Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Collisions with the Future

The Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful particle-smasher, is now up and running.  Here's a link to an opinion piece I wrote about it that has recently been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Collisions with the Future

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An Extraodinary New Era for Science

This weekend, the Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful particle-smashing machine, started up again. By all reports, everything is working brilliantly. Beams of protons entered the pipes and circulated around the 27-km (17 mile) ring in opposite directions, engaging in a graceful, ultra-rapid ballet. In coming weeks, the first collisions will begin and scientists will start analysing the data that may lead to the discovery of the Higgs boson, supersymmetric companions and other long-sought particles. Truly it is an extraordinary era for science!

For more about the Collider:

Collider: The Search for the World's Smallest Particles

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Interview on

An interview with me by Betsy Mason has been published on

High Energy Particle Physics Demystified

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Galileo's Legacy

By Paul Halpern

Four hundred years ago last week, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei announced the invention of what would be the world’s first astronomical telescope. Although the Dutch had pioneered the telescope, his instrument would be powerful enough to discover the mountains of the moon, four of the largest satellites of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, sunspots and other evidence of the magnificent diversity of the solar system. In short, it would prove most the most cutting-edge instrument of its era—as particle-smashers such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe are today. On August 25, 1609, Galileo presented one of his prototypes to the Venetian legislature, pointed out its military applications, and was promptly rewarded with a lifetime professorship and a substantial bonus.

After months of stargazing and taking careful notes about the features he observed, Galileo arrived at the astonishing conclusion that, contrary to age-old beliefs, there are other worlds in space besides Earth. If people could travel to the moon, he surmised, they could walk upon its surface too. He also verified the Copernican hypothesis that all planets in the solar system, including Earth, revolve around the Sun. By maintaining his belief in the non-uniqueness of Earth, and the capability of science to reveal new facts that supersede prior religious tenets, Galileo was eventually charged with heresy. History has vindicated Galileo, however, and established him as one of the founders of the modern scientific method. The Apollo mission of 1969, celebrated last month for its 40th anniversary, offered tangible proof that Galileo was amazingly prescient in his view of the universe.

The past century has revealed that the solar system and all the stars that speckle the sky are part of an incredibly vast spiral galaxy, itself but a minute part of an immense universe. As the noted American astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated in the 1920s with a huge optical instrument atop Mt. Wilson in California, the galaxies, by and large, are moving apart from each other. This discovery revealed the expansion of the universe. Further evidence gathered from the 1960s until the present day has indicated that the cosmos began in a hot, dense state known as the Big Bang. The wealth of cosmic knowledge gathered through variations of Galileo’s device is truly astounding.

Despite the amazing progress in astronomy our understanding of space is far from complete. In fact, observations made in the mid-to-late 20th century revealed that the visible content of the universe is but a small fraction of all that is out there. In the mid-1960s, astronomers Vera Rubin and Kent Ford engaged in a detailed study of the outermost stars in the Andromeda galaxy and found these to be moving much faster than expected. They arrived at the startling conclusion that invisible material, now known as “dark matter,” was exerting an extra gravitational tug on the stars—like hidden reigns pulling mechanical horses around a merry-go-round.

The situation became even trickier in the late 1990s, when two teams of astronomers, studying the energy profiles of exploding stars, or supernovae, in very distant galaxies, determined their distances and speeds, and discovered that the universe has been expanding at an increasingly rapid pace. Gravity alone could not explain such cosmic acceleration. Rather, some invisible dynamo, dubbed “dark energy” must be pushing all the galaxies away from each other at a faster and faster rate. Some models predict that the universe will eventually be torn apart, like a sheet stretched beyond its limits and ripped into tatters. Such a “Big Rip” would mean the complete fragmentation of space itself.

Dark matter and dark energy are mysteries that scientists cannot ignore. Around 72 percent of the known content of the universe is estimated to be dark energy, and another 23 percent dark matter. Only 5 percent is ordinary visible material, composed of the atoms that make up all things on Earth, the stars, planets and everything familiar.

Just as it took Galileo’s extraordinary new instrument to vanquish misconceptions about the solar system, it will take a fantastic new device to unravel the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. One of the principal missions of the LHC, the largest particle collider ever completed, is to create massive particles that could potentially represent a component of the invisible substances in the cosmos. Although the LHC was shut down for repair soon after its opening in September 2008, it is scheduled to restart this November. By winter, if all goes well, physicists will begin collecting data that could further our understanding of the natural world in unprecedented ways. As we commemorate Galileo’s legacy, let’s hope that the LHC will revolutionize our vision of nature in the way the telescope did four centuries ago.

Paul Halpern is Professor of Physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia
He is the author of Collider: The Search for the World’s Smallest Particles

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Review of COLLIDER on the 'Keeper of the Snails" Blog

I am extraordinarily pleased that Clare Dudman, author of Wegener's Jigsaw and other works, has reviewed COLLIDER on her blog:

Keeper of the Snails

Dudman writes:
"I found Collider a compelling and invigorating read, and one that I am sure will change the way I think about the universe and my place within it."

If you scroll down a bit on her blog there is also a video review.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Our Deep Fascination with Time Travel

A piece I've written about our continued fascination with time travel appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

America's love affair with time travel endures
By Paul Halpern

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Strange Story of Atomism: From Blasphemy to Science

Atomism, the concept that things have smallest constituents, was introduced at the time of the ancient Greeks. To us moderns, it makes perfect sense. Yet for almost two millennia, mainstream European philosophers ignored or even shunned the idea. Why did it take so long to catch on?

The reason has perhaps more to do with who ended up trumpeting atomism than it has to do with the notion itself. In the battlefield of ideas, if a leading advocate is tremendously unpopular, opposing armies often see to it that all the notions he bears are equally trampled.

It is to atomism’s misfortune that its standard bearer for a time was Epicurus of Samos, founder of the much-maligned Epicurean school. He advocated atomism along with a set of widely scorned doctrines about the supremacy of pleasure over piety. Also he believed that the gods did not intervene in the lives of men. Thus he was widely condemned as a godless hedonist, discounting his atomist ideas.

Epicurus used atomism as a cleaver to divide the physical and spiritual realms. According to his theory, our bodies are composed of coarse atoms and our souls made of fine atoms. The gods consist of the most delicate atoms of all, floating in the spaces between physical worlds. Only in our thoughts and dreams do the mundane and godly come into contact. They do so in a way that the gods have no influence over people. Earth came into being through the random assembly of its own atoms and will pass away once they scatter into the void. The same with living beings; each must eventually perish due to material causes. Hence, Epicurus concluded, the gods have nothing to do with mortal existence and we need not fear or worship them.

In 56 B.C., a prominent Epicurean of the Roman era, Lucretius, wrote an epic Latin poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) expounding upon atomism, materialism, and mortal life. Although his contemporaries seem to have valued his work, once the Roman Empire became Christian, his writings were denounced for their support of atheism and no longer published. Only a single copy survived the medieval period and was re-published in 1417.

Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, the Church continued to treat Epicurean philosophy as blasphemous. As an indication of Europeans’ disdain toward Epicurean philosophy as late as the 14th century, note Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s description of the sixth circle of his fiery Inferno where Epicurean souls are forced to reside forever with their rotting corpses:

“The private cemetery on this side
serves Epicurus and his followers,
who make the soul die when the body dies.”

For those tormented spirits, it seems, their original sin was atoms not Adam’s. By contrast, according to Dante, non-atomist Aristotle has a relatively cushy spot in Limbo (non-Christians cannot enter Paradise), where he is sad but not tormented. Such was the attitude toward materialism in Dante’s times.

Atomism was resurrected in the 17th century, largely due to the writings of French philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), an avid reader of Lucretius. Gassendi muted theological objections to the subject by speculating that God created atoms as the building blocks of nature. His work coincided with a growing recognition among Christian believers that scientific experimentation provided a way of understanding and appreciating creation. Along with the discoveries of German mathematician Johannes Kepler, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, and others of his day, Gassendi’s sharp observations prodded Europe away from blind belief in Aristotle’s theories and toward an empirical view of nature. Ultimately these trends led to the founding of the modern scientific concept of atoms.

More about the extraordinary quest for the most fundamental components of nature can be found in:

Collider: The Search for the World's Smallest Particles

Saturday, July 11, 2009

New Webpage for Collider

I have recently revamped my website and added a new page for Collider:

Collider - Paul Halpern

Thursday, July 9, 2009

LHC Physicist and Stand-Up Comic

Tom Whyntie is a physicist from the Large Hadron Collider who is moonlighting as a stand-up comic until the accelerator is restarted. Listen to his funny talk:
Whatever is the Matter?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Advanced Praise for COLLIDER

Advanced praise for Collider: The Search for the World's Smallest Particles

"Paul Halpern is a gifted writer who brings science and scientists alive. This is a wonderful introduction to the world of high-energy physics, where gigantic machines and tiny particles meet."
—Kenneth Ford, retired director of the American Institute of Physics and author of The Quantum World: Quantum Physics for Everyone

"Professor Paul Halpern takes the reader on a stimulating odyssey on topics ranging from particle physics and dark matter to unexplored dimensions of space. The masterful Halpern likens the physicist's quest to the excavation of archaeologists who seek to uncover 'new treasures' as they unearth wondrous gems that lay hidden all around us. Buy this book and feed your mind!"
—Dr. Cliff Pickover, author of Archimedes to Hawking and The Math Book

"With clarity and a Sagan-esque gift for explanation, Paul Halpern traces the story of how physicists use immensely powerful machines to probe the deepest mysteries of existence. Halpern also conclusively debunks the ludicrous claims that the Large Hadron Collider and other high-energy physics experiments threaten to destroy anything—except our residual ignorance about the nature and workings of our wondrous universe."
—Mark Wolverton, author of The Science of Superman and A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer

"A gem. The prose sparkles, the descriptions are exquisitely understandable, and the narrative is just plain fun. This book will charm experts, students, and anyone interested in scientific exploration."
—Catherine Westfall, Visiting Associate Professor of the History of Science at Lyman Briggs College, Michigan State University, and coauthor of Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience

"Paul Halpern has written a masterful account of particle accelerators and the theories they are constructed to investigate in a very accessible and engaging style. As the world's largest accelerator begins its search for the smallest particles, Halpern traces the human drive to find the ultimate building blocks of nature. "
—David C. Cassidy, professor at Hofstra University and the author of Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, and the Bomb

"If you ever wondered about the Large Hadron Collider and what's brewing in high energy physics and cosmology, Paul Halpern is a wonderful guide. His lively and engaging writing deftly interweaves the historical background, the current frontiers, and the latest scientific instruments, now poised to address so many profound questions."
—Peter Pesic, author of Sky in a Bottle and Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature

Friday, May 29, 2009

Happy 80th Birthday Prof. Peter Higgs!

Peter Higgs, the eminent British physicist who co-proposed a mechanism for how particles in the universe acquired mass, turns 80 today. The Higgs mechanism supposes that the very early cosmos went through a phase transition, similar to the freezing of water into ice. Just as ice freezes into particular patterns, Higgs posited that the universe "froze" into special values of mass. Consequently, the stuff of matter is weighty rather than ethereal.

If Higgs's theory is correct, a remnant of the agent that caused the transition should be around today, at an energy that may be detectable in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Thus, one of the LHC's goals is the quest for the long-sought Higgs particle (nicknamed the "God Particle").

Wishing Prof. Higgs many happy returns! Let's hope he will soon be able to unwrap a wonderful present -- news of the discovery of the particle that bears his name.

More information about the quest for the Higgs particle can be found in my new book: Collider: The Search for the World's Smallest Particles

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Turning a Page

It was exciting yesterday to finish looking over the index of my new book: Collider: The Search for the World's Smallest Particles and then sending it off to the production editor. The next step is for the book to be printed, which should occur sometime in the next month. It will be warehoused and then available during the summer. I will be blogging about some of its themes as the publication date approaches. Stay tuned!

In the meanwhile, wishing the readers of this blog a relaxing, enjoyable spring!