History of Theoretical Physics in Birmingham

Theoretical Physics - or Mathematical Physics as it was previously known - has a long and distinguished history at the University of Birmingham. Its goal remains that of its founder, Rudolf Peierls, namely to combine enthusiastic, excellent teaching with excellence in research.

The history of the group begins with the appointment of Rudolf Peierls (later Sir Rudolf Peierls FRS) in 1937 as Professor of Theoretical Physics. Peierls had worked with Werner Heisenberg and had already established himself as a leading figure in the application of the new quantum theory to condensed matter. Hitler's rise to power meant he no longer could return to his native Germany while studying in the UK and in Birmingham he found his home.

In March 1940 he wrote the "Frisch-Peierls memorandum" with fellow exile Otto Frisch. This gave the first practical calculation for the amount of Uranium needed to make an atomic bomb proving it to be possible. That work motivated the Manhattan project to build the atomic bomb. It was written in the Nuffield Building in Physics as Peierls' background meant he was deemed a security risk and excluded from the main buildings where work on radar was going on. (That work led to the development of the cavity magnetron by Randall and Boot which enabled radar to be miniturized for airborn use---and ultimately led to microwave ovens. These two discoveries mean that the School of Physics in Birmingham has a reasonable claim to have won the second world war!)

After working on the Manhatten project, Peierls returned to Birmingham and sort there to establish the leading centre for Theoretical Physics in the UK. He repeatedly turned down offers of Chairs elsewhere to remain in Birmingham where he felt that the flexible administration of the University gave him the most freedom to establish his group. His vision was one where excellence in teaching and in research would go together. The result was that the research group, in the words of Freeman Dyson, "left Oxford and Cambridge far behind". Many of the most influential theoretical physicists of the twentieth century visited, studied or become staff in the group. This continued long after Peierls eventually accepted a Chair in Oxford in 1963. Past members of the group include:

  • Gerry Brown
  • Nina Byers
  • RH "Dick" Dalitz
  • Freeman Dyson
  • Sam Edwards
  • JM "Mike" Kosterlitz
  • James Langer
  • Eliot Lieb
  • Stanley Mandelstam
  • Edwin Salpeter
  • Tony Skyrme
  • David Thouless
The history and legacy of Sir Rudolf Peierls is studied by Dr Sabine Lee.