Journeying through the history of science with Dr. Paul Halpern
We should be masters of technology not its servants and I always choose very carefully which technology I should use.
The historical course of scientific pursuit has revolutionized the world onto the verge of enlightenment and a modern form of life. Humans are apparent “Masters of the Technology”, we live in the era of the fourth industrial revolution, times of psychological warfare, the birth of artificial intelligence, and the knowers of the cosmos’ age – Arguably! the most advanced era of human civilization as we believe today.
Looking back into the archives of ‘History of Science’, we can reminisce, understand and correct our course for tomorrow, which is the uttermost purpose of humankind today. For this interesting thought, we engaged Prof. Dr. Paul Halpern, a Physicist and Historian of Science at Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia USA. Dr Halpern’s areas of expertise lies in the History of Physics, Cultural ties of physics, theoretical astrophysics and cosmology. He is author of numerous books, including the most recent – Flashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate in 2021 and has been the recipient of Guggenheim Fellowship.
Here are some excerpts of his recent conversation with Scientia Pakistan.
Fouz: How did you get interested in the history of physics? What inspired you to study the history of physics besides being a theoretical physicist?
Dr Paul: Since childhood, I’ve always been a balanced person and I’ve always read a lot including some philosophical works. One of the inspiring works was as One, Two, Three Infinity by George Gamow, who was someone I very much admired. He was a physicist, originally from Ukraine, and he went to the United States and wrote a lot about historical events in physics.
And as I was growing up, I read and talked to people about some of the things that happened in the 20th century in cosmology, in physics. And also, I always enjoyed creative writing as well as mathematics. And sometimes, I find that if I do things too much too intensely, then I get kind of burnt out. When I was a PhD student, I had to work on mathematical projects and do calculations. And after spending a few years doing calculations for getting my PhD, I felt almost like a zombie because I was only doing one thing… math, math, math, nothing else.
But then once I got my first job, which was at a liberal arts university, where there were students and professors of all different interests, they asked me to do a seminar, and the topic I chose was ‘The Nature of Time and Exploring Time’. I started gathering material for that. Soon I gathered enough material that I thought, well, this could be enough for a book. Later, which turned out to be my first book, ‘Time Journeys’.
It talks a little bit about the history and philosophy of different ideas of time, from linear to cyclical. I talk a bit about how different religions have different ideas of timelines as well as ideas of forking time and discrete time. The book was very interesting to me, but I used mostly secondary sources for it. I went into a library. It was back when people in the old days went to libraries, looked at the material, and put it together.
Later, I realized in my career that it would be fun to do what’s called archival research, which is instead of looking at people’s books and what they wrote about things, secondhand, it would be good to see firsthand accounts of what people said. In 2002, I applied for a grant from Guggenheim Fellowship, and I was really delighted and excited to receive it. That was in the history of higher dimensions. It led me to have time and the opportunity to interview many well-known physicists and also to look at physics archives such as the archives of Albert Einstein, personal letters, interviews and so forth.
I was really hooked. I just thought it was so exciting to be able to go into an archive, open up a box of envelopes, and look at the writing, and some of it was the original correspondence. It is actually taking out a crisp letter from 50 years ago or 100 years ago, reading it and getting a sense of what history was like.
Since childhood, I’ve always been a balanced person and I’ve always read a lot including some philosophical works. One of the inspiring works was as One, Two, Three Infinity by George Gamow, who was someone I very much admired.
Fouz: So, you had the tool to see things differently and check the first-time perspectives. Unlike today, how different were things be without the internet? It would have been a little more difficult as you had been exploring archives and archives all over.
Dr Paul: Yes, there are good things and bad things. It’s good to be able to look at the actual physical letters. You get more of a sense of what’s out there. But of course, it means a lot of travel, you need to physically go to different places. In 2002, I had all these ideas for archives that I wanted to visit in Europe, and I had only a short amount of time. So I flew to London and then took the train directly from London to Copenhagen, which is where the Niels Bohr archive is. And that was really crazy because I flew in in the morning and I had to take the train across the English channel and I only had a certain amount of time to get to the train, which I missed due to security checks.
But by the time I took the next train, I was too late to get to Copenhagen that day. So I had to take the night ferry (a boat), and then I arrived very early in the morning without having any sleep. Then, I had to do archival research like that. But fortunately, the assistant at the archive was kind and I got the opportunity to relax. And then they took me to the room where Erwin Schrodinger stayed when he was visiting the Bohr Archive.
Happily, I sat there looking at the material. It was very exciting but took a lot of concentration. I only had a few hours to look through all these materials and decide which ones I wanted to photocopy. I needed to rush, as I knew that I was moving on to another destination. So, it is a little bit like an Indiana Jones movie. Sometimes you have to run at top speed to get somewhere. Sometimes you have to really focus, and it’s more exciting than people would think.
Fouz: Speaking of Copenhagen, it reminded me of the Solvay Conference. Would you like to shed light on it, that new interpretation of quantum mechanics? How do you think that impacted science?
Dr Paul: Well, there are a number of Solvay conferences. I think you’re referring to the 1927 Solvay Conference, and those were in Belgium, and I post about them sometimes on Twitter. The Solvay Company still exists, and they’re still proud of the conferences.
So, it’s a matter of not just history, but it’s still ongoing. But the 1927 conference was particularly important because there were all these ideas in quantum philosophy, and there was a whole debate about quantum measurement. What exactly happens when you make a measurement of, let’s say, an atomic state, what is the relationship between the experimenter and what is being observed? It’s a little bit mysterious because people are made of atoms. But if people are observing something, then they might have a few different possible outcomes of the experiment randomly.
So the question is, what is most meaningful; the state of the electrons and particles in the atoms or the reactions of the people and the experiences of the people doing the experimentation? Because people live ultimately in terms of their own experiences, in a classical world, in the Newtonian world, in terms of their experiences.
The electrons live in a very strange world where they can immediately jump from one state to another. And if you measure one property, they seem to be waves, and another property, they seem to be particles and so forth. And Bohr’s interpretation called complementarity was that the quantum state is kind of a black box and you don’t really know or can’t really determine what’s exactly going on inside.
And what’s important is that people take a measurement, and depending on people’s choices, you get a result. You might get a particle-like result or a wavelike result. So that’s complementarity. Heisenberg thought that the most important thing is this idea of conjugating variables, that you have things like position and momentum. Mathematically, you can show that if you have uncertainty, in the position and how it affects momentum. So that was very specific.
So, Heisenberg found Bohr’s idea too vague, and Bohr was very proud of his idea I think he probably thought Heisenberg’s idea was in way too specific to have a more general principle involved. I think Bohr’s wanted to make a philosophical statement and then Einstein came along. With a belief in determinism and trying to restore the idea of Newtonian physics, that everything is determined from the beginning till the end and there is no such thing as a chance or randomness in physics. So he was trying to debate both of them, but mostly Bohr because he was seen as the most prominent member of the quantum group, and Einstein and Bohr would have debates over the meaning of quantum physics.
Fouz: It is generally portrayed as some sort of struggle between two groups? There’s the Einsteinian view but Bohr and Heisenberg were struggling due to Einstein’s stature in the scientific community to get their viewpoint of view recognized at that time. Is it true?
Dr Pual: Well, of course Einstein was very well-known and very widely respected. So I think, they wanted to persuade Einstein of their perspective, which would carry a lot of weight internationally, particularly in the press and so forth. The international press generally took Einstein’s side because they thought he was the world’s greatest genius. So they were shocked, for example, some eight years later, in 1935 when the famous EPR thought experiment came out, Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen, which was a little bit different because it was about showing connections between measurements. It was a little bit more sophisticated.
Some reporters tried to make that into a fight because they wanted people to read. There was a big headline in the New York Time: “Einstein attacks quantum theory”. Einstein himself was very upset about the headline. He didn’t want to be seen like he was trying to attack anyone, but that’s the way it was.
There’s another story that Bohr was interviewed on the second to last day of his life, by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn where he talked about the thought experiments with Einstein. But, unfortunately, the next day he died, and some historians said it might have been too much for Bohr. “His final blackboard has a picture of what’s called the Einstein Box, which was one of the thought experiments. So, this is something that Bohr was always thinking about.”
Fouz: I would also like to ask as you have gone through the Islamic Golden Age, before enlightenment, how Islamic philosophers, and mathematicians, impacted the scientific history. How did they change the course?
Dr Paul: Well, the Islamic worlds and the Arab communities played a critical role, especially when Europe was very backward, particularly because the Church strictly adhered to the notions of Aristotle. Of course, Aristotle was a brilliant thinker, but not everything in Greek philosophy had to do with Aristotle. Also, Aristotle had many misconceptions and, he wasn’t the only Greek philosopher.
In the Islamic world, there was a lot of interplay and interest in other Greek philosophers, particularly Pythagoras, and also a tremendous interest in geometry. You have in many mosques around the world such beautiful geometry and such interest in the idea of symmetry. They studied trying to understand holy texts, trying to interpret them and using mathematics, trying to understand the universe, cosmology, and different aspects of the universe.
So there was an enormous and beautiful contribution, and I think the world owes a great, great debt to the Islamic world. And of course to the Arab world, the numbering system is absolutely critical. The idea of zero, which played a great role in mathematics, the idea of decimal numbers and a very simple numbering system that has moved mathematics forward very much. You know that the word algebra, for example, is an Arabic word, the term “algorithms’ comes from Arabs. So, we owe a great debt to the Arabic world, as well.
“We should be masters of technology not its servants and I always choose very carefully which technology I should use.”
Fouz: As you mentioned, that previous physicists were very much philosophical. But today as we are getting nearer toward objectivity also, the scientific community has struggled to find the meaning of our existence. We are very much just limited to material objectivity. What would say is your perspective on this?
Dr Paul: Well, I’m not a theologian, or an expert on religion, but I highly respect people who have faith or beliefs. And as a scientist, I try to look for empirical evidence. But there are certain mysteries in life, and I fully respect people addressing those mysteries. Things like, you know, what is consciousness, why do we feel a sense of self? Why do we have a sense that we can make decisions free will? So some thinkers postulated that free will is an illusion, but really there’s no way to prove it. When you make the decision that it’s. It’s mechanistic and we all have the sense that we can make free decisions. So that is a big mystery why we have that sense.
Of course, the meaning of life is another question. These are all kinds of questions that people addressed through philosophy, faith, through religion. But I think it’s important not to take science and try to reframe it or to deny any evidence based upon faith, because science speaks for itself too. If there’s evidence for something, you need to kind of accept it.
Speaking of Europe in the Middle Ages, a lot of Europeans were attached to the astronomy of Aristotle, and later Ptolemy, and thought that it was impossible for the Earth to move. Finally, Copernicus offered a new perspective. And Galileo showed that other planets were similar to Earth and so forth. That led to a scientific revolution where people started to realize the true layout of the solar system and of the universe. So that came about through science and through open-mindedness.
Fouz: You’ve written about various scientific figures and their impact on the field, such as Einstein, Feynman, and Schrödinger. Are there any lesser-known figures from different fields of science that you believe deserve more recognition?
Dr Paul: I’m interested not just in famous figures, but in other people even in modern times. While working I came across the name Maryam Mirzakhani who was an Iranian mathematician who died at a relatively young age of cancer, unfortunately. She was the first woman to win the Fields medal, which is the highest prize in mathematics. So that was history and her work was really groundbreaking and related to mathematical physics.
I studied her work and was really fascinated by it and wrote a piece about it. I think people on Twitter and other social media came to appreciate that not everyone is a famous name and sometimes you learn about new people and their contributions. Particularly I like to highlight, if possible, the contributions of non-Europeans, women, etc. African Americans in the United States made an enormous contribution to science and sometimes their stories aren’t heard.
Fouz: We live in the postmodern world things have been changing very fast for us. We are undermining and missing social context or having gaps in oversight, and with the drastic change in technology, evolution is not natural. What do you think about that?
Dr Paul: Undeniably technology has impacted us in so many ways. I firmly believe “We should be masters of technology not its servants and I always choose very carefully which technology I should use.” With my research, I first try to use my own recollections, and my own insights to decide which direction I want to take. Only then do I try to do a search based on my experiences, what I’ve read and so forth. I don’t just do a random search and look for the first link. But unfortunately, some young people who grow up with technology think that they should just listen to the results of whatever they find on Google, whatever technology tells them.
So that’s what I worry about people using technology without being informed. The worst aspect of that is on social media, people sometimes have misconceptions and they look at something and then they make a conclusion based upon just a few words rather than trying to do research and find out if it’s true or not.
Unfortunately, all too many people do that which it brings about emotionality. They might get very angry or upset about something without having any knowledge and that can create conflicts. There are a lot of dangers with technology, misleading people, and turning people against each other. I think people-to-people interaction is just so much better.
I have been blessed with experiences meeting people from different cultures and seeing the commonality of all people and experiencing their goodness while travelling. Travelling can be expensive, but you learn so much more by going to a country and experiencing it rather than just looking it up and reaching an opinion.
The interview is co-authored by Maham Maqsood
I am a Writer and Science Communicator at Scientia Magazine, who also lectures and audits – Aviation/Aeronautical Engineering at ATH – IST. My interests in studies are Aviation, Data-Driven Astronomy/Astrophysics, Environment, and other Space Sciences.