Canadian Principal Investigator for the European SPIRE and MUSE satellite programs. The ground-based SuperDARN network, now with four radars on Canadian soil, is a critical network essential for monitoring Space Weather and it impact on the Earth. A Canada Research Chair has been nominated to join the ISAS team.

SAL ceased operations in subatomic physics in 1999 with the accelerator becoming the injector for the Canadian Light Source synchrotron facility (CLS). The effort to bring the CLS to Saskatoon was led by SAL director Dennis Skopik and was driven in large part by the considerable expertise in accelerator physics built up at SAL. A University-recognized Subatomic Physics Research Institute (SPIN) was established in 2001, with the goal of providing a local focus for subatomic researchers and students. SPIN members include theoretical physicists, experimental physicists and health physicists. Experimental subatomic physicists in the department do experiments at facilities in Germany, Japan and the USA and have received excellent funding for these endeavours.

Theoretical physicists in the department do research in such areas as quantum field theory, particle physics, plasma physics, cosmology, condensed matter physics and subatomic physics. A Canadian Foundation for Innovation application has been submitted for funding a high-performance computing cluster for condensed matter physics.  A memorandum of understanding between the recently-established Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the University of Saskatchewan has been reached for the purpose of establishing formal connections between our subatomic theorists and the Perimeter Institute.

Our vibrant and well-funded research areas all provide excellent opportunities for the training of graduate students, who will provide future leadership in academic and high-technology research and industrial areas.