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He always wanted a Ph.D. in physics. He finally earned it at 89

Manfred Steiner, 89, recently earned his Ph.D. in physics from Brown University.
Nick Dentamaro
Brown University
Manfred Steiner, 89, recently earned his Ph.D. in physics from Brown University.

Manfred Steiner had a successful and productive career as a doctor, helping generations of medical students learn about hematology. But all along, he had a nagging feeling he should be doing something else: studying physics. At age 89, he has finally fulfilled that dream, earning his Ph.D. in physics from Brown University.

"It's my third doctorate, but this one I really cherish a lot. That I made it — and made it at this age," said Steiner, who is weeks from turning 90, in an interview with NPR.

"I am really on top of the world," Steiner said in a news release from the college, as it announced his successful defense of his dissertation (title: "Corrections to the Geometrical Interpretation of Bosonization").

A love for physics took hold at an early age

"I always had this dream: Gee, someday I would like to become a physicist," Steiner told NPR.

Steiner grew up in Vienna — and his Austrian accent has stayed with him. As he noted, "My students at Brown usually said, 'He talks like the Terminator.' "

Steiner was a teenager when World War II ended. By then, he was fascinated with physics. On the advice of his family, he decided to pursue a medical career instead. But during his studies in Vienna, physics still tugged at him.

"When I was a medical student in the early '50s, I used to sneak into the physical institute, which was very close by the medical school," he said, "and listen to some talks there because I was so interested in quantum physics, particularly quantum physics, the new stuff at that time."

When asked what it was about physics that he enjoyed, Steiner replied quickly: precision.

"I was always amazed that the laws that go for the quantum area, where you talk about distances of femtometers" — or quadrillionths of a meter — also apply to astronomy, with measures of light years, he said.

"Yet the physical laws exactly were the same, holding for the two extremes," he added, "and that precision really always fascinated me. And of course, I always liked mathematics, which is sort of the language of physics."

Steiner says he's happy to have spent so much of his life in academic medicine. "But in medicine, there are too many variables and, you know, too much imprecision," he adds.

Steiner's medical career blossomed in the U.S.

When Steiner moved permanently to the U.S. from Vienna, he focused on medicine and hematology, training at Tufts University and MIT. He then became a professor at Brown and led the hematology section in the university's medical school.

It was only after Steiner retired from his career in medicine in 2000 that he was finally able to scratch the physics itch. He started taking classes at MIT.

"I had to do a lot of physics classes at MIT" before being allowed to start graduate studies, he said. He transferred to Brown, to minimize his commute.

Steiner worked slowly — he's a grandfather who likes to spend with his family, and health issues have been a concern — but the credits kept piling up. And before long, Steiner was eyeing yet another Ph.D.

"You know, it took a long time," he said. "There were medical problems in between that were very serious. But fortunately, I'm here now and I've overcome these problems."

You can read more on the Brown website about Steiner's dissertation on a prickly problem in theoretical physics: expanding the understanding of bosonization.

The newly minted physicist looks back

Despite fulfilling a long-held dream of becoming a physicist, Steiner says he doesn't regret spending most of his life in academic medicine.

"I was reconciled to the fact that I couldn't do physics, and I tried to make the best of what I could do with medicine, and that was to go into research. I liked research."

He also has some advice to offer: "All the young people, if they have a dream, follow that dream. Don't give up on it." If it doesn't work out, he said, they can go into something else.

"But first, follow your dream."

The physicists who worked with Steiner say his latest achievement is both affirming and inspiring. For his part, Steiner is working on publishing a version of his dissertation (it runs to more than 150 pages), and he wants to continue his research.

"I would like to continue with it as long as my mind says OK, I'm going to do some studies with theoretical physics," he said. "I don't need a lab. I just need a computer, and I need paper and pencil."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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