Instruction in physics was first offered at the University of Nevada in 1887, followed by the formal organization of the Physics Department as an academic unit in 1907. A Ph.D. program in physics was established in 1961, with additional options initiated in atmospheric physics in 1968 and chemical physics in 1992.

Traditionally, as part of a land-grant university, a major component of the Physics Department's instructional mission has been to underpin the other sciences, mathematics and engineering. The implementation of the university's core curriculum in the 1990's broadened that mission and marked a period of substantial growth, particularly of the Department's research enterprise. A milestone in the development of the Physics Department was the dedication of the Nevada Terawatt Facility by Senator Harry Reid in 2000.

The physics department at The University of Nevada is a small department by enrollment but operates a large enterprise in terms of research and "service" education for engineering and other science departments. Currently with 16 teaching faculty and 16 research faculty, approximately 30 undergraduate majors and approximately 50 graduate students, the department is one of the leaders of the university in external grant funding and teaches hundreds of students from other disciplines every semester. In addition the department has a continuing collaboration with the Desert Research Institute's atmospheric sciences program which grants advanced degrees in Atmospheric Physics through the physics department and is currently developing an atmospheric physics track BA degree through the physics department. The department is proud of the fact that students at all levels are encouraged to become involved in research and many undergraduates have publication before graduation.