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History of physics at Leeds

Physics was established as an academic discipline in Leeds in 1874 with the founding of the Yorkshire College of Science. Lord Cavendish (from the same family as Henry Cavendish and son of the Duke of Devonshire) was a local MP and member of the council of the Yorkshire College.  Following his murder in Phoenix Park in 1882, the College established the Cavendish Chair of Physics in his memory.

Notable holders of the chair have included W Stroud (formed the company Barr and Stroud) 1885-1909, W H Bragg (his experimental X-ray work, for which his Nobel Prize was awarded, was undertaken in Leeds) 1909-1915 and E C Stoner 1951-1963, famous for magnetism and, more recently recognised, astrophysics.

Historic instruments

The School has a collection of more than 600 scientific instruments used in the School for teaching and research over the last 100 years. Highlights include instruments used by Nobel Prize winner William Bragg.



Research in Leeds was dominated by solid state physics until the arrival of J G Wilson in 1952 who initiated cosmic ray research and built cloud chambers. From 1976 through 1987 Professor Alan Watson used the Leeds Haverah Park array to extend Cosmic Ray research. He then led observational efforts at the South Pole.

Now, the high energy research is dominated by the Pierre Auger Observatory (Argentina), the result of a collaboration involving 15 countries initiated by Nobel laureate James Cronin (Chicago) and Watson.

Other astrophysicists at Leeds are prominent in the Whipple and Veritas projects. In 1996 J E Dyson arrived to establish an observational/theory group that now numbers 8. The group is now led by Professor RenĂ© Oudmaijer and focuses mainly on all areas of star formation from survey exploitation through spectroscopic line diagnosis of dynamics, astrochemical and magnetohydrodynamic modelling, and feedback.

The emphasis of Leeds' gamma-ray research is shifting towards observations at complementary wavelengths. Data from Auger is revealing the origin of the Universe's most energetic particles.

Find out more about current astrophysics research at Leeds from the Astrophysics Group web page.

Condensed Matter Physics

After the death of E C Stoner in 1963, Condensed Matter Physics came under the guidance of J S Dugdale (1965-1987) where the group's focus was on electron transport and magnetic properties of bulk metals.

With the arrival of Professor Gwynne Morgan (1969) the emphasis shifted to the study of quantum interference effects in disordered and glassy metals. In 1989 the group acquired an MBE machine and worked on giant magnetoresistance and magnetic multilayers.

The group currently comprises 6 members of staff and is led by Professor Bryan Hickey (appointed 1990, chair 2000). The group's focus is on spintronics, structural and magnetic properties of materials using scattering techniques, and carbon-based material. Most of the material is nano-structured through lithography or other means and the emphasis is on electron-transport and quantum entanglement.

Find out about current condensed matter physics research from the Condensed Matter Group web page.

Molecular and Nanoscale Physics

In 1990 Professor David Batchelder was appointed to form a new group. His background was Soft Matter Physics and Raman Scattering. With Professor Steve Evans (1991) and D A M Smith (1994) they started new activity on molecular physics and were instrumental in setting up the Centre for Self-Organising Molecular Systems.

The group currently numbers 13 members of staff and is led by Professor Steve Evans. The group's research centres on fluid-surface interactions, nanostructured materials and biomembranes. Increasingly, the activity of the group is leading towards biophysics in the areas of single molecule spectroscopy and bio-inspired nanomaterials for photonic/electronic materials.

Find out more on the Molecular and Nanoscale Physics Group web page.

Soft Matter Physics

Soft Matter Physics in Leeds was established in 1970 with the arrival of Professor Ian Ward. Professor Ward was responsible for a huge effort in mechanical properties of bulk polymers contributing to basic science and industrial application in equal measures. This effort culminated in the founding of the Polymer IRC in 1989, an organisation that still flourishes today with a growing industrial and academic membership, and playing a key role in the Technology Strategy Board's new Polymer Innovation Network.

Professor Tom McLeish arrived in 1993, assuming the role of head, and was Director of the IRC from 2003 to 2009. Today the group is led by Professor Helen Gleeson and numbers 7 members of staff using closely-integrated experiment, theory, and simulation to study liquid and solid polymeric phases, macromolecular architecture and dynamics, statistical physics of complex fluids and biophysics.

Find out more from the Soft Matter Group web page.

Theoretical Physics

Vlatko Vedral was appointed to the Centenary Chair of Theoretical Physics in 2004 and built a group of 5 theoreticians and 2 experimentalists. 

The work is focused on the theory of many-body entanglement and coherent manipulation of atoms and photons for information processing and most recently, the search for coherent phenomena in biological systems. The experimental work is on the cavity-QED implementation of controlled inter-atom quantum gates, mediated by light.An additional experimentalist, Dr Ben Varcoe, was appointed in 2008. The group now numbers 7 members of staff and is led by Dr Almut Beige.

Find out more at the Theoretical Physics Group web page.

To learn about the history of our school and past & present academics, please visit here.