By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
An 89-year-old retiree has fulfilled his dream of becoming a physicist. Manfred Steiner of Rhode Island earned his PhD in physics after defending his dissertation at Brown University in Providence. Physics governs nearly everything we do.
A Rhode Island resident, Manfred Steiner, recently earned a PhD in physics, which he said was the realization of a lifelong dream. In his youth, he was encouraged by family to pursue medicine, and he obtained a degree from the University of Vienna in 1955. He enjoyed a successful career in medicine, focusing in hematology, until his retirement in 2000. He then chose to pursue physics academically.
Why does physics fascinate Steiner so much? In the video series Physics in Your Life, Dr. Richard Wolfson, the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics at Middlebury College, said that physics plays a major role in our everyday lives and is present in nearly every activity in which we’ll ever partake.
There are several different kinds of physics and all of them are related. Two more recent subjects of study are relativity and quantum physics, but so-called “classical physics” was developed and fully understood before the year 1900.
“Classical physics completely explains how an airplane flies, so if one of the things you did today was to fly in an airplane, that is completely governed by classical physics,” Dr. Wolfson said. “When we landed rovers on Mars and explored the surface of Mars, it was the laws of classical physics that told us how to get the spacecraft to Mars, how to land it on Mars, how to roll it around Mars, and all of the other things it did.”
Finally, he said, when you put on the brakes in your car on an icy road, but you safely stop anyway because of the antilock brakes in the vehicle, classical physics dictates how the brakes work and how they stop the car. The first area that classical physics studies is mechanics, which is defined as “the study of motion,” or how and why things move.
“Classical mechanics typically involves an introductory physics course, things like throwing a tennis ball, throwing a baseball, firing a cannon, and so on,” Dr. Wolfson said. “Classical physics, classical mechanics, goes a lot further than that. Down toward the atomic level, it doesn’t quite get to the point of explaining individual atoms, but in many cases, it explains the motions of individual molecules.”
Classical mechanics involves subjects like how gases move, which may not seem exciting until one considers that that also means stars, how stars assemble into galaxies, and how galaxies assemble themselves into groups of galaxies.
Another area of classical physics is electromagnetism, which came from a number of experiments dating as far back as the ancient Greeks and continued to coalesce from the 17th to 19th centuries.
“By 1864, electromagnetism had come together as a single field,” Dr. Wolfson said. “The equations or laws—there are four of them that describe electromagnetism—were at that point completely understood. In the 1860s, James Clark Maxwell put those four equations together and gave us our complete classical understanding of electromagnetism.
“It was Maxwell whose ideas also led to one of the most stunning discoveries in all of physics: The discovery that the nature of light is also of an electromagnetic nature.”
Light, radio, television, the microwaves that cook in a microwave oven, police radar, ultraviolet rays, and X-rays are all explained with electromagnetism because they’re each fundamentally electromagnetic waves.
Whether the newly graduated Manfred Steiner, PhD, is most taken by classical physics—from classical mechanics to electromagnetism and optics and beyond—or newer branches of physics like relativity, it’s easy to see the cause of his wonder.