Nov 12, 2021

Physics Student Earns PhD At 89 Years Young


Last month, Dr Manfred Steiner achieved what he had always wanted: his PhD in Physics. That’s a great achievement in itself, though it's even more impressive when you consider that Steiner is 89 years old. 

“It’s an old dream that starts in my childhood,” Steiner, who taught and then studied at Brown University, said in a statement. “I always wanted to become a physicist. I knew physics was my true passion by the time I graduated high school. But after the war, my uncle and my mother advised me to take up medicine because it would be a better choice in these turbulent after-war years.”

Dr Steiner, who was born in Vienna, indeed had a long career in medicine where he earned an MD and a PhD. Throughout his illustrious medical career, his passion for physics never waned and when he retired in 2000, Steiner began to attend undergraduate lectures, first at MIT and afterward at Brown University, where he enrolled as a special student.

Steiner did not set out to earn a third graduate degree. He wanted to do something to keep his mind sharp, taking one or two classes per semester, but by 2007 he had completed all the requirements to enter graduate school and he was then admitted to the PhD program. Searching for a dissertation adviser, he approached condensed matter theorist Brad Marston, who said he was a bit skeptical at first of having a septuagenarian as a student.

“[T]o be honest, I was skeptical because people do not usually do physics, especially theoretical physics, at an advanced age," Marston said. "But in a moment of weakness, I agreed and said ‘yes.’ I knew his story, and I was very sympathetic to his desire to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a physicist.”

But Marston did not give Steiner the kid-glove treatment when it came to his PhD topic. He had Steiner tackle the complex issues of Bosonization. The fundamental particles of the universe can be divided into two broad families depending on a quantum property called spin. There are the fermions such as quarks, electrons, neutrinos, etc and there are bosons such as photons, gluons, and the very famous Higgs boson.

In some rare circumstances, you can treat a fermion like a boson – this is known as bosonization – which is usually done as a one-dimensional problem. Marston and his late colleague Tony Houghton looked at those circumstances in two- and three-dimensional scenarios. They encountered limitations in their approach and it was up to Steiner and his PhD to move past them. 

Steiner and Marston are now working on publishing part of his dissertation findings and Steiner will soon go from one of the oldest PhDs in physics to one of the oldest published physicists.   

“I am really on top of the world,” Steiner said. “This Ph.D. is the one that I most cherish because it’s the one that I was striving for my whole life.”

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