Michael Hofmann Winer is a physics phenom who has won awards and studied how fundamental quasi-particles of sound, called phonons, interact with electrons. His research could potentially be applied to complex electronic materials, such as superconductors.
But first he needs to finish his senior year at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md.
The 18-year-old’s work during two summer internships at the University of Maryland, College Park, flashed into the national spotlight last week, when he was honored as one of the country’s most-promising young science students — one of three top medalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition.
“I think I’m as happy as I’ve ever been,” the Montgomery County student said after he won a $150,000 first-place prize for innovation, based on work he did in collaboration with U-Md. physics professor Victor Galitski and graduate student Justin Wilson.
Winer credited the math, science and computer science magnet program at Montgomery Blair as a difference-maker, too, as well as teacher James R. Schafer, whom he called “one of the best teachers in the universe.”
Schafer, in turn, said Winer is “certainly one of the best students I’ve ever taught.” Schafer said Winer’s talent goes beyond his “incredible” intellect.
“What’s even more impressive is his insight, the way he is able to process information and comprehend even the most complicated of topics,” Schafer said.
National science recognition has become something of a tradition at Montgomery Blair, which has produced 32 Intel finalists since 1999, more than any other school in the country during that period. Thehigh school ranks third nationally for finalists since the competition began in 1942.
The newest Intel achievement created a buzz on campus. “We all know about it, and it’s very exciting,” Schafer said.
While students and teachers cheered his success, Winer spent Wednesday with other Intel finalists — 40 in all, from 36 schools in 18 states. The other top awards went to Noah Golowich, 17, of Lexington, Mass., who won a first-place medal for basic research, and Andrew Jin, 17, of San Jose, Calif., who earned a first-place medal for global good.
Winer said he was thrilled about the group’s invite Wednesday afternoon to see President Obama at the White House. At age 11, he worked briefly on Obama’s campaign.
“I’m a great fan of his,” he said.
Winer, from North Bethesda, has been accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cal Tech and is awaiting word from Harvard, he said. His award of $150,000 will help pay for college, he said.
In a biography for a national physics competition, Winer wrote: “I’m a person who likes his textbooks long, his equations short, his bagels well-done, and his meat medium-rare. I am one of the happiest people I know.” He said he started life as a math person and became a physics person after “a series of happy coincidences.”
Galitski said the teen’s research, in quantum condensed matter physics, could lead to a better understanding of quantum matter and thus contribute to the development of a new generation of electronic devices. He said that after assigning the teenager problems and supervising his work, he concluded Winer was extraordinary.
“I have supervised many students, and I have never heard about anybody reaching this high level of understanding of advanced physics so early in life,” he said.
Winer said that he first embraced physics in sixth grade, when he began using it “to get good at video games.” (He recalls: “It helped me in some games, not in others.”) His father, Ken Winer, is a lawyer and his mother, Emily Hofmann, is a computer scientist. Winer has a 16-year-old sister, Jessica.
None are deep into physics.
“I learned my physics watching the Big Bang Theory,” his mother, Emily, joked.
Winer’s mother said his talents were visible early, recalling his love of doing algebra problems on family vacations during elementary school. She said he has thrived at Montgomery Blair, where he has been involved in physics, math and science bowl teams.
Winer was a silver medalist at the 2014 International Physics Olympiad, where he was the top-scoring U.S. student on the theoretical exam.
The family was “ecstatic and shocked” by his first-place Intel award. “I’ve always known he was a very talented kid and a very able kid, but this is a whole other level,” she said.
His teacher, Schafer, described Winer as student of great humor and deep passion for physics. “He brings a lot of enthusiasm and energy into it,” Schafer said. “He likes it, he gets it. He wants others to like it and get it too.”
In Winer’s free time, he writes science fiction and fantasy on a blog, most recently telling a tale involving a sorcerer named Dragoneyes who tries to find the true nature of things.
As Winer spoke of his big win late Tuesday night, he was still in the thrall of an unimagined moment.
“It’s definitely the biggest honor I’ve ever had,” he said.
When his name was called, he said, “I was really surprised. I stood up and smiled for the cameras and tried not to faint.”