COLLEGE PARK – Michael E. Fisher’s white jaw-hugging beard and lack of a moustache give his face an Amish farmer look, but his tweed coat and burgundy ascot are absolutely academic.
Fisher, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, paces with a purpose at the front of a cinder block and linoleum classroom. Relying more on memory than notes, he lectures and chalks formulas onto the blackboard as 15 graduate students listen intently.
It’s been nearly 40 years since Fisher earned his doctoral degree in physics from King’s College of London, and nearly eight since he started teaching at the University of Maryland. Now, the teacher and scientist is being honored with three major awards – for lifetime achievements in physics and chemistry.
“He’s one of the – if not the – most distinguished members of the faculty,” said Stephen Wallace, chairman of the university’s physics department.
Fisher was nominated by his peers to win the Hirschfelder Prize in Theoretical Chemistry, awarded by the University of Wisconsin’s Theoretical Chemistry Institute.
“He’s one of the … most important people in the world in statistical mechanics,” a branch of theoretical science, said institute director James Skinner.
Fisher will also receive the Joel H. Hildebrand Award for the Chemistry of Liquids from the American Chemical Society.
And he’s been told he has won the First Lars Onsager Memorial Prize. It’s being given to Fisher by the American Physical Society and is named for one of his mentors, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry.
“The nice thing about these awards is that it shows that your colleagues appreciate your work,” said Fisher, 63, of Silver Spring.
Fisher’s work involves using statistical mechanics – complex mathematics – to try to understand what happens in the everyday world.
For instance, he said, he researches “phase transitions,” such as how water turns from a liquid to a gas or how it freezes to a solid.
He is especially interested in “critical phenomena” – what happens during certain phase transitions. For instance, when water is heated it reaches a critical temperature – a point beyond which the liquid water and the water vapor become the same and can’t be distinguished from each other.
He has been curious since he was a boy.
“My parents say that when I was a little boy they called me Mr. Why,” Fisher said.
His early propensity to question continued into his adult life, both as a scientist and a father of four.
“If I would go ask him questions about things, he would always answer questions back, which was pretty frustrating,” said Fisher’s son Daniel, now 39. “But it made me think about things.”
Although he was raised in London, Fisher was born in Trinidad, where his father was working as an accountant for Shell Oil during the Depression.
When Fisher was very young his family returned to England. The threat of a Nazi invasion of Britain became a worry during World War II because Fisher’s father had some Jewish ancestors.
Fisher, his sister and mother – a German Catholic – took haven with Jewish relatives in South Africa for two years.
He returned to London for schooling, and earned his college and doctoral degrees from King’s College.
He was encouraged by Onsager, the 1968 Nobel winner in chemistry. Fisher’s adviser at King’s College suggested he write to the chemist about some ideas he had developed, based on Onsager’s work.
“Usually he never answered letters, so I’m one of the proud possessors of a few letters where he answered back,” Fisher said. “It’s quite a short letter, but he said, `that sounds like a very interesting idea.’ ”
Fisher added: “I had a tremendous admiration for him as a scientist. He was kind to me in particular and encouraged me in many ways.”
Fisher’s career brought him and his family to Cornell University in New York during the 1960s. In 1987, he accepted dual appointments in the University of Maryland’s physics department and its Institute for Physical Science and Technology.
Two of his sons, Matthew and Daniel, followed their father into theoretical physics.
Both sons also took a class under the senior Fisher when they were students at Cornell.
“It was a little strange being in his class, but not too much,” Daniel Fisher said, adding that he took the class pass- fail instead of for a grade.
He passed, of course, but his father wasn’t easy on him, said Daniel, now a professor at Harvard University.
Because his father works in the same field, the family name sometimes comes up during Daniel Fisher’s lectures. “I sometimes make a joke of it. I’ll say, `This was done by some other Fisher,’ ” he said. -30-