Leaving a Legacy: Dr. Burns

From dotted lines, grokking, beasties, and weenies; the Burns is an iconic teacher at WCI who has over, many years, inspired countless students with his passion for the maths and sciences. Dr. Michael J Burns is a long time teacher at WCI retiring this year. Keep reading to learn more about the man who shaped the WCI math and science departments to what they are today.


So let’s start before all the teaching, what was your career journey like before becoming a teacher here at WCI?

At first, it was mostly academic but then I got involved with a company. You may have heard of it called NASA? The Canadian government was in the process of launching telecommunication satellites and since I was a Canadian and I did my Ph.D. in gravity, specifically in black holes (but of course the government doesn’t know the difference between them). They needed a Canadian who would be launching and placing satellites in the right orbit so I got to work at NASA placing satellites so they wouldn’t interfere with other satellites from other countries. So at first, it all started with a total academic education but then got applied with practically launching satellites dealing with NASA

Before all of this, where did you grow up?

I grew up in Stratford and graduated high school at about 16 and then left home and went to Toronto to U of T. Then did an undergrad in Toronto and then and ran into, during the undergrad sessions, a guy by the name of Carl Sagan on a series called “Cosmos”. The got me really hooked into astronomy at that point. So I applied and got accepted into Berkeley. Then did most of my education there. But yes I grew up in Stratford and then at one point lived in Cambridge.

I know Star Trek is an essential part of your childhood and growing up, could you rate these Star Trek Series out of /5?

  1. Next Generation
    Burns Score 4/5 – Not quite a five
  2. Voyager
    Burns Score 3/5 – Only a three
  3. The Original Series
    Burns Score 5/5 – That one be a five
  4. Deep Space Nine
    Burns Score 2/5 – A 2 overall but there were one or two episodes I’d give a five
  5. The Enterprise
    Burns Score 4/5 – Overall I liked the enterprise because towards the end it tied all the series together (but darn series got cancelled by FOX)

What made you decide to become a teacher?

That was actually when I was still under contract with NASA and with the Canadian government. Then the challenger disaster occurred and there was actually a teacher on board during the shuttle launch and the shuttle explodes soon after takeoff. Since a teacher was onboard, most Canadian and American schools were watching it live so they needed individuals to talk to high schools, elementary schools, universities, colleges about what happened. I was in charge of doing the Canadian schools. When I was doing the talks and explanations, it was the high school students who took it seriously. The college students were too busy thinking about themselves, but high school students asked “What went wrong?” and “What could we do to fix this?” and “This shouldn’t happen again” and again that got me hooked. These are the type of kids who have the drive to want to make a change and so I decided “Hey”. I was actually thinking of going to med school, I’ve done all the stuff I could do so I asked “What else am I going to do?” and I said, “this would be neat!”. I decided to come back to Canada and teach at a high school level.

What was your Ph.D. research?

It was dealing with a new technology, old for you guys, called CCD chips dealing with CCD’s to detect supernovas and special supernovas that were the precursors to a black hole. It was trying to detect the creation of black holes earlier than analog film technology. It allowed having almost real-time searching algorithms in searching for supernovas that would create black holes.

Why is it so important to have a passion for what you teach?

If you don’t it’s just a job.

You need to ”feel” the topic, understand the topic, and always need to stay on top of the topic. You have to because you want to and that what passion is all about. Even though I’m teaching I’m always researching and staying on top of the latest materials. I try to deliver that information to my students in real time as much as I can and that is the most important part of teaching. I always use the word GROK it’s so important to GROK and to feel the topic so you want to explain it to everybody and to the point you want to even talk to everyone on the street about it. That’s what you want to do.

I know mainly teach here at WCI but I know you have your own “side hustles” at Premier Institute and research at Snolabs. Can you describe what you do there?

At Premier Institute I was doing a lot of teaching, so Premier would send me out to do high-end lectures usually to professionals and organizations. I was involved in creating the ISSYP program, the master’s program and events like the Quantum Cosmos. I was involved in creating those things and actually lecturing for them. For me, it’s a way for me to stay in touch with the leading edge material.

Snolabs being involved with a friend who works down there and again Snolabs is a practical application of theoretical science and its Canadian. It gives me the opportunity to stay at the leading edge of practical applications. My own telescope system is part of a series of telescope systems that are involved in looking for supernovas. So I’m still involved in that whole supernova thing. Now the technology is so advanced that the Snolabs will detect the neutrinos very quickly which is a precursor of a supernova so they send coordinates to the series of telescopes, mine being one of them, and we try to get our equipment to be pointing to that location in the sky and try to record the actual supernova occurring in a visual spectrum using CCD chips.

On the topic of passions, what does your shed set up in your backyard look like?

It’s pretty unique, I probably have the largest [setup] in this side [of Ontario], my equipment is bigger than what the University of Waterloo has. I think I’ve got around eleven telescopes in total and two observatories. I used to have three but one of them got taken by the city of air but it was fine, it was too far anyway. Yeah, in my backyard I have a huge dome loft system complete with a warm room, tons of computers, four telescopes systems. Off to the side, I have two other dome telescope systems. I broadcast live all the time and whatever my telescopes other astronomers can see it in real time.

Ok, so Walter Lewin or Michael Burns, who started the dotted line craze?

That would be Walter, I actually knew Walter. I met him when was in California and I believe he was from MIT and he was doing weather balloon satellite launches. He would launch satellites using high altitude weather balloons and he was involved with that. That’s when I ran into him and talked about him about the lines. I’d seen him do that so I just followed his technique. He’s the creator I was not the creator I just use it because I think it’s really cool. Whenever I run into my former students at different levels even at the Perimeter I notice them because they are going like [dotted chalk noise]. You can always tell when the kids have been in my class when they’re on the blackboard doing the dots in the diagrams.

What’s next? What is the plan after retirement?

Which is this year… For sure I want to give back to the community and do some volunteering. For sure to be still involved in the astronomy aspect. Still being on the equipment, recently I received a gift from NASA in the form of a solar telescope. It’s going to be attached to my telescope so I can have my observatory running in the daytime and the nighttime. I’m sure I will be involved in that. I’m going to stay involved in education. There are a variety of aspects I will be involved in from spending time at the David Dunlap Observatory in Toronto to continuing at Perimeter. I’m going to have the opportunity after retirement to visit other astronomical institutions around the world, we have events but it’s hard to make them because it’s during the school year. If it works out I might even come back for some occasional teaching or supply teaching just to come back and keep involved in the school system.