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Michael Fortner
Michael Fortner


The physics of politics

NIU's Michael Fortner settles into state House

by Tom Parisi

Particle physics and partisan politics – the two would seem to go together like oil and water.

But the differences are relative to NIU physicist Michael Fortner, who now divides his time between the halls of academia and the floor of the Illinois General Assembly.

Fortner was elected in November as state representative of the 95th District, which includes parts of Geneva, Batavia, West Chicago, Warrenville and Wheaton. The former West Chicago mayor was sworn in to his new state office early last month.

While his physics background might seem an unusual pairing with politics, Fortner says the two complement each other perfectly.

“As a physicist, we do a lot of problem solving,” Fortner says. “Particle physicists work with complex situations. We have to winnow our way through competing data and try to figure out the best way to move forward. That happens in politics, too. Also, as a professor at NIU, I deal with a lot of students, faculty members and researchers. Those people skills transfer over.”

Fortner came to NIU as a postdoctoral student in 1987 and began teaching here in 1993.

He serves as a physics department adviser and regularly teaches introductory and upper-level physics courses, though he is working part-time this semester while the General Assembly is in session.

Fortner also is a prominent researcher, having been involved in the discovery of the top quark, a fundamental particle that was abundantly present at the creation of the universe. It had never before existed on our planet until it was created in an experiment at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

For more than 20 years, Fortner has conducted research at Fermilab as a member of DZero, one of two large collaborative experiments that jointly announced the top-quark discovery in 1995. As part of his work with DZero, Fortner built the level-2 trigger system for detection of muons, a particularly interesting subatomic particle that explains, among other things, the license plates on his Ford Explorer, which read “muon2.”

The car he drives to Springfield speaks to his other passion. Its plates read “112,” his ranking number in the Illinois House of Representatives.

“I’ve always really liked being able to use some of my problem-solving skills to help make a better community,” the DuPage County Republican says.

He made his first foray into the public-service arena in 1990 when he became a historic preservation commissioner. Fortner later served as a West Chicago alderman before being elected as the community’s mayor. His background in physics, which relies on complex mathematics, comes in handy when working with government issues.

“People working in government need to deal with numbers, formulas and budgets on a regular basis,” Fortner says. “That’s an area I have a level of comfort in. We also end up dealing with technical issues quite often, such as energy policy. My background in physics and highly technical research at Fermilab is helpful there as well.”

Not surprisingly, education is among his top areas of concern. Fortner recently signed up to become part of a new bipartisan caucus on education, knowing that some lawmakers and Illinois citizens are calling for an overhaul of the system.

“It deserves careful thinking,” says the freshman lawmaker, who’s quickly learning the ropes of the state legislature.

Judging from history, he’ll be a quick study.