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Cheers to 100 Years!
Cheers to 100 Years!
Anthony Kuchera, Assistant Professor, Davidson College
On December 11, 2021, Sigma Pi Sigma celebrated its 100th birthday. In these ten decades, much has changed, from the organization itself to the physics being studied. However, taking a look back at what college physics was like for the original members, there are some striking similarities to what you might see in today’s physics courses.
Sigma Pi Sigma originated at Davidson College, a small liberal arts college about 20 miles north of Charlotte, in Davidson, North Carolina. At the time of its formation, the college only awarded degrees to men. Eight members created the alpha chapter—three faculty members and five students.
While our history says Sigma Pi Sigma was founded on the evening of December 11, 1921, it appears that plans for this society started slightly earlier. In the October 27, 1921, issue of the Davidsonian, the student newspaper, an article titled “Students and Professors Form Physics Fraternity” states that “A Physics fraternity has been organized for the purpose of promoting scholarship and friendship among the students and faculty members of Davidson College who are interested in the science of Physics. This club is to be called Sigma Phi Sigma, and is to be the Alpha chapter.”1
Either the “Phi” was a typo or there was a quick name change between October and December. The latter is probable, as “Phi” might be used to describe “physics,” and a national fraternity named Sigma Phi Sigma had already been established in 1908 (and ceased existing during WWII). Sigma Pi Sigma is a member of the Association of College Honors Societies. While the initial announcement was made in October, the December date marks the society’s official formation. Sigma Pi Sigma grew quickly after becoming a national society in 1925. Duke University and Penn State University became the second and third chapters. Today, over 100 years later, we have nearly 600 Sigma Pi Sigma chapters!
When students and faculty at Davidson formed Sigma Pi Sigma, the college had only one physics professor, Dr. James M. MacDowell. One hundred years later the department has grown, with seven tenured or tenure-track faculty members and two visiting professors.
At Sigma Pi Sigma’s start, the physics course of study was a three-year program, according to the 1920–21 Davidson College Bulletin.2 In year one, students studied General Physics. During the fall semester “the class studies matter and its general properties. Elementary dynamical principles and their application to machines, dynamics of liquids and gasses, and elementary mechanics are considered.” In the spring term there was a focus on “the study of heat, sound, electricity, and light.”
In the second year, students studied Advanced Physics, where “the fall term of this course is a continuation of the work done during the previous year in mechanics, molecular physics, magnetism, and electricity.” Interestingly, the spring term was “devoted to the study of direct currents and their practical applications.” In year three, students studied Electricity, which was clearly an important subject. This included a focus on “the useful application of these principles to the dynamo, motor, transformer, induction coil, lighting, etc.”
It is no surprise that the original Sigma Pi Sigma insignia bears the image of a dynamo, voltmeter, light bulb, and lightning bolt. Similar to today, the bulletin states that students were expected to work three to four hours per week in the lab. Courses in mathematics were prerequisites to take Physics 2 and 3. To take Advanced Physics and Electricity, it was required that students had taken Analytical Geometry and Calculus. In addition to physics and mathematics, an astronomy course was offered by Professor William Wood and covered “a general knowledge of the fundamental principles underlying the motions and physical state of the heavenly bodies, so far as known, as well as a description of these bodies and an outline of the methods by which this knowledge has been attained.” There were even occasional classes at night to “ insure familiarity with the principal constellations.” Today you can still find many similar topics covered at Davidson College and at other institutions around the world, with the addition of the physics that was being developed during the time of Sigma Pi Sigma’s creation, such as quantum mechanics, atomic physics, and nuclear physics.
The formation of Sigma Pi Sigma wasn’t without challenges. On November 28, 1921, the college suffered a major catastrophe. The Chambers Building, which housed lecture halls and laboratories, was destroyed by a fire. The newly formed Sigma Pi Sigma members and other students were so passionate about their field of study that they risked their very lives for the cause. It was written in the December 2, 1921, issue of the Davidsonian that “Due to the quick work of a group of students and Dr. Douglas, much valuable equipment was rescued from the physics laboratory.”3 A temporary building was built and opened just a few months later, in March of 1922. Later that fall the laboratories were outfitted with exciting new laboratory equipment, as described in another issue of the Davidsonian. The equipment included new motors, generators, galvanometers, ammeters, voltmeters, and even inclined planes! The article later mentions that the department would also soon have “a modern X-Ray outfit.” Today you will still find some of those same types of equipment, but many more computers, lasers, and other modern electronic instrumentation.
The 10th anniversary of Sigma Pi Sigma was celebrated at Davidson College in part by taking the lead of the college chapel services, according to the December 16, 1931, issue of the Davidsonian. At this time, there were 21 Sigma Pi Sigma chapters. Henry Fulcher, professor of physics, praised the organization and gave a eulogy for one of the founding members, Dr. Douglas. Also, as part of this celebration of ten years, it was said that alumni of the alpha chapter were sending money to create a tablet recognizing the accomplishment, to be presented to the college. Currently, a large tablet hangs inside the Dana Building, which houses the physics department at Davidson College, from its 25th anniversary. This celebration was held on December 16, 1946. It featured an address from Lehigh University president and former director of the Atomic Energy Commission Laboratory at Oak Ridge, Dr. Martin Whitaker. The plaque was presented and unveiled. A response was given by Davidson College president John R. Cunningham. This was followed by a symposiums from Dr. Marsh W. White titled “Physicists in Industry” and another titled “Atomic Energy” from Dr. Whitaker.
At the time of the 50th anniversary, there were around 30,000 members and 250 active chapters. The 50th anniversary was celebrated at the 1972 Southeastern Section of the American Physical Society meeting at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. This included addresses by Marsh W. White, SPS director Dion W. J. Shea, and H. William Koch, the director of the American Institute of Physics. That same year, women were finally able to pursue a degree at Davidson College.
The 100-year celebration has been slightly altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Physics Congress (PhysCon) in Washington DC was rescheduled from 2021 to 2022, but will still take place in the 100th year. The Davidson College chapter had a small outdoor gathering to celebrate and plans to send a record number of students to PhysCon in October 2022 to complete the celebration with all other chapters in attendance. It is impressive to look back and think that the first Physics Congress took place in 1928 on the campus of Davidson College with just six chapters. The physics department, SPS, and Sigma Pi Sigma have certainly grown over the last century. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next 100 years!
1. The Davidsonian, October 27, 1921.
2. Davidson College Catalog, 1920–1921 (Davidson, NC, Davidson Office of Communications, 1920).
3. The Davidsonian, December 2, 1921.