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Science at IIT: Past, Present, Future

Science at IIT has a history dating back to the founding Armour and Lewis Institutes. Through the work of its faculty and graduates, science at IIT has evolved in step with the overall evolution of the fields and has made significant contributions to their development. The following is a brief synopsis adapted from the lecture “Science at IIT” by Dean Russell Betts at the Golden Alumni Reunion in September. Alumnus David Silver (CHEM ’62), from Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, introduced the dean. A video recording of the lecture can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFwZ1GF3zoo

Science has played an essential role at IIT since the foundation of Armour and Lewis institutes in the 1890’s. 

The course catalogs from that time show that science, as taught then, was much more narrowly defined than today. Biology was a largely empirical, observational science. Chemistry—inorganic, organic, and analytical—in many ways was leading the way. The chemists already knew about atoms and the structure of chemical compounds albeit without any deep understanding of the nature of the basic building blocks. The mathematics syllabus was like that of a pretty good high school course of today, with algebra, calculus, and differential equations. Physics was what we would call classical physics, covered today in the first two semesters of university physics: mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, and light. 

Yet, even in these early days, we see a characteristic of IIT in the amazing people who came through the institution, studying or teaching here. 

George Birkhoff
George Birkhoff
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest
Karl Menger
Karl Menger
ack Steinberger
Jack Steinberger
Martin Kilpatrick
Martin Kilpatrick
 

George Birkhoff, who attended high school and junior college at Lewis (1896-1902), became arguably the most famous U.S. mathematician of his day. He spent his whole subsequent career at Harvard University, ascending to the position of dean, and he became a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Birkhoff typified what mathematicians were doing at that period. There was a lot of interest in complex classical systems. His most famous result was the ergodic theorem, the basis of statistical physics—given enough time, a system will find its way to all the possible configurations. 

Lee de Forest had received his Ph.D. at Yale University under Willard Gibbs, the most famous American scientist of his day. De Forest came to Chicago to work for Western Electric, and from 1900-1902, to supplement his income, he taught at both Armour and Lewis. De Forest made experimental radio transmissions from the top of Main Building out to a hotel not too far away and eventually to the Auditorium Theater in the Loop. He invented, later on, the Audion, a forerunner to the vacuum tube triode—the basis of the first electronic amplifier circuits.

Within 20 years of the foundation of Armour and Lewis, the scientific world was turned on end—from the discovery of the electron in 1897 to the introduction of the atomic model in 1913. Atoms and quanta were now the standard for describing the physical world. The new theory of quantum mechanics was introduced to deal with the new probabilistic world of the atom, and mathematics developed in the 19th century found application in the solution of the complex equations that evolved from this theory.

Between the great wars, economic and social problems dominated the world scene, and IIT, not for the first or last time in its history, faced financial difficulties. Merger with other Chicago universities was mooted but did not come to pass.

One of the huge impacts on American science and culture during this period was the exodus of some of the finest creative minds from Europe, driven by political upheaval and the rise of anti-Semitism. Like many American universities, IIT benefited from this migration. Mies van der Rohe had left Germany in 1937 and became the head of IIT’s architecture college; Laszlo Moholy-Nagy left Hungary in 1937 and founded the Institute of Design. 

In mathematics, Karl Menger was already a well-known mathematician and professor in Vienna when he came to the United States in 1937. After first spending time at Notre Dame University, he came to IIT in 1946 and spent the rest of his career, until 1971, here. He is best known for the Menger sponge and work on classic problems such as the four-color map problem. 

Jack Steinberger attended IIT from 1938 to 1940 before going on to the University of Chicago. He worked at Princeton University, University of California-Berkeley, and Columbia University and eventually at CERN. He won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1988 for his research into neutrinos with Leon Lederman, a faculty member at IIT until his retirement this year, and Melvin Schwartz. He also received the National Medal of Science and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Armour and Lewis eventually joined in 1940 to become the IIT we know today. World War II, as elsewhere, had a huge impact on the new university and on science. Research became increasingly important to IIT and was manifest not only by activity on campus but by the contract research work for the government carried out at the newly formed IIT Research Institute (IITRI).

Following WW II—where government-funded research had produced such profound advances as radar, penicillin, operations research, digital computers, and so much more—many people asked, “Why should this stop?”  In the report “Science, the Endless Frontier (1945),” Vannevar Bush proposed that the U.S. government continue to fund research in peacetime “for the improvement of the national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living.” This new initiative led to the formation of the National Science Foundation and the federal national research laboratories and to the research compact between the federal government and U.S. universities which continues to this day.

As a result, post-WW II was a wonderful time in science at IIT. For example: Martin Kilpatrick was recruited to IIT in 1947 as chair of chemistry, and he increased the faculty count from six to 24, and undergraduate enrollment in chemistry rose to 100. Research became an important component of the department, with nationally and internationally recognized research. Very importantly, this growth included the genesis of computational science at IIT, as Peter Lykos and others realized the power of computers to deal with challenging computational problems in physical chemistry.

Computer science also grew in mathematics as information science, in the research foundation and at Argonne National Laboratory, with important contributions including IIT’s version of FORTRAN. In 1971, as we celebrated last year, the computer science department was formed. It had an enormously successful faculty and students who went out to success in the field, with such people as Robert Dewar, Jack Dongarra, Robert Tobey, Anthony Wojcik, and Martha Evens. Computation and computer science have been a major component of what goes on here ever since.

Peter Greene, Anthony Wojcik, James Vandendorpe, Edmond Schonberg, Martha Evens, Sharad Wagle, and Charles Bauer
Peter Greene, Anthony Wojcik, James Vandendorpe, Edmond Schonberg, Martha Evens, Sharad Wagle, and Charles Bauer
 

During that period, “Big Science” made its appearance on campus as universities became home to instruments of a scale hitherto impossible. At IIT, these included a Van de Graaff accelerator and a nuclear reactor (once at 3400 S. State Street, no longer there). Students had the opportunity to participate in research with major scientific instrumentation on campus. 

Argonne National Laboratory
Argonne National Laboratory
 

A key advantage for IIT has been being in Chicago near Argonne National Laboratory (founded in 1946) and Fermi National Accelerator Lab (1968). IIT people have played important roles in the development of programs at these labs. This includes at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source, where IIT was involved very early on in construction of beam lines for the study of biological structure, material structure, and more recently radiologic materials. It’s a major powerhouse in computational research, materials research, and more. Fermilab is a flagship of particle physics and accelerator physics in the United States and is also an important link to the worldwide physics community and their facilities.

Fermi National Accelerator Lab
Fermi National Accelerator Lab
 

As in the early days, science at IIT has been distinguished by the achievements and recognition of its graduates and faculty.

George Langford
George Langford
Susan Solomon
Susan Solomon
Samuel Karlin
Samuel Karlin
Jack Dongarra
Jack Dongarra
Paolo Radaelli
Paolo Radaelli
 

[above from left] George Langford (BIOL ’69, Ph.D. ’71) Dean, Syracuse; National Science Board; Susan Solomon (CHEM ’77) Co-Chair of IPCC which won the Nobel Peace Prize; National Medal of Science; Samuel Karlin (MATH ’44, M.S. ’45) National Medal of Science; Jack Dongarra (M.S. CS ’73) National Academy of Engineering, Turing Fellow; Paolo Radaelli (PHYS ’93) Dr. Lee’s Professor of Experimental Philosophy, Oxford University.

S.S. Shu
S.S. Shu
Timothy Zamb
Timothy Zamb
Watts Humphrey
Watts Humphrey
Jim Lemke
Jim Lemke
Victor Tsao
Victor Tsao
 

[above from left] S.S. Shu (Mathematics Faculty) Chairman, Co-Founder, Hsinchu Science and Industrial Park, Taiwan; Timothy Zamb (BIOL ’68, Ph.D. ’78) Former Head, AIDS Vaccine Development Laboratory, International AIDS Vaccine Initiative; Watts Humphrey (M.S. PHYS ’50) National Medal of Technology; Jim Lemke (PHYS ’59) Member NAE; Founder, ACHATES Power, Spin Physics; Victor Tsao (M.S. CS ’80) Founder Linksys.

 

These are all amazing people who took what they learned, in and out of the classroom, and went on to do extraordinary things. IIT now has a century of distinguished history because of the quality of the faculty and students and the way they interact. This is not an easy place, and it shouldn’t be.

What about the future of Science at IIT? In fall 2013, the current College of Science and Letters will lose the letters departments of humanities and social sciences to become a standalone College and Science with departments of applied mathematics, biology, chemistry, computer science, math and science education, and physics. This change will allow for an increased focus on science and presents a wonderful opportunity to grow both reputation and enrollments. We are working to envision improvements to our classrooms and facilities such that science at IIT in the 21st century will be as exciting and distinguished as it was in the 20th.