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This material has been complied by Dr. John Oliver making use of his files and other resources including a history of the Department of Physics written by Professor S. S. Ballard in 1990 and the text of the 1971 dedication by Professor A. G. Smith of the Rosemary Hill Observatory.

Early History

In 1952 Dr. Alex Smith (with the help of Dr. Leonides Roberts) acquired a Spitz planetarium projector which was installed in the Benton Hall under a dome constructed by Dr. Smith. This planetarium was used for many years for instruction in the Departments of Physical Sciences and of Physics. In 1955, Dr. Guy Omer of the Department of Physical Sciences obtained a fine gift of an 8-inch Clark refracting telescope. The Departments of Physics and of Physical Sciences combined to erect a Student Observatory on a site near the current location of the campus police station. In 1973 the student observatory was transfered to its current site on the hill near the engineering buildings.

Astronomy in the Department of Physics

One of the earliest astronomical research programs at UF began in 1955 when the UF Radio Observatory was established in the Department of Physics by Dr. Alex Smith and his graduate student Tom Carr. The first antennas were erected on the Teaching Observatory site and the receivers and recorders were sheltered in the Observatory building.

By 1958, the Radio Observatory had outgrown the small Teaching Observatory site, and it was relocated to a much larger area on agricultural land on the north shore of Bivens Arm.

In 1958 Dr. Carr received the first astronomical Ph.D. awarded in the Department of Physics. Also in 1958 a 12 1/2-inch reflecting telescope was erected in a small concrete-block observatory building at Bivens Arm. For several years this instrument was used to observe the planet Jupiter in conjunction with radio studies of that body. In 1959 a radio observatory was established at Maipu Chile to extend the program of Jupiter radio observations to the southern hemisphere.

Department of Physics and Astronomy

In 1962 the Department of Physics was renamed the Department of Physics and Astronomy. After joining the department in 1963, Dr. Kwan-Yu Chen equipped the 12 1/2-inch telescope with a photoelectric photometer and began a research program observing variable stars. In 1965 an NSF Science Development Grant resulted in the construction (complete in 1967) of Rosemary Hill Observatory (equipped with a 0.76 m telescope) and the Dixie County Radio Observatory.

In 1967 a proposal for Astronomy graduate degree program within Department of Physics and Astronomy was successfully submitted to the Board of Regents. The first MS degree was awarded in 1969 and first Ph.D. was awarded in 1971.

In 1968 the Space Sciences Research Building was built with major support from NASA and the astronomy group moved into the second floor.

Department of Astronomy

In 1979 Department of Physics and Astronomy split and the Department of Astronomy came into existence. At the same time the Astronomy faculty more than doubled with the addition of four faculty from the University of South Florida (Eichhorn, Hunter, H. Smith, Wilson) and four members of the former University College (Cohen, Lynch, Olsson, Roberts). The department office was set up in the east wing of the second floor of SSRB (until displaced by NERDC (the North East Regional Data Center). Dr. H. K. Eichhorn was chosen as the first chairman.

In 1980 the Space Astronomy Laboratory (formerly located at SUNY Albany) became an autonomous research unit within the Department of Astronomy under director Dr. J. L. Weinberg. This association continued until 1990 when SAL separated completely from the department to become the Institute for Space Science and Technology (ISST).

In 1995 the department began building strength in the area of infrared (IR) instrumentation. Dr. Charles Telesco became the first of a series of new faculty members working to build and use IR instruments on the world’s largest telescopes.

In October 2001, Dr. Dermott traveled to Spain to sign the contract which made the UF Department of Astronomy a partner in the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) telescope project, whose first light took place in 2009.

Department Appointments

Department Chairs

  • 1962 – 1971 A.G. Smith in the Department of Physics and Astronomy
  • 1972 – 1978 F.B. Wood in the Department of Physics and Astronomy
  • 1979 – 1985 H.K. Eichhorn
  • 1986 – 1988 T.D. Carr
  • 1989 – 1993 S.T. Gottesman
  • 1993 – 2009 S.F. Dermott
  • 2009 – 2012 Rafael Guzmán
  • 2012 – 2018 Charles Telesco
  • 2018 – Present Elizabeth Lada