David John Helfand

David John Helfand, PhD

Professor of Astronomy,
Columbia University

“The Universal Timekeepers:
Reconstructing History Atom by Atom”

February 13, 2024

Lecture and Book Signing this Month at Peyton Hall

The February, 2024 meeting of the AAAP will take place in Peyton Hall on the campus of Princeton University on Tuesday, February 13th at 7:30 PM. As usual, the meeting is open to AAAP members and the public. Participants can join the meeting in-person at Peyton Hall or log in to the Zoom session as early as 7:00 pm to chat informally before the meeting begins. This evening’s guest speaker is David John Helfand, Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University. Prof. Helfand will discuss his recent book “The Universal Timekeepers: Reconstructing History Atom by Atom.” Copies of his book will be available for purchase, and Prof. Helfand will be pleased to sign them.

Options for Attending the Meeting

You may choose to attend the meeting in person or participate via Zoom or YouTube as we’ve been doing for the past few years. (See How to Participate below for details). Due to security concerns, if you log in before the host has set up internet connectivity in Peyton Hall, you may need to wait in the Waiting Room for a few minutes until the host is prepared to admit you into the meeting. You’ll need to unmute yourself to make comments or ask questions. It’s polite, though not required, for you to enable your camera so other participants can see you. A week or so after the meeting, the video of the lecture and Q&A will be posted on AAAP’s public YouTube channel.

“Meet the Speaker” Dinner

The club will host a “Meet the Speaker” dinner at Winberie’s Bar and Restaurant, 1 Palmer Square, Princeton, NJ, just across the street from the campus of Princeton Universitiy. The reservation is prior to the meeting on February 13th at 5:45 pm. Please contact the Program Chair if you plan to attend.

David John Halford

Prof. Helfand writes that “We all edit our lives into stories. Some are carefully plotted; others follow a meandering path like mine; from a theater major to an astrophysicist, a researcher who found creating a university from scratch an even more fascinating challenge than understanding neutron stars.” Prof. Helfand’s meandering path included undergraduate studies at Amherst College, then MS and PhD degrees in respectively, Physics and Astronomy at University of Massachusetts Amherst. He’s been on Columbia’s faculty for forty-six years, nearly half that time as Chair of the Department of Astronomy.

He has authored more than 200 scientific publications and mentored twenty-two PhD students, mostly in high-energy astrophysics, yet most of his pedagogical efforts have been aimed at teaching science to non-science majors. It took 27 years of effort to implement in Columbia’s Core Curriculum the teaching of science to all first-year students. It was the first change to the famed Core Curriculum in fifty years. His “Frontiers of Science” is not “Rocks for Jocks” or “Physics for Poets,” but a hugely successful effort to share with students what he calls “Scientific Habits of Mind.”

Prof. Helfand received Columbia’s 2001 Presidential Teaching Award and the 2002 Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates. In 2005, he became involved in the effort to create Canada’s first independent, non-profit secular university, Quest University Canada, first as Visiting Tutor then as President and Vice Chancellor. For six years in a row, Quest was ranked #1 in North America in the National Survey of Student Engagement. Prof. Helfand served as President of the American Astronomical Society and was named as a Society Legacy Fellow in 2020. He is currently Chair of the Boards of the American Institute of Physics and of AIP Publishing. He’s a member of the Executive Committee of the Board of Science Counts, an organization formed to communicate with the public about the importance and impact of publicly funded fundamental research.

“The Universal Timekeepers: Reconstructing History Atom by Atom”

By utilizing the basic building blocks of matter as imperturbable little clocks, we are now able to reconstruct in quantitative detail a remarkable range of human and natural events. From detecting art forgeries to dating archeological sites, and from laying out a detailed history of human diet and the Earth's climate to revealing the events surrounding the origin of life, of the Solar System and of the Universe itself, atoms provide us with a precise chronology from the beginning of time to the moment humans emerge to contemplate such questions.

How To Participate:

Spread the Word!

In Person

The parking lots across the street (Ivy Lane) from Peyton Hall are now construction sites, unavailable for parking. We’ve been advised by the administration of the astrophysics department that we should park in the new enclosed parking garage off Fitzrandolph street and walk around the stadium and athletic fields. Here’s a map of the campus and walking routes from the parking garage to Peyton Hall. The map shows the recently completed East Garage. Not shown is an access road Sweet Gum that connects from Faculty Road to an entrance at the lower left corner of the garage. Stadium Road connects from Fitzrandolph Road to another entrance at the opposite corner (and higher level) of the garage. It’s about a 10-15 minute walk from the parking garage to Peyton Hall.

Parking and Peyton Hall


Join the Zoom meeting


Watch the YouTube Live Stream

A look ahead at future guest speakers:
Date Featured Speaker(s) Topic
March 12, 2024 Erika Hoffman, graduate student, University of Maryland
Erika will describe her research using high-resolution x-ray spectroscopy to investigate ionized outflows from active galactic nuclei (AGNs). Suggested by Bill Thomas.
April 9, 2024 Eclipse Observations
Since this meeting will take place the day after the Total Solar Eclipse of 08 April 2024, and many members will be out of town or returning from their trips, I’m suggesting that we host an online roundup of eclipse observations, with members (and perhaps others) Zooming in to share their experiences.
May 14, 2024 Dr. Tea Temim, Research Astronomer, Princeton University Department of Astrophysics
Dr. Temim will describe her research using JWST imagery to study supernova remnants. Suggested by Gene Allen.
June 11, 2024 AAAP Outreach chair and staffer at the NJ State Planetarium Bill Murray, and Jacob Hamer, the planetarium's Assistant Curator
AAAP’s traditional annual pilgrimage to the NJ State Museum planetarium in Trenton, where members will experience a presentation and a preview of the planetarium’s latest sky show.

As always, members’ comments and suggestions are gratefully accepted and much appreciated.

Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton, Inc.