Establishing itself as one of the country’s leading academic institutions in physics, Texas A&M University today dedicated two new physics buildings named after one of the school’s most distinguished and charitable graduates — the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building and the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.
Numerous state and local officials say the two new buildings will put Texas A&M among the world’s leaders in physics research and instruction and will also extend man’s knowledge about our Universe.
In 2005, the Mitchells pledged $35 million toward construction of the $82.5 million physics buildings, the first on the Texas A&M campus to be financed through a unique public-private partnership involving substantial donor funds.
Mitchell is a legend in the state’s energy sector and is often called the father of the expansive Barnett Shale field. He founded Mitchell Energy, one of the nation’s largest independent oil and gas producers, merging the company with Devon Energy in 2002. Also heavily involved in real estate, he is credited with developing The Woodlands, where he has lived for the past 25 years, and also was instrumental in founding the Houston Advanced Research Center.
“These two buildings are truly a testament to the significant growth and collective strength of Texas A&M’s programs in physics and astronomy,” Interim President R. Bowen Loftin said. “We are extremely grateful to Mr. Mitchell for his generosity and the significant investment he has made in the future of Texas A&M.”
The Mitchell Physics Buildings, joined by a crosswalk, provide almost 200,000 square feet of space for the physics department and include a 468-seat lecture hall as well as a 180-seat auditorium named in honor of Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned Cambridge University theoretical physicist.
The buildings were designed with the highest “green” standards found anywhere. They have a heating and ventilation system that uses natural convection currents and also feature a cistern that collects rainfall and condensate which will be used to irrigate the buildings’ exterior landscapes. It will also provide water for Texas A&M’s first roof-top garden, the 10,000-square-foot Cynthia Woods Mitchell Garden located over the lecture hall in the Mitchell Physics Building. The buildings are designed to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver standards — a national rating scale developed by the United States Green Building Council to encourage more sustainable buildings.
Despite his background in energy, Mitchell said he has always been fascinated by astronomy and physics.
“The study of physics is an essential part of a good science education,” he noted.
“I have always had a special interest in physics. I believe that the physics program at Texas A&M will continue to foster important research and attract outstanding students and faculty from all over the world. I hope these buildings will provide an innovative and inspiring atmosphere for students and faculty to study, teach, research and enjoy the many exciting challenges of physics.
“Many things will come out of these buildings in the next 50 years that will surprise us all,” added Mitchell, who is widely admired for his vision.
Mitchell, a 1940 distinguished petroleum engineering graduate of Texas A&M, and his wife Cynthia are among the most financially supportive benefactors in the school’s history, including a total of more than $52 million to physics alone since 2002. Their gifts include funding for nine academic chairs and professorships in physics; the George P. Mitchell ’40 Tennis Center; and substantial funds for Texas A&M’s partnership in the Giant Magellan Telescope, now being built in Chile. When the telescope is finished, it will be among the world’s most powerful astronomical instruments.
In addition, the Mitchells have been major contributors to Texas A&M at Galveston, the university’s marine-oriented branch campus, donating the 135 acres of the school’s main campus that carries his father’s name.
Michael D. McKinney, chancellor of The Texas A&M University System, said the Mitchells’ gifts “will place Texas A&M on the leading edge of great work in a host of fields, from collaborative efforts in the field of astronomy that are putting Texas A&M in the middle of building advanced telescopes, to extraordinary work with lasers and imaging technology, to research at the atomic and nuclear level.
“The most recent evidence of a program on the rise is the successful engagement of 1996 Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr. David Lee for his work in the field of low-temperature physics. He joins another Nobel Prize-winning scientist among the Texas A&M faculty, Dr. Dudley Herschbach.”
James Wilson, vice chairman of The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents, noted, “It is fair to say Texas A&M has one of the 10 best physics departments among public universities in the country, and the best is yet to come. These buildings, and the state-of-the-art laboratories and classrooms they contain, will be a catalyst for developing the next generation of scientists who will be inspired by the expertise they find within these walls.”
The buildings were designed by Michael Graves & Associates, a firm that has won more than 175 awards. Graves has been architect since 1964 and also taught at Princeton University for 40 years and noted that the “projects here went very smoothly, which is unusual because they are so large and complex. I am delighted at the final result,” he said, making particular reference to a 102-foot long Foucault pendulum in the lobby of the Mitchell Institute that vividly demonstrates the Earth’s rotation with every swing of the pendulum’s arc.
Dean of Science H. Joseph Newton recalled, “About three and half years ago, many of us stood on this exact spot for the groundbreaking of this great facility. I am told by those involved that an unprecedented team effort took place to get to this moment today, and while construction was going on, Texas A&M began to establish an outstanding astronomy program, one that we believe will become one of the nation’s best.”
Edward S. Fry, head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said the Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy has developed a unique partnership with The University of Texas at Austin. “George Mitchell helped us build that relationship with The University of Texas because of their academic reputation but also because they could help with a matching gift, which did happen,” Fry noted. “Because of George’s vision, our relationship with The University of Texas is now a great partnership.”
Three professors who will teach and conduct research in the new buildings praised Mitchell. Marlan Scully, director of the Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering, told the audience that because of Mitchell’s gift, “Texas A&M now stands for Atomic and Molecular.”
Christopher Pope, director of the Mitchell Institute, said, “George Mitchell has given us the tools. Now it’s up to us to finish the job.”
Nicholas Suntzeff, director of the Texas A&M astronomy program, added that because of “George Mitchell’s gift, we are now literally able to reach for the stars.”
Read about additional building details and project background in the dedication advance.