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Albert Einstein Center for Fundamental Physics

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About the AEC

Albert Einstein in Bern

Albert Einstein spent seven happy and fruitful years of his life in Bern, between 1902 and 1909. He arrived after his physics studies in Zürich (but before receiving the Doctor title) with the hope to get a job at the patent office in Bern, which he in fact soon obtained. Despite his full-time job at the patent office, he devoted a lot of his free time (and who knows how much of his working hours!) to physics. During the Bernese years he submitted his PhD thesis at the University of Zürich and soon after that his application for a Habilitation at the University of Bern. Maybe it was a sign of his unconventional character, but his application did not include a thesis as was (and still is) explicitly required. His application was rejected with the invitation to conform to the rules and submit a thesis. He did that a few months later and within days received the venia docendi at the University of Bern, at the age of 29. On April 21. 1908 he gave his first theoretical physics lecture in Bern. At that time he was already well known in the international physics community for his revolutionary works, especially those of the "annus mirabilis", the year 1905 in Bern, which he wrote before having the Doctor title. Indeed it was not long before he got an offer from the University of Zürich for a professorship in theoretical physics as Extraordinarius. He accepted it and left Bern in 1909.

History of experimental particle physics in Bern

Elementary particle physics is one of the key specializations of the Institute of Physics at the University of Bern. It was introduced by H. Greinacher (lecturer 1924-1950) and F. Houtermans (lecturer 1952-1966), who was appointed to succeed H. Greinacher in 1952. F. Houtermans founded a working group in Bern which pursued experimental, fundamental research in the area of particle physics with a view to researching the fundamental building blocks of matter and their interactions. Using comparatively modest resources - plates with photographic emulsions were exposed to cosmic radiation and particle beams from accelerators - the Bern group succeeded in achieving results that won international acclaim. Almost simultaneously with the discovery of the antiproton (1955) in Berkeley by Chamberlain and Segre, evidence of an antiproton was provided in Bern in photographic emulsions. Under F. Houtermans, further key research projects were developed at the Institute of Physics, including mass spectrometry, cosmic radiation and low level counting. These fields of research have undergone further development and are still the focal points of research at the Physics Institute today: space research, climate and environmental physics as well as elementary particle physics.

F. Houtermans was particularly keen on ensuring that intensive work continued in particle physics at the institute following his retirement. After the death of F. Houtermans (1966), J. Geiss was appointed as Head of the Institute of Physics. At the request of J. Geiss, the faculty and the government decided to set up an independent department of elementary particle physics at the Institute of Physics and to create a full professorship in this specialization. B. Hahn was appointed to this chair in 1968.

With the generous support of the Kanton Bern, B. Hahn was able to strengthen the staff and material resources of the newly created independent department. In 1978, the department became a financially independent university unit and in 1982 it was renamed "Laboratory for High Energy Physics" (LHEP). It still operates under that name today.

K. Pretzl succeeded B. Hahn in 1988. He started a series of new projects in the field of particle physics. In particular he contributed to the search of strange-quark matter with the NA52 experiment in the heavy ion beam at the CERN Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS). Under his leadership, LHEP participated in the conceptual design of the ATLAS experiment for LHC. K. Pretzl was initially involved in the project management and also served as a Collaboration Board Chairman during the crucial period of the detector design and construction. He introduced the research in cryogenic particle detectors in Bern and conducted the development of the Superconducting Granule Detector to look for a signal of Dark Matter in the Universe. He also started a line of research on neutrino physics, joining the OPERA experiment for the search for neutrino oscillations.

After the retirement of K. Pretzl in 2006, A. Ereditato was appointed as his successor and is presently leading LHEP.

The Laboratory for High Energy Physics (LHEP) is attached to the Institute of Physics as a Department and takes part on a coordinated basis in the teaching of physics.

History of theoretical physics in Bern

It was around the end of the 19th century when theoretical or mathematical physics developed into an independent discipline. P. Gruner had started giving lectures on theoretical physics after his Habilitation in 1893. In 1911, he founded the "Seminar for theoretical Physics" and filled a newly created chair for theoretical physics from 1913 onwards. In 1939 A. Mercier became the successor of Gruner. In the years 1958-59 Walter Thirring taught theoretical Physics, and especially the theory of elementary particles. In 1961, on the request of A. Mercier, the "Seminar for Theoretical Physics" became the financially independent unit "Institute for Theoretical Physics". From 1959-63, the old building, where the ITP was located , was transformed into the "Institut fuer Exakte Wissenschaften".

For more details on the history of the building "ExWi" click here

Around 1960 there were 3 staff positions in theoretical physics. A. Mercier made considerable efforts to replace the position of Thirring, who left for Vienna in 1958. In a visionary manner, he was looking for someone "in the field of theories of quantum fields, fundamental particles and very high energies (...) because this is a field which is developing here, partly in connection with the Physics Institute which works on high energy particles"

Thirring's position was then used to attract visitors to the Institute: among others S.A. Wouthuysen, E.C.G. Stueckelberg, M.-A. Tonnelat, J.R. Klauder, E.C.G. Sudarshan, J. Stern and P. Minkowski taught here as "Gastprofessor". In 1966, Heinrich Leutwyler was nominated Professor for theoretical Physics -- his research efforts would henceforth be concerned with all aspects of quantum field theory.

During the seventies and early eighties the Institute grew rapidly and then kept its size without major changes until the end of the nineties. In this period the research fields represented at the Institute covered a broad spectrum, going from General Relativity (Hajicek, Held) to Quantum Chromodynamics (Bebie, Gasser, Leutwyler, Minkowski), to Lattice Gauge Theories (Lüscher, Hasenfratz) to Physics beyond the Standard Model (Minkowski). Even philosophical aspects of physics research were covered (Gorge'), continuing an activity of Mercier.

In the last ten years the Institute has experienced a generation change -- without changing substantially its size and keeping a similarly broad spectrum of research activities. In 2008 the Institute expanded again significantly, as the two Professors in theoretical physics from Neuenburg, M. Blau and J.-P. Derendinger, and their students and postdocs were integrated into the Institute. This added research in supergravity, string theory, and quantum gravity to the spectrum of subjects under investigation at the ITP.

As of 2009, the Institute has 9 staff members: Becher, Blau, Colangelo, Derendinger, Greub, Hasenfratz, Niedermayer, Wenger and Wiese.

This figure provides the information on positions created and filled since 1960 in graphical form.

Research highlights

  • Despite its small size, our Institute is well known worldwide for some important research achievements, for instance:
  • the identification of SU(3) as the gauge group relevant for the description of strong interactions; H. Fritzsch, M. Gell-Mann, H. Leutwyler, Phys.Lett.B47:365-368,1973. (1102 citations)
  • the proposal of SO(10) as the group of a grand-unified theory Harald Fritzsch, Peter Minkowski, Annals Phys.93:193-266,1975. (1140 citations)
  • the proposal of the see-saw mechanism for the generation of neutrino masses; Peter Minkowski, Phys.Lett.B67:421,1977. (850 citations)
  • the determination of the quark masses J. Gasser and H. Leutwyler, Phys.Rept.87:77-169,1982 (1715 citations)
  • the formulation of chiral perturbation theory in the meson J. Gasser, H. Leutwyler, Annals Phys.158:142,1984, and Nucl.Phys.B250:465,1985. (2525 and 2513 citations respectively)
  • and in the baryon sector J. Gasser, M.E. Sainio, A. Svarc, Nucl.Phys.B307:779,1988 (510 citations)
Universität Bern | Albert Einstein Center for Fundamental Physics | Sidlerstrasse 5 | CH-3012 Bern
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