Professor Chung-I Tan: Over Fifty Years at Brown Physics

Chung-I TanThe Physics Department celebrated the career of Professor Chung-I Tan, who retired this fall after a career at Brown Physics that spanned over fifty years. The Brown Faculty Club was packed with those who came to congratulate Professor Tan on his retirement.

Humbled by the kind words of those who gave tribute to him, Professor Tan expressed his deep appreciation for the event and all the attendees present to wish him well. He said it “seemed like just yesterday” that he and his wife, Corinne, arrived in Providence in 1970.  They thought Providence a strange place, where their search for a “nice Chinese meal” brought them to a corner of Providence known as China Wall – not for the eating establishments, but for the number of Chinese laundries in the area.

A self-described “physics gypsy,” Professor Tan describes feeling “bonded together by some mystical forces” with other physicists who, like the physics conferences that move from one exotic location to another, follow the road where physics takes them. Professor Tan and Corinne were also grateful to have bonded with an extended family “tied together through this institution called Brown.”

Professor Tan was “deeply moved” by the crowd gathered at his retirement party, folks from physics, the larger Brown community, and outside of Brown. He says he will miss the close, informal interactions with colleagues, staff and students and fondly remembers former staff Sara Tortora and Mary Ann Rotundo.

Chung-I Tan (Left) with former department manager Sara Tortora
Chung-I Tan (Center) with George Seidel (Left) and Mike Kosterlitz (Right)


Chung-I Tan (Left) with former department manager Sara Tortora
Chung-I Tan (Left) with former department manager Sara Tortora

Among the more memorable events Professor Tan remembers over the years is initiating the "annual degree days," where past graduates, undergraduates and graduates return to Brown for a weekend reunion. This event was unfortunately stopped, in part, due to Covid. He recounts a lasting "accomplishment" of his, convincing the Engineering School to re-organize room space for both the third and fifth floors to yield space for Physics. He recalls that this was a challenging project that he credits with contributing significantly to the Department of Physics, forming a more coherent department. He also fondly remembers the opportunity to get to know physics benefactors Joyce and Warren Galkin in his many interactions with them over the years.

Speaking about the role of faculty throughout one’s career, Professor Tan reflected that “As a physics faculty, we all began our career at Brown balancing our efforts between teaching and research. As one moved up and became a more senior faculty, one began to spend increasingly more time caring for the department's welfare. Our ultimate role at Brown is to serve as teachers of physics. Our preoccupation has always been finding a better way of explaining abstract physics concepts to others.”

Working under 11 department chairs over the years, Professor Tan came to Brown under Bob Beyer, then Art Williams, Phil Stiles, Bob Lanou, Charles Elbaum, Tony Houghton, and David Cutts. After serving his term as department chair, Professor Tan recalls subsequent chairs Jim Valles, Gang Xiao, Meenakshi Narian, and now Vesna Mitrović.

As department chair, Professor Tan consulted with a friend who had become a successful administrator at another school and told him to remember his constituents: faculty colleagues, staff members, and students. These words served him well as department chair, and he fondly remembered former staff who “kept the department running smoothly, dealing with the needs of faculty and students. I am happy to note that the baton has now been passed to Douglas (Wilkie), and the tradition of excellence has continued.”

Professor Tan recalls his graduate students over the years and acknowledges Costas Orginos, now a professor at William and Mary, who attended the retirement party to wish Professor Tan well.  Others with whom he worked closely include Tim Raben (now at Michigan State) and Marko Djuric (now at Goldman Sachs.) John McGreevy, a unique undergraduate who wrote his senior thesis with Professor Tan, is now a professor at UC San Diego.

Professor Tan closed his comments by thanking his extended family members at Brown and “the great love of my life, Corinne. I probably wouldn’t be standing here today without her support and love.”