David Hanna

Physics Professor, McGill University

What is your physics education

What was your physics education?

I got my undergraduate degree at McGill University in Montreal. I originally went to McGill to study architecture but I was required to take engineering-level physics and mathematics courses as preparation for the program. I found that, contrary to my high school experience, physics and math were fun and relatively easy to do. The homework was painless since doing problems was more stimulating than reading long passages of text. Since my dad was a physicist, I knew that you could make a living doing this sort of thing so I decided to study physics, at least at the B.Sc. level.

The following year I switched into Honours Physics and really had to scramble at the beginning. I hadn't realized that part of the ease of first year was that I was taking a 'less enriched' version of the material.

About half way through my undergraduate training I got really interested in high energy physics and started looking around at where the hot places for graduate school would be. I heard about Carlo Rubbia, an Italian physicist who was a professor at Harvard University and a group leader at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. He had experiments going at Brookhaven and Fermilab all of which he had played a major role in designing. I decided to do graduate work in his group. The attraction of spending time in Geneva was, admittedly, part of the reason for this.

I did my Ph.D. thesis work at the CERN Intersecting Storage Rings (ISR), the highest energy proton-proton collider at the time. We were investigating phenomena that could be attributed to hard scattering of quarks inside the protons.

What is was your first job, was it a physics job, did you use your physics background?

How did you get your first job? Was it a physics job? Did you use your physics background?

After getting my Ph.D., in 1980, I was offered a job as a CERN associate, a post-doctoral position available to physicists who are not from CERN member-states. I held this position for two years, working at the ISR but on a different experiment. After the fellowship was over I was briefly employed in the same collaboration by The Rockefeller University and it was during this time that I was offered a post in the High Energy Physics Section at the National Research Council in Ottawa. I moved back to Canada in January, 1983 with a wife, a son and a 20 foot ocean-going container full of household goods, including a piano. I had left Canada in 1975 with a backpack.

While working at the NRC, mostly on preparing part of the The OPAL Experiment for the LEP collider being built at CERN, I managed to compete successfully for a faculty position at McGill. I moved to Montreal with my family in 1985 and, except for two sabbatical years (1992/93 and 1999/2000), I have been here ever since.

My physics interests have evolved over time. I began by doing 'classical' particle physics with big detectors at high-energy accelerators. For example, much of my time at McGill has been devoted to the The ZEUS Experiment at the DESY laboratory in Hamburg, Germany. This project scatters high-energy electrons off protons to learn about the quarks from which the protons are made and to look for exotic phenomena in a new energy range. Recently I have been more interested in pursuing astrophysics questions using the tools and techniques of particle physics. I built and operated an extensive air shower detector for high-energy cosmic rays just after arriving at McGill and more recently have been a member of the STACEE collaboration. This is a small group that does gamma ray astronomy using the large, steerable mirrors of a solar power plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico as part of the detector. The idea of STACEE is to extend measurements of the gamma-ray sky to an energy range where satellite-borne detectors (the normal tools of this kind of astronomy) have no sensitivity.

Memorable physics moments

What was your most memorable physics moment?

I have had a lot of good times doing physics and have enjoyed most of the things I have been involved with. I think the best feelings are associated with bringing up a new piece of apparatus that I have had a hand in designing or building. Often the rough, first measurements with a detector using only an oscilloscope and a notebook are the best since that tells you if the device is going to work.

It's also nice to see students succeed. I like it when people I have helped in one way or another end up doing well in their chosen pursuits. I have enjoyed doing final-year project labs with students at McGill. It's a way to get to know them better and try to inject them with some of the enthusiasm I have for experimental physics.

Courses you wish had been available

Courses you wish had been available...

I took a lot of physics and mathematics courses. The McGill undergraduate program is pretty intense so I had already done some relativistic quantum mechanics and group theory by the time I got to Harvard. The net result is that I only needed one year of course work at graduate school, which was handy for moving to CERN and getting right to work on my thesis experiment. The down side of this is that my physics education has been relatively narrow. I got all the way to a course in relativistic quantum field theory but never got any general relativity, condensed matter or astrophysics. I learned astrophysics while teaching a course to non-physics students, a good way to learn a lot about anything.

Family issues

Family issues?

Since moving back to Canada, I have always needed to commute to where the experiment was. First it was Geneva, then Hamburg and now Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is a mixed blessing. It offers a chance to see different parts of the world and learn new languages and cultures but it is hard on family life. My kids have come with me on some of these trips and have benefited from that but they have also spent many weeks at home without their father. There is no question that the lifestyle associated with the kind of physics I do is not ideal for families but I don't think that this is unique to high energy physics or even to an academic career.


A closer view of one of the 2 metre diameter secondary mirrors and the photo tube array that forms the 'camera'.
The tower on which we have installed our secondary optics and camera, taken from the heliostat field.