Tim Softley

Currently a Professor of Chemical Physics and a Tutorial Fellow at Merton College, I have been a member of the Chemistry Faculty at Oxford since 1990, Head of the Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory (PTCL) from October 2010, and then Head of the Department of Chemistry from July 2011. I grew up in Norwich and was educated at a comprehensive school there. After reading Chemistry at Wadham College, Oxford I moved to Southampton for a PhD (with Alan Carrington), Stanford University in California for a period of post-doctoral research (with Dick Zare), and then Cambridge University as a Royal Society research Fellow. I am married with two children, and live in Oxford.


My scientific research interests lie at the boundaries of chemistry and physics, very much in the realm of curiosity-driven pure science. I like to design new experiments to study chemical processes in physical regimes where little is known about the fundamental behaviour.  At the moment my two principal interests are ultracold chemistry – how the physics of chemical processes change when the molecules are moving very slowly– and Rydberg molecules at surfaces – using lasers to produce quantum states of molecules in which one electron is very loosely bound and finding how this changes their behaviour when they interact with the surface of a solid.

The Softley group experiments in these areas are currently unique on the world stage. There are about 16 people in the group, which is based in the new Chemistry Research Lab at Oxford. Our lab contains 10 separate laser systems and 5 high vacuum systems for experiments.  Members of the group are also engaged in theoretical calculations and simulations to support the experimental work and predict outcomes. This strong link between theory and experiment is a key part of our research.


In 2003 I led a review of the Chemistry Course at Oxford which made a number of recommendations for the course's future. This involved considering our courses very carefully and developing our teaching with the student perspective as the starting point.

As a teaching Fellow at Merton College since 1990, and Senior Chemistry Tutor there, I teach across the full range of physical chemistry in years 1 to 3. I believe that the Oxford tutorial system provides students with a unique experience: what sets it apart is that our real purpose is to show students how to develop the confidence and ability to think for themselves, and understand concepts in depth, not just to hand out ready-made information.

Oxford must work to attract the top science students from the UK and overseas. The stimulating and exciting education we offer will inspire all our students - some to become the next generation of internationally leading scientists, and some to be leaders and innovators in a wide range of other professions. 

Roles in the University

From 2006-2011 I was Associate Head of Division (Academic) in the Maths, Physical and Life Sciences (MPLS) Division of the University. I took the lead in educational policy and strategy development for the Division, which potentially affects over 3300 science undergraduates and 1600 postgraduates. I was also a member of the University Council for 7 years 2004-2011.

Molecular Physics

As an Editor of the journal Molecular Physics, I take submissions in areas of experimental chemical physics, including molecular spectroscopy,  and chemical dynamics .  Molecular Physics has a very well-established international presence and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008. I am working to encourage more submissions in the journal’s traditional areas of strength, and investigating new areas, such as ultracold molecules, and single molecule microscopy.

Other interests

Classical music and sport are my twin passions. I am a member of the Oxford Bach Choir and the Choir of Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry, and play the oboe. I have been a strong supporter of the recent introduction of choral scholarships at Merton College. As well as playing tennis at Oxford Sports LTC. I am a regular team player for the club in the Oxfordshire and Thames Valley Leagues. Other activities, when I have time, are 'friendly' football with the Headington Athletic Football club, and running.  As well as being a lifelong supporter of Norwich City Football Club, I watch Oxford United games - despite their lowly status. For pure relaxation I love walking in the mountains, and never miss an opportunity to find a mountain to climb when travelling abroad.


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