Prof. Aephraim Steinberg

Driven By The Big Question: “Why?”

This physics professor grew up with science in his blood. But his curiosity and skepticism almost sent him down another path.


Prof. Aephraim Steinberg is a Professor of Physics at the University of Toronto, where he is a founding member of the Centre for Quantum Information and Quantum Control. We asked him everything from why he became a scientist to what’s on his playlist in hopes of giving you a better understanding of what goes on outside the lab for one of the best minds in Canadian research.

What inspired you to become a scientist?
Well, that’s a tough question, because I think science was in my blood from before my earliest memories. Like all children, I always wanted to ask “why?”, and I guess my parents encouraged it. A strong memory for me is when my dad, who was an electrical engineer, explained something to me about electric circuits, and I kept asking about why the electrons behaved the way he was describing.  And what I remember is not all the questions he answered (or even what in the world he was actually trying to teach me at the time), but when I reached a question (I think it had to do with why – he claimed – two electrons couldn’t be in the same place at the same time) to which he had to say “I don’t know” and maybe even (in my vague memory) “I don’t think any one really knows.” Whether he really said that or whether my mind added it later, I think that’s what makes a kid want to do science – not the questions their parents or teachers can answer, but the ones they can’t: and best of all, the idea that there are things out there no one knows…yet!

What advice would you give young researchers?
First of all, always ask questions. Don’t just trust what people tell you – be skeptical, and ask how they can be so sure they’re right. Usually, they are right, but you’ll learn more by digging deep and trying to understand why than by just memorizing. And more often than you’d suspect, they’re just repeating what someone taught them, and somewhere, hidden away, is a little exception that no one has noticed, and one day when someone cottons on to it, it might prove the key to a really exciting new idea! Second, although as a student (and even as a young researcher) there is a lot you just need to trust your mentors on, and a lot of background you need to learn even if you don’t find it captivating at the time, in the end you have to follow your passion. You have to find something where the questions keep you awake at night and where you want to talk to strangers sitting next to you on the bus about what you just figured out. If you’re bored with the problems you’re working on, you’re in the wrong place.

What do you read?
I mostly read literary fiction, although I enjoy the occasional non-fiction book, such as some of Steven Pinker’s and Jared Diamond’s, and have a soft spot for a series of Russian detective novels about someone who is described as halfway between Sherlock Holmes and a 19th-century James Bond.  At the moment, I’m reading Michel Houellebecq’s “Soumission.” As a quantum physicist (especially one with a short attention span), I think it was unavoidable that Borges would be one of my all-time favorite authors.

What’s on your playlist?
A pretty wide range of stuff, centered on classic rock, but including a bunch of classical music, pop, folk rock, world music, jazz and blues, et cetera. Most of it is pretty dated by now, so every now and then I need to download the random free songs promoted by Starbucks just to update it a bit, or use my iPhone to figure out what the cool song playing at some store is and download that. But let’s stay on the science theme and say that I love “Galileo” by the Indigo Girls.

If you could meet any historical figure who would it be and why?
That’s a hard one, and I’d probably come up with a different answer if you asked me on a different day, but I’d like to meet Descartes.  I’m fascinated by “Renaissance men,” by people who made contributions to different fields without seeing any contradiction between their interests in math & science, philosophy & theology, or art; for this reason, I almost said “da Vinci,” but as curious as I would be to find out what that great man was really like, there’s something about Descartes’s courage and his championing of skepticism as a foundational principle that I see as at the heart of all of science.  He was far from the first (I was also tempted by a number of Greek philosophers), but he was important in the creation of modern European thought as we know it, and it would be fascinating to see what the person was like behind that intellectual journey.

If you could do any profession other than your own what would it be?
Hmm, as a student I hesitated between wanting to be a writer and a scientist. At the time, I would have said that the two were equally appealing to me, but only one seemed practical. By now, I no longer think I ever had what it took to be a truly good writer of fiction (which is what I meant at the time), and I wouldn’t want to practice any profession I couldn’t be good at. But if someone hired me to be a travel writer, I might still jump at the chance…