The University of Calgary is a relatively young university, established in 1966 from a branch of the University of Alberta, but the study of physics in the Calgary area predates the U of C's formation. The first established physics presence was a Cosmic Ray station constructed at Sulfur Mountain near Banff in 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year activities -- one of three such stations in Canada. The Department of Physics was instituted in 1963 and has the distinction of graduating the first MSc student in the history of the University of Calgary.
In the first few years of the existence of the department, research specialties were cosmic rays, biophysics, and paramagnetic resonance (1960's). The field of upper atmospheric research was added in the late 1960's. Astronomy at the University of Calgary had its beginnings in the early 1970's, with the donation of land by a local land owner, Sandy Cross, for the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, which opened in 1972. At the same time, mass spectroscopy and stable isotopes research was 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 current faculty complement is 23).
During the 1980's, replacement of retiring faculty led to growth in the area of astronomy and in 1989 the department was renamed the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Over that decade, upper atmospheric research evolved into space plasma physics, and during the 1980's and 1990's replacements of retirements were used primarily to consolidate excellence in the areas of space physics and astrophysics. Space physics and astrophysics were recognized in the University of Calgary’s Strategic Research Plan (2002) as areas of outstanding research strength.
During the late 1990's, the department aimed its recruitment strategy to maintain research excellence and critical mass in established research areas and to develop a new area of atomic and molecular physics. In line with the University of Calgary 2003 Academic Plan, an iCORE chair was established in Quantum Information Science in 2003, and in 2004 Quantum Information and Atomic, Molecular and Optical physics merged into a Quantum Optics Research Group. At the same time, links were established with research colleagues in the Faculty of Medicine and an active graduate program in Medical Physics was developed. Most recently, a new research area has been added in Complexity and BioInformatics with the arrival of three new faculty (one cross appointed with the Department of Biology), and another faculty member arriving in 2008.
Since its rapid growth during the 1960's the Department of Physics and Astronomy has evolved into one of the best research departments in Canada in specific areas, and has an international reputation in space physics and astrophysics. Under the stewardship of faculty members and the help of dedicated support staff and graduate students, the department has also worked to develop an undergraduate and graduate teaching program that provides rigorous training and imparts the intellectual adventure of physics and astronomy to new generations.
- Cyril Challice: 1963 – 1971
- Roy Krouse: 1971 – 1974
- Titus Mathews: 1974 – 1985
- John Bland: 1985 – 1995
- Sandy Murphree: 1995 – 2000
- Bart Hicks: 2000 – 2005
- Russ Taylor: 2005 – 2010
- Rob Thompson: 2010 – present