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LIVES LIVED: Seeing the big picture and the tiny brushstrokes

Alec Stewart, was a native of Saskatchewan and studied at Dalhousie and Cambridge universities.

[Alec Stewart]
Dr. Alec Stewart

Alec was lured back to Canada from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1968 as Queen's Head of Physics. The department saw rapid expansion during his six-year headship. His appreciation of all aspects of the department was legendary. Alec saw not only the big picture but all the tiny brush strokes that go to make up the whole canvas.

He nurtured the young people he hired stressing the professorial virtues of dedication to teaching, excellence in research and service to the department, the university and the broader community, while his wife Alta helped to establish the new young families in Kingston and is fondly remembered. The social gatherings hosted by Alec and Alta at their home helped to mold the department into a vigorous community.

His research addressed important questions in physics. Collaboration at Chalk River with Nobel Laureate Bert Brockhouse developed the study of atomic motion in crystals using slow neutrons, and he pioneered the use of positron annihilation as a tool to study condensed matter and as a diagnostic tool in materials science. He was instrumental in organizing the first two international conferences on positron annihilation and he was the first chairman of the International Advisory Committee for Positron Annihilation. He also applied his knowledge to the public interest, including in a Royal Society of Canada study of the safety of nuclear power reactors and the development of emergency response plans, and in the expert panel on the possible risk posed by electromagnetic fields from power lines.

He contributed to the Canadian and international scientific communities through his work with the Royal Society of Canada for which he served as President of the Academy of Sciences, with the NRC and NSERC and with the Canadian Association of Physicists over which he presided. In recognition of his many contributions he was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada in 2001.

Alec and Alta raised three sons – James, Hugh and Duncan. After losing Alta to cancer, Alec married Annabel and together they enjoyed 10 years of happy marriage.

– Malcolm Stott joined the Department of Physics at Queen’s University while Alec Stewart was head of the department. The two worked with together for several years and latterly shared an office.

This article is published in the Sept. 9 edition of the Gazette. Pick up your copy of the newspaper at one of the many locations around campus. Follow us on Twitter at @queensuGazette.