Physics is fun for Dr. Michael Steinitz

 Almost as much fun as running a concert series...

For professor Michael Steinitz, physics is both "the ultimate intellectual activity" and a whole lot of fun.

"To a certain extent, physics is simple and fundamental," he says during an interview at his Science Hall office.

He goes on to explain that physics is the most fundamental of the sciences "...and what defines us as humans is our curiosity... If you're curious you want to go dig for more."

And then there's the "honest" answer of why he chose to study and teach physics:

"I only do physics because they let me play with the toys," he laughs. "I get to go and mess with nuclear reactors."

Dr. Steinitz is referring to his frequent trips to the Chalk River Laboratories of Atomic Energy of Canada and their nuclear reactor where he conducts experiments in neutron scattering.

The other main area of his research work in physics is measuring thermal expansion.

 "If you give me a piece of almost any material and it changes in size by the size of one atom, I can tell. So it's very picky, picky, picky," he explains.

Here at StFX, Dr. Steinitz and a colleague from Israel, with the assistance of physics department machinist, Werner Schnepf, developed the technology to make these measurements at temperatures up to 1,000 degrees.

When asked how this new invention has been received by the physics community, Dr. Steinitz shrugs modestly. "People keep buying them from us," he answers.

Although it's not a commercial endeavor, these purchases mean the devices are now being used in Japan, South Africa, Israel, the United States, and England.

Dr. Steinitz came to StFX in September of 1973, following three years of teaching and doing research at the University of Toronto. He has taught almost every course in the department at some time since then, but his usual workload includes a second year course on electric circuits and a fourth year course in solid state physics, his specialty.

One of the things Professor Steinitz says he likes best about StFX's physics department is that it gets top notch students.

"The payoff is when a student of yours goes to graduate school and you get a call from the chair of the department who says, 'I just wanted to tell you that this is the best graduate student we've ever had'."

He says that kind of praise reflects the brilliance of many graduates of the department.

"Some of the top physicists in North America today are our graduates," he adds. "It makes it all worthwhile."

He says one of the advantages of being in a small school is the individual attention students receive.

"Our kids get a lot of care and feeding," he says.

Another plus is the department's practice of hiring its students for summer research positions.

"They work with us through the summer and they are almost all on a first name basis with faculty," says Dr. Steinitz.

The summer research experience helps students develop as scientists, "...because they get into the dirty work of science relatively early." he says.

Professor Steinitz says he enjoys the opportunity at StFX to teach "at an advanced level with a small class" and then being able to work with even smaller groups of students on summer research projects. He is also pleased with the quality of research work conducted here.

"The physics department at StFX is exceptional in that it truly has a world-class level of research," he says. "This is in strong contrast to other universities of its size. Here 100 percent of the physics faculty have NSERC grants." he explains.

Prof. Steinitz's current research activities relate to the magnetic structure of rare earth elements, among other topics in solid state physics and phase transitions.

He has had 62 articles published in journals of physics research.

Born in Harlem in New York City, Dr. Steinitz grew up speaking German at home. His parents were German refugees. He now speaks four languages and has lectured on physics in German, English, Hebrew and French.

And he still has a fondness for the Big Apple.

"There's an awful lot of great beauty there and an awful lot of sadness - but it's a great place."

The young Michael Steinitz excelled at school and was permitted to take some physics courses at Columbia University at age 15. He spent a summer at Cornell after grade 11 and decided he wanted to pursue his undergraduate degree there. His parents insisted he finish high school first, which he did before enrolling in the Engineering Physics program at Cornell.

He complete the five year program at Cornell in three and a half years, one of which was spent studying at the University of Gőttingen in Germany.

It was during that year in Germany on a scholarship that he met his future wife, StFX's former financial aid officer Heidi Steinitz.

Prof. Steinitz received his PhD from Northwestern University outside Chicago.

In addition to his work in the physics department, Dr. Steinitz has other significant demands on his time.

He was president of the Canadian Association of Physicists for 1998-99, which amounted to a four year term on the association's executive committee. He serves on the boards of directors of Debut Atlantic, the Performing Arts Societies Organization of Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Talent Trust. He also serves on the executive of the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering and on the editorial board of the journal, Physics in Canada.  Recently he complete a three-year term as chair of the board of directors of the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations, a Network of Centres of Excellence funded by NSERC.  He is presently serving a second term as a member of the Board of Governors of St. Francis Xavier University.

And the scientist has another side to him - that of a concert promoter.

As chair of the Antigonish Performing Arts Committee, Dr. Steinitz is involved in all aspects of bringing 8-10 classical performing groups or individuals before an audience in Antigonish each year.

He says this gives him an opportunity to enjoy the music he loves and get to know artists with whom he would not otherwise become acquainted.

"I just love it...The payoff for running the concert series is you get to make other people listen to the music you want to hear," he jokes. For Dr. Steinitz, that's chamber music.

He says the "most wonderful invention" he's ever made is Debut Atlantic, which organizes concert tours in the Atlantic Provinces for excellent new classical performers from across Canada which he dreamed up with a friend, CBC producer Adrian Hoffman, 19 years ago.

Debut Atlantic now has its own office in Halifax with paid staff and Dr. Steinitz remains on its board of directors.

Dr. Steinitz says physics is "almost as much fun as organizing a concert series - but not quite."

Professor Steinitz and his wife have two children: Daniel, who is an orthopaedic surgeon in Montreal, and Susi, a social worker in Halifax.