Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 29, No.10

February 10, 2005


Physics program to reopen

By Barbara Black

Concordia’s physics program is once again ready to admit students.

It was shut down in 2001 for a variety of reasons, including inadequate research activity and lack of the culture needed to encourage it.

There were 129 students in the program when it was closed, but to quote chair Mariana Frank, there were also “discord between members of the department and the administration, and deep division among departmental members.”

She added, “It contributed to a negative perception of the department within Concordia that reflected unfairly on the discipline itself.” As a dedicated physicist, Frank found that especially hurtful. Ask her why her discipline is important, and she is eloquent.

“Physics, like any exact science, establishes facts about the world, transcending subjectivity and culturally based knowledge to find a reliable approximation to the truth.

“Our methods, both theoretical and experimental, are essential for tackling important problems of interest to society. Economics, biology and psychology all borrow techniques and concepts from physics. Physics is the underlying theory of chemistry, and biological organisms must obey the laws of physics. All of engineering is based on physics principles.”

A number of solutions to the department’s malaise were tried without success. Frank is candid about how bad things got. “The average age of the faculty is 64,” she said. There were 15 in 1986, when she was hired, and retirements have whittled that down to seven, but hiring has been difficult with the program closed.


“The department needs rejuvenation desperately. Only three faculty members have been hired since 1970. Try matching that anywhere!”

When she was asked to become chair, she says, she felt “like Adam choosing a wife”; in other words, she had no choice. However, the time was right.

“The move to Loyola brought with it a renewed willingness to strengthen sciences at Concordia,” she said. “Perhaps people realized that to build a strong science faculty without physics is like trying to build a strong house without a foundation.

“The Dean also wanted the younger faculty members of the department, Dr. [Panagiotis] Vasilopoulos and I, to assume leadership in the rebuilding process and come up with a plan.

“We asked for opinions of recognized experts in physics and administration in Canada and abroad. I visited successful small departments to find out what worked for them.”

She looks wistfully at McGill, which had a similar problem with its physics department.

“McGill was faced with a weak, divided, struggling department in the mid ’80s, and decided to do something about it, even if the number of undergraduate students in the program did not warrant it. They hired massively. They now have one of the finest departments in Canada, with 45 undergraduates and over 100 graduate students.

“UQAM closed its physics department, and now other departments complain that they miss the courses needed by their students. They lost a pool of highly qualified graduate students for their programs. And they do not have engineering [as Concordia does].”

Frank looked at Concordia’s strengths and the unfilled niches in Montreal and Quebec. She didn’t want to compete with McGill, which had certain advantages, including international cachet and a medical school.


She suggested opening a modernized Physics/Computational stream and an interdisciplinary Biophysics stream, with courses from Chemistry, Biochemistry, Biology and Exercise Science as well as Physics. Another stream, in Applied/Industrial, with inter-faculty collaboration from Mechanical and Electrical and Computer Engineering, is in the works.

“Now is a very exciting period in the development of physics,” Frank said. “Technological advances have made possible the study of artificial atoms, quantum entangled states, planets around distant stars, black holes at the edge of the universe, man-produced or cosmic neutrinos, and cosmic ray particles, each with joules of energy.

“Today’s accelerators are used to probe particles so heavy that they existed picoseconds after the Big Bang, and biological samples and materials with unprecedented resolution in both space and time. The computing power available now allows simulation of things we can study in the laboratory and observe in the universe, as well as explore new regimes.”

If that doesn’t excite some potential students, nothing will. Frank and some volunteers made sure they attended the Jan. 29 open house, and they have been meeting with recruiters to ensure that the word gets out that Concordia’s physics program is once again open for business.