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Steve Nahn | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

A physicist to remember

Well, Peter beat me to it but perhaps I can add a few words to his comments about the passing of Michael Schmidt, with whom I did work for 8 years as a Yale postdoc in his research group. His death is all the more saddening because of the loss of his wife a few years ago and his own young age. By example Michael taught me a lot about how to conduct oneself both as a physicist and a human being.
Michael was a highly respected physicist, for several reasons. First, he was very smart and had a knack for extracting the essence of a physics topic in an incredibly concise but complete way. He just had a way of asking and answering that laid bare the importance of the topic without getting caught up in details and complications. He was also very open and honest, and is recognized as someone the collaboration and even the field of High Energy Physics turned for a thoroughly thought out and impartial judgement.  But Michael never punished you with “it’s obvious” when you weren’t as quick as he was in seeing a particular point, he never played the “see how clever I am” card, but was always patient and gentle in cluing you in on something you didn’t understand before (even when you should have!). In a profession where we are all, shall we say, rather accustomed to being correct, which can lead to rather agitated discourse (read: an educated shouting match), Michael was a physicist of exceptional grace.

Michael led by example – he didn’t just oversee the subsystem his group maintained (The CDF Global Trigger Decision machinery, which is the Central Nervous System of the experiment in fact) but he himself wrote firmware and software for his own piece of this system, struggling right in there with the students and other postdocs with Xilinx firmware compilation and learning Java to make a nice GUI. Typically you don’t expect the boss to be doing the gruntwork, but Michael did his share despite his standing, and for that earned great respect from his coworkers. He did his own shifts in the control room, he would read the papers we had slated for discussion that week, he didn’t expect more out of anyone else than he himself was doing – which was always a lot. When you worked with Michael, you worked hard not because he told you to, but because you wanted to live up to the standard he set by his own example.

Michael was more than just a fine physicist, he was a fine human being. He’d have the group over to dinner if we all happened to be in New Haven, or we’d all go to lunch or dinner around FNAL, to be followed by guitar playing late into the evening. He had a great sense of humor: on his CDF contacts page, under “Other activities”, he wrote “Does guitar playing count?” which you can just hear him saying with a wry smile on his face. A few months ago when it was clear the medication wasn’t really helping and was making his situation essentially unbearable, Michael made the brave decision to choose Quality of Life rather than Quantity, and he ceased his medication and prepared for the consequences. I went and visited him one month ago (October 24th) and physically he was very different, but mentally he was the same Michael. I was nervous, not quite knowing what to say to him, and it was he who comforted me by just talking about what we had worked on together and how my career was going, joking about his proud parents showing off an award he recently won. The same Michael, with grace and dignity, cluing me in on how to understand the big picture.

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