The second electron synchrotron built in Newman Lab

For Newman Lab’s 75th Birthday, Some Fascinating Facts

Stories You May Like

Cornell Maple Program Sees Acres of Untapped Opportunity

100 Years of Hospitality Education on the Hill: Fascinating Facts

Thought Prelims Were Hard? Try These Vintage Entrance Exams

You don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to appreciate these tidbits about the Hill’s first facility devoted to accelerator physics 

By Joe Wilensky

Elementary particle physics research on the Hill began in the 1930s—but the field got a huge boost with the World War II-era invention of the synchrotron, a device that propels particles to extremely high energies through a narrow vacuum tube surrounded by magnets.

Newman Lab, home to Cornell’s first synchrotron, opened in 1948. Located on the northern edge of central campus behind Clark and Savage/Kinzelberg halls, it also housed machine and electronics shops.

The facility quickly led to groundbreaking advances—and the rapid acceleration (pun intended) of the University’s particle physics research program.

The lab’s work has continued for 75 years—even as scientific discoveries and technological advances led to larger accelerators (constructed under Alumni Field) that outgrew the facility.

Research at Newman Lab continues today; many improvements and upgrades to Cornell’s particle accelerator facilities—including the Cornell High-Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS)—are designed, built, and tested there.

As the University and the College of Arts & Sciences spotlight the lab’s 75th anniversary this year, read on for some fascinating facts about it:

It was the first building on campus to be air conditioned!

Newman Laboratory, set behind Garden Avenue on the northern edge of central campus
The lab, on the northern edge of central campus. (Kenneth C. Zirkel / via Wikimedia Commons)

According to The Cornell Physics Department: Recollections and a History of Sorts, experimental physicist Robert Wilson (later namesake of the University’s Wilson Synchrotron Lab) had argued that humidity would play havoc with the sensitive electronic apparatus.

It has the highest ceiling of any lab on campus!

Measuring just over 28.5 feet, it also features a ceiling-mounted working crane.

Its early researchers included future Nobel laureates!

Physicist Hans Bethe—whose career on the Hill spanned seven decades—was a leader of the Manhattan Project that designed and built the atomic bomb during World War II.

Bethe turned the first spade at Newman Lab’s groundbreaking and recruited a cohort of outstanding researchers—including Richard Feynman, Robert Wilson, Philip Morrison, and Lloyd Smith, PhD ’30—to do cutting-edge work in high-energy elementary particle physics. Both Bethe and Feynman would go on to win the Nobel Prize.

Hans Bethe turns the first shovelful of dirt at the groundbreaking for Newman Lab in 1947
Bethe (center) at the groundbreaking in 1947. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Its work has vital real-world applications!

Superconductors are special materials that have a unique property: at the proper temperature, electric current can flow through them with no resistance.

Superconductor technology is important for many applications, including the superconducting magnets in MRI machines used for medical diagnostics. Additionally, particle accelerators are used in hospitals for some cancer therapies and, increasingly, in new methods of wastewater treatment.

One of its early researchers became president of Cornell!

Also recruited by Bethe was a young physicist named Dale Corson, who went on to become dean of Engineering, University provost—and, in 1969, Cornell’s eighth president.

He served for eight years, a tumultuous period that saw intense student activism, the rise of shared governance, the end of the Vietnam War, and an economic recession.

Cornell's eighth president, Dale Corson, first came to Cornell as a young physicist to work at Newman Lab
Corson in his later years. (Cornell University)

Stories You May Like

Cornell Maple Program Sees Acres of Untapped Opportunity

100 Years of Hospitality Education on the Hill: Fascinating Facts

Its researchers can observe atomic motion in real time!

Physics professor Jared Maxson, PhD ’15, and his team have built a tabletop electron diffraction machine in Newman Lab, which he describes as similar to an electron microscope.

Combined with a detector designed by other Cornell physicists, it enables them to record video of atoms in motion at the picosecond (one trillionth of a second) resolution.

Its work requires mind-bending standards of cleanliness!

Physics graduate and undergraduate students work on a project in Newman Laboratory
The lab’s really clean room. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

If you were to count the number of dust particles in normal room air, you’d find anywhere from 100,000 to a million per cubic foot. In the Newman Lab clean room, you’ll find only one per cubic foot.

Its innovations could spur industry-wide energy savings!

Particle accelerators require vast amounts of energy to operate. The concept of reclaiming the energy of an electron beam—instead of “dumping” it after the experiment—to accelerate the next beam of particles was first discussed in a 1965 paper by Maury Tigner, PhD ’62, now the Hans A. Bethe Professor Emeritus.

But it took another four decades to develop the technology—with much of the research taking place at Cornell.

It shares a benefactor with a beloved campus athletic facility (and a popular arboretum)!

The lab was named the Floyd Newman Laboratory of Nuclear Studies in 1949 in recognition of a $1 million gift from Floyd R. “Flood” Newman 1912, an oil industrialist and philanthropist.

Newman also was the benefactor of the F.R. Newman Arboretum at the Botanic Gardens
Newman, standing above his namesake arboretum. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Newman was later elected a trustee, donated funds for Helen Newman Hall (in honor of his wife), and became a benefactor and namesake of the Botanic Gardens Arboretum. He passed away in 1990 at age 99.

It does really chilly work!

Some of the lab’s experiments involve deep-chilled materials through which electric current can flow without resistance. These tests are run in special cryogenic pits, which act as super-charged chest freezers. They keep the experiments cold—really cold: down to 2 degrees Kelvin (–456 degrees F).

And ... its namesake achieved a legendary winter feat!

The ice skates Floyd “Flood” Newman 1912 famously used to skate the length of Cayuga Lake are in a display case in Helen Newman Hall
The famed skates. (Joe Wilensky / Cornell University)

His senior year, Newman and four friends seized the opportunity of a completely frozen-over Cayuga Lake: they skated from its southern tip in Ithaca all the way to the northern end—nearly 40 miles—and then took a train back to Ithaca. His skates remain on display in Helen Newman Hall.

Top: One of the Newman Lab synchrotrons. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Published March 27, 2023


  1. James J. Kozuch, Class of 1972

    Very interesting article. Thank you.

  2. Alan Flaherty, Class of 1962

    I wish the photo of Hans Bethe at the groundbreaking included the names of the others pictured. I’m guessing that the person at the right is President Day. Any chance the posted caption can be updated?

  3. Herb Fontecilla, Class of 1966

    Happy 75th Birthday !!!!!!!!!

  4. Bill Medina, Class of 1972

    Interesting article and excellent video. Good anecdotes. Thanks!

Leave a Comment

Once your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other stories You may like