Physical Sciences at 60

A look back at our founding departments.

If biological science is part of UC San Diego’s DNA, then physical science could be regarded as the university’s prime mover. Just consider how campus growth was envisioned upon reaching 2,300 students in 1968: At that time, “fission” would occur and the diversion of students and faculty to form the nucleus of another college.

In fact, the first classes of 1960s proto-UC San Diego—the graduate school known only as “The School of Science and Engineering”—were largely students of physics and chemistry. These departments would eventually make up the Division of Physical Sciences, along with mathematics in 1964. Triton caught up with some of the division’s first professors to reflect on the early days and learn what is in store for the next 60 years.


Brian Maple, MS ’65, PhD ’69, distinguished professor and chair, Department of Physics:

I came here as a graduate student in 1963, part of the third entering class in physics. By then, Harold Urey was here, and we’d even have lunch with him sometimes. He and Maria Goeppert Mayer—both Nobel laureates— were hired right at the beginning. That certainly helped bring UCSD instantaneous recognition and stature. Really, it was the up-and-coming place. That could even be taken literally—I started down at Scripps, and the next year, we moved into one of the only three buildings then—A, B and C.

Katja Lindenberg, distinguished professor emeritus, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry:

As for me, I’ve been on the same floor of Urey Hall—or Building B, I suppose—for 50 years. I arrived first as a researcher, half in physics and half in chemistry. My interests in chemistry became academically more inspiring to me over the years. Even as a researcher I could attend faculty meetings and group discussions and build rapport. Not to mention the classes back then—the big ones had maybe 75 students, but most had around 30. So we had an unusually good rapport with faculty and students, with each other and with students, teaching such small classes.

Michael Sharpe, professor emeritus, Department of Mathematics:

When I came into the math department in 1967, I was impressed with the initial conception of the campus, how departments were going to be split among the colleges to allow for collaboration with people who shared interests but were in different disciplines. That was one of the great things at the beginning, that vision of Roger Revelle. And of course, the many experts—not only leaders in their fields but young people who were not yet known but soon became very notable.

Lindenberg: From the very beginning, it has been a world of science that is singularly international. Universities from all continents send visitors here, and it lends a wonderful picture of science around the world. It was diverse in that regard, if not so much with respect to gender. Being a woman and a Latina, I was often the first of things: first female department chair, first female Academic Senate chair. I had to really get myself out there and always speak up. And I should say, as the first woman to hold such positions, it took forever to see the second woman do so. I’m glad to see this change, but I would like to see more.

Maple: It’s important to have role models who can help make it so that talented young women don’t have to face what Katja did. In the physics department, we’ve made a lot of effort to hire more women faculty, and I’m sure that’s true in chemistry and math as well. Ideally, it will start a cycle where more faculty serve as role models for these students who will then inspire younger people, who will do so for subsequent generations. This is important for any university, if we are going to see more diverse perspectives in our disciplines.

Lindenberg: That’s one of the reasons I particularly enjoyed teaching—not just conveying the material but also helping students overcome barriers and build confidence. I was very blessed with wonderful mentors in graduate school and as a researcher. Many women in my generation didn’t have such an experience. It’s led me to really look after students in my career—not only those who are very promising but those on the other end, needing encouragement and attention too.

Sharpe: There’s a collegial nature I’ve always enjoyed here, between colleagues on campus and those who visit from around the world. In this company, you were inspired to do well, because of the very nature of that collaboration. There’s a constant flow of ideas and enthusiasm—I recall answering the phone once at 2:00 AM only to hear, “I just had the greatest idea!” I said it would have to wait, but it really speaks to the spirit of things.

Maple: There definitely was an excitement at work, and myself being in the division still, I think it remains, just in a different form. All of us were here near the beginning, so we in particular can really see the realization of the founders’ dreams. I don’t know exactly what Roger Revelle was thinking, but I think his dream for UC San Diego to become a major university is exactly what has happened. The old, intimate times were special, but it was always the plan to grow into something great, and to see this happen and have been a part of it—it’s an incredible feeling.