Physics & Astronomy

Physics forms the basis of virtually all scientific and engineering undertakings. Physicists and astrophysicists investigate fundamental questions about the universe and our place in it because of an intrinsic interest in understanding how the world works, which leads ultimately to applications that benefit society.

An education in physics or astrophysics provides a solid basis of such knowledge and trains students in the analytical thinking that has always been unique to physicists.

The degrees offered provide an important step toward pursuing a career in many different areas, where an overlap with curiosity and wonder are essential.

UNM Department of Physics and Astronomy History

A Circuitous Route from Hodgin Hall to PAÍS

By John R. Green, Daniel Finley, and Bernd Bassalleck

Physics Lab 1898
Physics Lab 1898


Physics, Astronomy, and Interdisciplinary Science Building, 2020

From Beginning to WWII

The Beginning: 1892

From the very beginning, the school that became the University of New Mexico had the goal of providing its students with worthwhile training in physics.

The catalog of 1892 states:

A well-fitted laboratory will be arranged for the classes in Physics and Chemistry where students will be required to do practical work.

The First Labs: 1893

The next year, the catalog of 1893 has the following statement under "Physical and Chemical Laboratories":

Both of these laboratories will be fitted up this coming year, and the students will be given the opportunity of doing practical work in both Physics and Chemistry. It is now expected that over $1000 will be expended for apparatus this coming year, and the latest and best appliances will be added from time to time as funds are provided.

During these early years, it was possible to obtain the BS degree by having a concentration of mathematics and chemistry and with physics being taken in the senior year.

The work done in Physics has been of an elementary nature, consisting of recitations and experiments. Most of the experiments were shown from the desk, as the amount of apparatus on hand at present will not permit laboratory work in this branch. No one having applied for advanced work, there have been no advanced classes this year. About $200 worth of physical apparatus has been added this year. -- UNM YearbookMirage, 1898

By 1900, freshmen could take General Physics, including laboratory work, and then go on to courses in Electricity and Magnetism, Heat and Light, Mathematical Electricity and Magnetism, Analytical Mechanics, and Advanced Laboratory.

Hodgin Hall: 1892-1900

Until 1900 the laboratories were held in the basement of Hodgin Hall, which at the time was the only building on campus.

In 1908-09 physics was in the College of Letters and Science, which offered "courses leading to the degree of AB"; but in 1909-10, that college became the College of Letters and Arts. Physics consequently became part of the School of Science within the College of Science and Engineering, which at that time offered the degrees of BA, MA, or EE, CE, or ME. The offerings of the physics department increased from seven courses to 18, including two entitled "thesis work."

In 1916-17 the physics department was part of the College of Arts, Philosophy and Science. By 1918, students could obtain a major or a minor in physics with a degree of BA or BS. The department offered nineteen courses, including nine for advanced undergraduate or graduate students. In 1919 the physics department was part of the College of Arts and Sciences and was planning on equipping laboratories for advanced work in heat, light, and electricity and magnetism "as funds become available."

Lecture Hall: 1927


Science and Lecture Hall, 1928-1984

In 1927 the new Lecture Hall was under construction. This proved to be an excellent facility both for its size (about 250 students) and for its remarkable acoustics. There were two small rooms on either side of the front of the lecture hall in which equipment could be stored and brought out on practically an instant's notice for use in the hall.


Science and Lecture Hall, interior

Members of the physics department have always believed in the importance of lecture demonstrations, particularly in the beginning classes. The theoretical treatment that many students meet for the first time is so abstract that it is important to maintain some connection with the ordinary world.

Scholes Hall: 1935


Scholes Hall, 1960s

1935 saw the construction of the new Administration Building (now Scholes Hall) with the help of $250,000 from the Works Progress Administration. The physics department was allotted the east half of the second floor: four large laboratories, two lecture rooms (35 and 20 students), four offices, one of which was large enough to serve also as a research laboratory, and a reasonably well equipped shop with ample storage space.

Next: Three New Facilities in Thirty Years, 1940s-1970s