Professor, poet, veteran, family man and friend are all words that describe John Michael Finn.
The College of William and Mary physics professor died of a heart attack Saturday at the age of 63.
He had called in sick Friday, complaining of a stomachache, then early Saturday morning he collapsed and passed away in his wife’s arms.
Finn led a multifaceted life, exploring the nature of the world through the seemingly polar opposite lenses of nuclear physics and poetry. He gave his time to instill knowledge in his students and sacrificed part of his young life to serve the United States in the Vietnam War.
“Mike Finn was a passionate and optimistic person,” said physics professor David Armstrong, who worked with Finn in the Hadronic Physics Group. “He had a passion for science: tackling the hard problems; trying to understand the nature of the universe. … He was passionate about his country. He was passionate about his family, bragging about his children at any opportunity. He was passionate about his friendships and his beliefs. Nothing was partial with Finn.”
The Hadronic Physics Group is composed of four College physics professors and conducts research in experimental nuclear and particle physics.
Armstrong spoke of his research partner and friend with great affection and sadness, a sentiment that echoes throughout the College’s physics community.
Finn received his undergraduate physics degree from Lamar University in 1966, but it was in 1968, while earning his master’s degree from the Catholic University of America, that Finn was drafted into the Vietnam War.
Finn hated the violence of the war and thought the conflict was useless. He often read the graduate physics textbooks he had brought with him on the battlefield, mulling over complicated theories to distance himself from the surrounding violence.
“He told me that studying those horribly hard physics books over there kept him sane,” Armstrong said. “He said he had to deal with something so abstract that did not involve death or dying.”
But Finn did take something positive away from Vietnam.
“My battlefield experience there convinced me that I wanted to do something positive and useful with the rest of my life,” Finn wrote on his personal website.
In 1975, after returning from Vietnam, Finn earned a Ph.D. in physics from Catholic University, married his wife, Kit, and began teaching at the College while assisting in research at the nearby Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. His research consisted of testing the current standard model of subatomic physics, and looking for clues that would better explain the interactions of the building blocks of the universe.
The death of a close friend inspired Finn to put pen to paper for the first time since high school. The resulting poem was read at his friend’s funeral.
“I am a physicist by training, and a poet by accident,” Finn wrote on his website.
Finn then began to write short pieces about his experience in Vietnam, mostly for his children. These poems became his first book, “Flashback, A Journey in Time.” He published another collection of poetry dealing with science, family and the nature of existence entitled “The Butterfly Girl.”
The sudden death of this thoughtful, ardent man has shocked the College community.
Armstrong described Finn’s quantum physics students as “very upset and sad.” This semester Finn had been teaching the second part of what is essentially a two-semester course in quantum physics. The majority of the class had taken the first half of the course with Finn in the fall.
The class was cancelled both Monday and Wednesday of this week.
Physics professor Shiwei Zhang offered to take over the class. Finn left behind his notes, which his wife made available to Zhang.
“Everyone here is just trying to get used to the idea of him not being here,” Armstrong said.
“Things like this make one aware of life’s fragility.”