As a young student in Vienna in the 1940s, Manfred Steiner discovered something: Physics was absolutely wonderful. He was fascinated by the precision of laws that could be applied to the tiniest or the most enormous of scales – from the inside of an atom to the vast reaches of space – and took every class he could.
But in the turbulent years after the devastation of World War II, his mother and uncle advised him to pursue a more practical career.
It made sense. And he did it. All the while, even amid the intensity of medical school at the University of Vienna, he was still drawn to physics. Just across the street from his anatomy and pathology classes was the institute where theoretical physics was taught. “I quite often sneaked across to go to the lectures there,” he said.
The fascination remained, through decades of a demanding academic career – along with a determination to chase his real dream one day.
He defended his thesis in September and, at 89, finally became a physicist. Now 90, “he says he’s just getting started,” said Brad Marston, a professor of physics at Brown University.
He stood out in class, Marston said – someone in his mid-70s tackling graduate-level quantum mechanics.
“It’s very affirming,” said Jim Valles, also a professor of physics at Brown. “He had this enormous career before he even started doing it and came to this because he was so interested – and leaned as hard into it as he possibly could.”
“Manfred really believes, just deep down, in the pursuit of knowledge,” Valles said. “It’s inspiring to see.”
It’s also puzzling.
“It’s truly remarkable,” Valles said. “I don’t know how he has the brain power. He’s doing theoretical physics. The concepts and the mathematics are deep – they are deep.”
Marston hesitated before agreeing to advise Steiner’s dissertation, he said. At least one colleague had already declined. He knew Steiner had had a distinguished career in medicine and published many papers, so he had a realistic understanding of what he was taking on.
But launching on theoretical physics long after retirement? “I didn’t have any expectation, really,” Marston said, “that he would finish.”
It is easy to imagine Steiner would no longer be able to make the intellectual leaps required in the field, Valles said, and be imaginative in new ways. “Our brains kind of get wired in a certain way after a while,” he said, adding, “At least that’s what it feels like sometimes.” Maybe picking up an entirely new field later in life is a good way to tap into little-used corners of the brain, he mused. “Maybe there’s more play space in there than you think, because you’ve entered a different realm.”
Steiner earned his medical degree in 1955, then went to the United States, where he finished his training in internal medicine at what is now MedStar Washington Hospital Center. There he met his future wife, an anesthesiologist from Scotland, and told her he would really like to be a physicist.
“Maybe at some time when I am finished with my medical career, I will look into physics,” he said he told her back then. “I will take up physics if I can.”
He had a traineeship in hematology, eventually earning a doctorate in biochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1967. He was a hematologist at what is now the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University for many years, ultimately leading the section for nearly a decade until nearing retirement in 1994.
And he read about physics.
Then a friend persuaded him to launch a research program in hematology in North Carolina. He was there for about five years – and took undergraduate courses in physics in his spare time.
“Then I came back to Rhode Island,” he said. “And I said, ‘Now is the time to fulfill my lifelong wish.'”
He was accepted at MIT, but the daily commute from Rhode Island was too much in his 70s.
So he began taking classes at Brown, just one or two a semester.
Steiner is a gentle, thoughtful presence, self-effacing, with a sense of humor, colleagues said. “People with his accomplishments often aren’t humble,” Marston said.
Steiner went to the seminars and the colloquia, absorbing everything, enjoying it. It was strange but wonderful to work through the problems.
“It was fascinating to me,” he said. “It was a joy to do it.”
Sometimes his wife teased him when he would go to do his homework. She was always supportive, he said, telling him, “Do it, do it – fulfill your dreams.”
Still, “over time, my age caught up with me,” he said. He had to take time off for medical problems, some of them quite severe, and treatments.
As soon as he could return to his studies, he did. In 2007, he was admitted as a PhD candidate.
He chose condensed-matter physics. Although he was fascinated by astrophysics and continued to follow the literature on it, “I had to be practical,” he said. “I could not hang on to impossible dreams.
“Dreams, yes – but if they are realizable.”
He recognizes that now sometimes terms escape him or he can’t put a name to a face right away. But his focus remains intense.
The best moments were when things crystallized and he suddenly understood a problem that had been vexing him. “The ‘Eureka!’ moments,” he said. “I had quite a few.”
This fall, he successfully defended his dissertation, “Corrections to the Geometrical Interpretation of Bosonization.” Steiner is working on a paper for publication, will be awarded his PhD in February and is hoping to continue work and research in the field.
“I am really on top of the world,” he said, calling this doctorate the sweetest of all, “the one that I most cherish because it’s the one that I was striving for my whole life.”