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School of Physical and Chemical Sciences

History of the Centre

Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary: A Brief History


Queen Mary has its roots in four historic colleges: Queen Mary College, Westfield College, St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College, and the London Hospital Medical College.

The Mile End campus is historically the home of Queen Mary College, which began in 1887 as the People's Palace, a philanthropic endeavour to provide education and social activities for East Londoners. It was admitted to the University of London in 1915.

Westfield College was founded in 1882 as a pioneering institution for the higher education of women and was granted its Royal Charter in 1932. In 1995, Queen Mary and Westfield merged with two distinguished medical colleges: St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College, established in 1843, and the London Hospital Medical College, England's first medical school, founded in 1785. Queen Mary is now fully integrated as Queen Mary University of London.


The Theory Group has its origins in the early 1960s when it was led by Professor RK Eisenschitz, who had been at Queen Mary since 1949. Other members of the group included Owen Davies, Seb Doniach, John Leech, and Doug Newman. Their research focused on condensed matter physics, statistical mechanics, many-body theory, and atomic physics. Geoff Sewell joined the group in 1964. Davies left in 1971 to take a Chair at Cardiff, Doniach in 1964 to Stanford, and Leech in 1968 to Waterloo.

In 1965, John G Valatin was appointed to the Chair in Theoretical Physics, succeeding Eisenschitz. He brought with him two postdocs, Bob Jones and Peter Williams, from Birmingham. John Charap joined the theory group at that time. Their interests in particle physics, field theory, and S-matrix theory were a shift in emphasis in the research of the group. John G Taylor joined us in 1966 and moved to Southampton in 1968, as did Ken Barnes, who joined in 1969.


In 1970, Willie Yeung joined the group. AQ Sarker was an SRC Senior Visiting Fellow from 1971 to 1972, focusing on hadronic physics. Ubbo Felderhof was a part of the group from 1971 to 1975 before taking a Chair at Aachen. Alan Bishop joined the group in 1975 and stayed until 1978 before departing for Los Alamos. Doug Newman left in 1974, heading to Hong Kong by way of the Australian National University.

Derek Capper joined as a lecturer in 1974, collaborating with Mike Duff on anomalies, which would be of fundamental importance for the string revolution that would soon follow. Mike Duff was a Research Fellow in the group in 1976-77, and both of them were protégées of Abdus Salam. Richard Brandt was a SERC Senior Visiting Fellow from New York University in 1978, and he visited again in 1982. Michael Green was appointed as a lecturer, joining the group in January 1979. He had been supervised as a PhD student in Cambridge by Richard Eden, who had also been Charap's supervisor there.


In 1986, Capper left to pursue a career in the computer science industry. During this period, Jeanette Nelson, Philip Ratcliffe, Paul P Martin, Guy Launer, Anders Bengtsson, and Tetsuki Kuramoto were postdocs at the Centre.

In 1983, members of the Westfield College physics department, including Peter Williams, moved to Queen Mary. Later that year, a workshop on relativistic strings, organized by Michael Green, drew 60 participants, among them Stephen Hawking and David Gross.

The 1980s witnessed a global surge of interest in superstring theory. Green shifted his research focus from hadronic strings to more fundamental string theory and initiated a collaboration with John Schwarz of Caltech. Schwarz was an SERC Senior Visiting Fellow at Queen Mary in 1983. In 1984, Green and Schwarz published their celebrated discovery, demonstrating that, contrary to widespread belief, it was possible to identify an extremely restrictive class of string theories in which cancellations occur, which allow a consistent, realistic formulation, free of anomalies. This was the so-called first string revolution. In 1987, Green was promoted to Professor of Theoretical Physics, and he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1989.

In 1987, Steve Thomas and Bill Spence took up research positions, as did Chris Hull in 1989. By the end of the decade, Hull, Spence, and Thomas had their appointments to lectureships in the Theory Group confirmed.

Some key areas of progress included superstring and super-particle formulations, sigma models, W-algebras, and conformal field theory.


Ian Percival FRS transitioned from Mathematics to continue his research on the foundations of quantum mechanics. String theory research in the Theory Group expanded with Dowker, Gauntlett, and Waldram becoming permanent staff members. Meanwhile, Michael Green moved to Cambridge.

In 1994, Chris Hull's groundbreaking work on duality, in collaboration with Paul Townsend from Cambridge, played a pivotal role in formulating and understanding M theory. The group made significant contributions to research across various areas, including duality, holography, string compactifications, the geometry of branes, gravity, integrable systems, and topological field theory.

During this era, postdocs included Acharya, Alvarez, Figueroa-O’Farrill, Lozano, Khuri, Kim, Miemiec, Mikovic, Ortin, Papadopoulos, Peeters, Roca, Sabra, Soloviev and Stanciu, while PhD students included Abou Zeid, Acharya, and Sabra. In 1997, Professor Tullio Regge from Turin spent a semester with the group.


Dowker, Gauntlett, Hull and Waldram moved to Imperial in 2002. With the support of the university, Charap, Spence, and Thomas founded the Centre for Research in String Theory, with Spence as the first Director. The first postdoctoral recruits were Travaglini and Ramgoolam. Berman, Brandhuber, and Russo were then recruited to permanent posts, followed by Ramgoolam and Travaglini, who held five-year research fellowships. Refurbishment provided new office accommodations for the rapidly expanding group of staff and PhD students.

Pioneering work on amplitudes research was started in this decade, and the group hosted the second of the now long-standing annual Amplitudes conferences. Research in this decade covered various areas of string theory, including string geometry, string phenomenology and cosmology, twistor string theory, string theory applications to perturbative gauge theory and gravity, AdS/CFT holography, and duality.

Postdocs in this decade included Alvarez, Anguelova, Chamblin, Copland, Georgiou, Gili, Heslop, Kimura, Martelli, Pakis, Reall, Sparks, and Zoubos. PhD students included Demedeiros, Papageorgakis, and Reid-Edwards.

Recent years

Spence became Head of School, and as part of a large-scale building project and the merger with Astronomy, the Centre for Research in String Theory (CRST) was relocated to a new suite of offices on the top floor of the G.O. Jones building. Brandhuber became the director of CRST.

Wecht joined the group from 2011 to 2015. He was replaced in 2016 by Shigemori, who left in 2018. White joined the group in 2016, along with recipients of advanced fellowships: Vegh with an STFC ERF in 2017, while Papageorgakis (2013), Buican (2016), Monteiro (2017), and Wen (2018) held Royal Society University Research Fellowships.

Michael Green (2017) and Malcolm Perry (2020) joined the group on 20% contracts.


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