Friday, 12 August 2011 13:19

Former Pincher resident receives honorary degree

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By Jamie Woodford
Pincher Creek
Gordon Semenoff is no Sheldon Cooper, the eccentric theoretical physicist on TV’s The Big Bang Theory.
Semenoff is the real deal — a renowned expert on quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, statistical mechanics and string theory — and he was born and raised in Pincher Creek.

The University of British Columbia professor was honoured at the University of Lethbridge with an Honorary Doctorate of Science.

“It was fabulous,” he said. “(U of L) has always been somewhere in my consciousness, and that made it an extra special thrill for me, plus the fact that it is near my hometown.”

In his address to this year’s U of L graduates, Semenoff said he tried to convey two things: to have confidence in their education and to be inspired by their surroundings.

As a student, he never realized he could do just as well as every one else.

“I came from a small place and the University of Alberta isn’t exactly the centre of the world either, so at each level I kind of expected to be behind.”

He added he was most creative while in Western Canada, despite his many travels.

“I don’t know why that is except the inspiring beauty of the place,” he said.

Semenoff attended Matthew Halton High School in Pincher Creek, but at the time science wasn’t in the forefront of his mind.

“I liked to read biographies,” he said. “I remember reading Winston Churchill’s biography.”

He said his interest in physics likely stemmed from a short-lived science program in the early ’60s dubbed “new math.”

“(It) was the North American response to Sputnik,” Semenoff said. “Somehow (it was) decided that there weren’t enough mathematicians, scientists and engineers ... so they tried to make the math that they taught the kids in school more abstract.

“For someone who’s good at it, it was great fun because usually your teachers didn’t understand it, and it was just great fun being able to figure out things the teachers couldn’t.”

The program died off in the ’70s, but Semenoff still remembers some of what he learned in elementary school.

When the time came to go to university, Semenoff was undecided what to study so he started with the toughest subjects first.

“I wanted to keep my options open, and the best way to do that is to start with the most difficult thing because you can always go to the easier thing, but you can’t really go the other way,” he said.

He entered U of A’s math and physics honours program eventually receiving his PhD in theoretical physics.

After spending a year at U of A as a post-doctorate fellow, Semenoff completed a one-year fellowship at MIT and from there he received a fellowship at Princeton University. Around the same time he was offered a position at UBC . He’s held that job since 1986.

In 2010, Semenoff was awarded the coveted Brockhouse Medal for his contributions to the theory of Graphene he researched years ago, but for the last 10 years, string theory has been his speciality.

Semenoff explained there are two sides to string theory. First, as a “theory of everything” — the idea that one can write down the fundamental law that governs everything, which is difficult to prove.

Second is the dynamical system of string theory — “a generalization of the other dynamical systems that we know,” he said, noting it’s essentially been around for hundreds of years.

“Ordinary mechanical objects were an interesting dynamical system for someone like Newton,” he said.

With so many avenues to explore, Semenoff plans to continue his work in the field.

“I think what I have to do will keep me busy for quite a while,” he said.

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