The space bug first bit Lorne Trottier at about age 12, when he met another boy who built crystal radios and similar “neat things” as a hobby. “I had never seen anything like that before, and soon I was building things myself, and visiting the library to read about technology and science,” Mr. Trottier, BEng’70, MEng’73, recalls. “I was fascinated with the idea that you could understand how complicated electronic devices worked but also how nature and the universe worked.”
While he eventually opted for applied science, completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees at McGill in electrical engineering, and going on to co-found the Montreal-based video graphics company Matrox Electronic Systems, Mr. Trottier never lost his interest in the pure sciences. This was made clear in the fall of 2006 when the University announced the creation of the Lorne Trottier Chair in Aerospace Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering, as well as the Lorne Trottier Chair in Astrophysics and Cosmology in the Faculty of Science.
The chairs are Mr. Trottier’s second major gift to McGill, coming six years after he donated $10-million toward the construction of the Lorne M. Trottier Building, now home to students in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the School of Computer Science. In addition, Mr. Trottier has been funding the annual Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium, in collaboration with the Faculty of Science.
“It’s amazing how much Lorne knows about what’s going on, across all the disciplines,” says Dean of Science Martin Grant. “He breathes science.”
Mr. Trottier explains that sharing his enthusiasm for science and scientific debate was something he had thought about for years. “Lots of scientific issues are contentious. Within the legitimate scientific community, there are real debates about how evolution works, or how climate change will affect the world and what we should be doing about it. I thought it would be interesting to bring these scientific debates to a public audience.”
The first Trottier Symposium, held in November 2005, featured a lively international panel debating strategies for dealing with climate change, while the second edition covered the anthropic principle and the creation of the universe. Despite being held on an extremely cold January evening, the 2007 event filled McGill’s largest auditorium as well as an overflow auditorium with a video feed, and still, hundreds of people had to be turned away. The third symposium, held in October 2007, focused on the origin of life and was met with similar enthusiasm.
With his $12-million endowment for two chairs and graduate fellowships, however, Mr. Trottier is going far beyond spreading the word about the ongoing wonders of science and technology: he is helping to create the knowledge itself. In both Faculties, the chair will help lift research to stratospheric levels. The Faculty of Engineering’s Aerospace Engineering program is strengthening ties with Montreal’s vibrant aerospace industry, and an international hunt is underway to recruit the best candidate for the Lorne Trottier Chair in Aerospace Engineering.
The Faculty of Science, meanwhile, has named Victoria Kaspi, BSc’89, an internationally respected expert on neutron stars, the first holder of the Lorne Trottier Chair in Astrophysics and Cosmology. “The chair’s resources will enable our professors to have an international impact and become world leaders,” says Dean Grant. “It will not only help us to attract new people but also to retain our current team and give pride in the mission.”
McGill’s astrophysics and cosmology program, at only a half-dozen years old, is already arguably the best in the country. “We created this program because we anticipated a convergence of conventional astronomy and high-end particle physics,” says the Dean.
As knowledge and technology develop, physicists are learning how to use the stars as a laboratory to study the characteristics of high-density matter and to improve our understanding of the fundamental laws of physics — work that currently is being carried out in costly earth-bound high-energy reactors. But starting a program from scratch poses challenges. “The key is to bring in a star researcher,” says Dean Grant. To that end, the Faculty lured undergraduate alumna Kaspi from MIT in 1999, and from there built a stellar team of professors, some recently graduated and others with established credentials.
In December 2006, Prof. Kaspi won the Steacie Prize in the Natural Sciences, given annually to a top young Canadian scientist or engineer, and in November 2007, she will receive the Rutherford Memorial Medal in Physics from the Royal Society of Canada, both awards recognizing her important contributions, such as her work investigating the link between pulsars and supernova remnants. The Lorne Trottier Chair in Astrophysics and Cosmology means that this particular star is at McGill to stay, helping provide some long-term stability to this exciting new program.
While professors are important, so are graduate students. “Almost all of McGill’s history of excellent research involves graduate or even undergraduate students,” Dean Grant explains. “For example, almost exactly 100 years ago, when Ernest Rutherford was here investigating the transmutation of elements, he was working closely with Harriet Brooks, who became the first woman to get a master’s degree in physics at McGill.” More recently, in 2006, Prof. Kaspi’s doctoral student Jason Hessels discovered a millisecond pulsar rotating at a record pace of 716 times per second, a finding with important consequences for understanding the physics of ultra-dense matter.
“Other universities have been successful at getting extra funding to attract top students,” Mr. Trottier points out. “If McGill wants the best students, we need competitive funding.” As a result, each Chair designates half of its endowment to supporting graduate students — bringing the best students to work with McGill’s world-class professors.
Lorne Trottier’s enthusiasm for science and technology hasn’t diminished since his boyhood encounter with that homemade crystal radio. At his annual public symposium, Mr. Trottier himself can be found in the front row, among the most eager of McGill students, grilling the expert panel on the biggest questions facing the scientific community today. His recent gifts to research in astrophysics, cosmology and aerospace engineering further reveal that he never lost his wide-eyed enthusiasm for exploring the frontiers of knowledge and the ideas that bring us closer to the stars.