Faculty profile: Ethan Vishniac

By Jane Christmas, December 4, 2007

    Ethan Vishniac is a professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. Photo by Susan Bubak.
It's hard to know where to begin with Ethan Vishniac, the newest addition to the Department of Physics & Astronomy: Within a few minutes, his conversation having ricocheted off a number of topics, you discover that he is also the editor of The Astrophysical Journal; that the Vishniac Instability (a phenomenon whereby a thin slab bounded by shocks on both sides will be subject to a nonlinear instability) is named after him; that the Vishniac Crater on Mars is named after his father, Wolf, who was an eminent biologist; that acclaimed photographer, Roman Vishniac, was his grandfather; that the Vishniac clan's geneology includes a multidenominational assortment of believers and non-believers; and that Charlemagne and Woton, King of the Gods, are among his ancestors.

Shock waves and magnetic fluids are his area of academic expertise, but Vishniac, it becomes clear rather quickly, is a person whose active mind enjoys poking into a vast and diverse number of topics.

News of his move from Johns Hopkins University to McMaster University this past August elicited as much delight at the University as did news of the appointment of his wife, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, to the position of provost.

There are synergies between Vishniac and the Department of Physics & Astronomy that excite his colleagues, exemplified in words from John Capone, dean of the Faculty of Science.

"Ethan Vishniac's innovative academic vision, his significant research accomplishments, and his progressive academic literary responsibility as editor-in-chief of The Astrophysical Journal complement both the Department of Physics & Astronomy and the Faculty of Science as a whole," said Capone. "Attracting an individual of his calibre is a wonderful and unexpected opportunity that will benefit our research and our students."

For the last year, Vishniac has been at the helm of The Astrophysical Journal, a prestigious international journal founded in 1890 at the University of Chicago. Vishniac is only the third editor since its inception.

While the journal has changed homes (after Chicago, it was based in Arizona and Baltimore before moving to Hamilton) it will also change publishers. The Astrophysical Journal will be published by the Institute of Physics in Bristol starting with the first issue in 2008 though it will remain at the University of Chicago Press's website at www.journals.uchicago.edu/ApJ until technical issues are worked out.

"It's a terrific journal," says David Venus, chair of Physics & Astronomy. "It's the sort of journal that will focus a lot of international attention on the Faculty of Science and on McMaster University."

From both a professional and personal standpoint, moving from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore to McMaster in Hamilton is not as big an issue as some might think.

"As an academic, where you are matters somewhat, however, the Internet is great for exchanging comments," says Vishniac. "But sometimes you need the input and interaction from colleagues. At McMaster I can just walk down the hall and talk to someone about what I do, whereas at Johns Hopkins there were fewer people with whom I could do that."

Vishniac, who grew up in Rochester, N.Y., has good first impressions of Hamilton and of Canada: the healthcare system ("You have no idea about the abysmal situation in the U.S.); mass transit ("Much better than in the States: Here, I can hop on the train and see my colleagues at the University of Toronto."); politics ("It's hard being an American these days."); and Hamilton ("In many ways, downtown Hamilton is going through the same problems as many other city downtowns in North America," he says. "But it is a lot nicer than downtown Rochester or Baltimore.")

Naturally, his colleagues in astronomy are eager for him to explore places a little farther afield in the galaxy.

"We're really excited about him being here," says Venus. "His expertise in magnetohydrodynamics and other areas of galaxy and star formation will be a tremendous asset to our ongoing research in astronomy."