History

In 1965, the UCI campus opened. Back then, there were still cowboys riding horses and driving cattle in the fields that soon became buildings and parking lots. The UCI School of Physical Sciences opened that same year with 212 undergraduate students, 55 graduate students, and 22 faculty members across the Departments of Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics & Astronomy.

Frederick Reines was the first dean of the school, and he imbued the school with a fiery curiosity that still burns today. “I have favorite memories of Fred Reines teaching me that physics is endlessly engaging and will never be perfectly done,” said Roger McWilliams, a physicist who joined UCI in 1980.

F. Sherwood Rowland founded the Department of Chemistry, and Rowland set the tone for an inclusive department where each faculty member, regardless of seniority, had an say in the governing of the department. Rowland’s name now graces Rowland Hall, which also houses the Department of Mathematics.

It was Rowland who first imagined what would eventually become the Department of Earth System Sciences (ESS); the first department of its kind in the world, ESS approaches the study of Earth from multidisciplinary angles. Rowland spoke with a scientist named Ralph Cicerone at a conference in 1989, and, after years of planning, ESS became a department with a formalized Ph.D. program in 1994, with Cicerone as its chair. It was the first department in the world dedicated to studying climate change.

And, in 1995, the school won international prominence when Rowland and Reines received the Nobel Prize in their respective fields: chemistry and physics. Reines won the prize after discovering the neutrino, a new elementary particle of nature that was thought to be undetectable. Rowland’s prize was for the discovery that chlorofluorocarbons deplete the ozone layer, work that sparked a worldwide and triumphant effort to close the ozone hole.

Today, the work our scientists and our alumni do continues to cast new light into unknown corners of existence. The lab of Professor Jonathan Feng is building machines that might help scientists glimpse invisible dark matter — matter that holds the universe together and which, until now, has never been directly detected; one alumna, atmospheric scientist Gretchen Keppel-Aleks, is making measurements of carbon in the atmosphere and the environment that help climate scientists model how the climate is changing; and our AirUCI center helps California make strides toward making the state’s air cleaner.

These are just a few of the ways the School of Physical Sciences continues to make history — a tradition that started in 1965 with Rowland and Reines, and which, propelled by our unending curiosity, still shines.