Interview by: John Wisniewski
Paul Halpern is Professor of Physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. A prolific author, he has written more than a dozen science books and numerous articles. His interests range from space, time and higher dimensions to cultural aspects of science. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Fulbright Scholarship, and an Athenaeum Literary Award, he has appeared on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, the PBS series “Future Quest,” and “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special.”
Halpern’s books include Time Journeys, Cosmic Wormholes, The Cyclical Serpent, Faraway Worlds, The Great Beyond, Brave New Universe, What’s Science Ever Done for Us?, Collider, What’s the Matter with Pluto?, Edge of the Universe and: Cover of “Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat” Book Cover Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics
Why did you decide to write a book about Schrodinger and Einstein, Paul?
Some time ago I was conducting a research project at the Albert Einstein Duplicate Archive in Princeton’s library. I was browsing through folders of letters exchanged between Schrödinger and Einstein. I was interested to see that they collaborated on Unified Field Theory ideas, and sent each other critiques of orthodox quantum theory. Strangely, the folder included a number of press releases and newspaper clippings from early 1947, in which Schrödinger claimed to have found the Theory of Everything and Einstein was asked to response to being “beaten” to his own goal. Einstein’s own statement showed that he was enraged by Schrödinger’s assertions. I thought their friendship and battle would make a fascinating story. After I conducted further research on the subject the result was a book, “Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics”.
Why did you choose physics as your chosen field?
In high school I found that I was adept in mathematics but also fascinated by astronomy and particle physics. I enjoyed the science writings of George Gamow, Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, and others. I also loved going to the physics exhibit at the Franklin Institute science museum in Philadelphia and pressing the buttons to operate different demonstrations. All of these interests led me to a career in physics.
Why is it that we are so fascinated by the nature of our universe, Paul?
From our humble vantage point on Earth we occupy but a tiny fraction of the cosmos. Yet it is remarkable that through the light raining down upon us, and other signals including gravitational waves, we are able to glimpse parts of space billions of light years away and billions of years in the past. The night sky, with its myriad stars, invites us to explore our universe through its collected light.
Is there any one in the field of Physics or science, that you wish that you had met?
I would have greatly enjoyed meeting Einstein and discussing his critique of quantum physics, his ideas for unification, and his thoughts on world peace. In terms of contemporaries, I hope to meet Stephen Hawking someday. I was in the same room with him once, a cafeteria at Cambridge where I was researching a book, and wanted to introduce myself, but he was surrounded by a group of physicists chatting with him and I didn’t get the opportunity.
How did you cartoon appearance on The Simpsons come about, Paul?
Right before The Simpsons Movie appeared, I published the book, “What’s Science Ever Done for Us?” about scientific themes on the Simpsons, including Stephen Hawking’s appearances, discussions of robots, genetics, space travel, time travel, thermodynamics, and so forth. Several years later, director Morgan Spurlock was putting together “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special 3-D, On Ice!” and invited me to appear on that special as part of a segment about science on the Simpsons. It was thrilling to work with him, and great to be part of The Simpsons legacy.
I have conversed with many physicists throughout my life, but haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Hawking. Throughout my career, I’ve enjoyed meeting Roger Penrose, John Wheeler, Bryce DeWitt, Cecil DeWitt-Morette, Freeman Dyson, Stanley Deser, Charles Misner, Norman Ramsey, and other great physicists who have made major contributions to the field.
What will be the subject of your next book, Paul?
I am continuing to explore the fascinating history of physics.