Paul Halpern is a Ph.D. physicist with expertise in general relativity, complexity, history of physics, the nature of time, and cultural aspects of science. He was recently featured in an episode of the popular television show The Simpsons after writing a book entitled What’s Science Ever Done for Us? What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe. In the episode, Simpsons 20th Anniversary on Ice, Professor Halpern is the man in a lab coat talking about the three headed fish.
Paul Halpern is Professor of Physics and Fellow in the Humanities at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. He received a Ph.D in theoretical physics, a M.A. in physics and a B.A. in physics and mathematics. He was also the recipient of the 2002 Guggenheim Fellowship and in 1996 received a Fulbright Scholarship. He was also awarded Athenaeum Society Literary Award.
SuperScholar was fortune enough to catch up with Professor Halpern to conduct the following interview:
1. Why did you pursue a career in physics? Was there a particular question that intrigued you?
In high school I found that I was good in mathematics but also interested in the workings of nature. I read George Gamow’s excellent book “One, Two, Three, Infinity” and was fascinated by his descriptions of the Big Bang and particle physics. I also enjoyed the physics exhibit at the Franklin Institute science museum. So all these suggested a career in physics.
2. Within physics you’ve focused in different areas (e.g. the nature of time). What have they been? And how might you try to explain briefly your present particular field of interest to someone who didn’t know anything about it?
My main area of study has been the intersection between general relativity, describing how gravity is represented by the warping of space and time, and complexity, showing how deterministic systems can display seemingly random behavior. My dissertation was on chaos in general relativity. I’ve also looked at higher dimensional cosmologies, literature and science, and the history of physics. Finally, I’ve written 12 popular science books about subjects ranging from the nature of time to planets beyond the solar system.
3. What both excites and frustrates you about doing physics?
I’m excited how close we are to developing a theory that encompasses all the known forces, but frustrated how, as we approach the answer, fundamental physics has become extraordinarily more complex through the introduction of string theory which has myriad possible models.
4. What characteristics do you believe help people succeed in your field?
I think physicists need considerable focus and either strong mathematical abilities for theorists or superb technical and computer skills for experimentalists.
5. Now that you’ve been doing physics for some time (how many years has it been?), what was the biggest misconception you had about it before you got into it? And what do you think others misunderstand about your field?
I’ve been in the field of physics for 23 years. My biggest misconception before getting into the field was that it would be possible to tackle and solve many major problems in different subdisciplines. However, in reality, physics has become so specialized that few people can move from field to field and get much accomplished.
6. Who are some of the current leading figures in physics?
In my own area, general relativity, these include Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, Kip Thorne, George Ellis, Lee Smolin, Paul Steinhardt, George Smoot, Michael Turner, Alan Guth, Andrei Linde, and many others.
7. Do you have any advice for young students just getting into physics?
I would advise them to learn as much math and computational skills as possible.
8. What do you think of as the most interesting problems in physics today?
Discovering the true nature of dark matter and dark energy, the elusive substances that together make up around 95% of the cosmos, are two vital questions. The vital aspect of the question is their importance to understanding unseen forces in the universe.
9. Are there any recent papers or books or new ideas in physics that you’ve found particularly noteworthy?
I would highly recommend Graham Farmelo’s new biography of the physicist Paul Dirac, who was an inspiring figure.
10. What kind of impact do you think your research will have in physics or in other fields of research or in society as a whole?
I’m not sure about the impact of my research, but I hope that my books help inspire young people to pursue careers in science.
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