The Universal Timekeepers:

Reconstructing History Atom by Atom

Courtesy of Bruce Rolff

David J. Helfand

Professor of Astronomy
Columbia University

At Busboys & Poets, 450K St 

Atoms are unfathomably tiny. It takes fifteen million trillion of them to make up a single poppy seed—give or take a few billion. And there’s hardly anything to them: atoms are more than 99.999999999 percent empty space. Yet scientists have learned to count these slivers of near-nothingness with precision and to read details of their internal states. Their unique signatures and imperturbable internal clocks allow their use as little archives holding the secrets of the past.

In this lively presentation, Prof. Helfand reconstructs the history of the universe—back to its first microsecond 13.8 billion years ago—with the help of atoms. Informed and aided by detectors and reactors, microscopes and telescopes, he shows how we can decode the tales these diminutive particles tell, answering questions in art history, archeology, the evolution of agriculture and human diet, and the history of the climate, of life, of the Earth, and of the cosmos. Helfand demonstrates how the mysteries of unreachably remote times and places can be unveiled through the power of science.

Time will be allocated for Q&A.

This program is part of the ColumbiaDC CUP series.


"David Helfand has composed a magical, epic dance of atoms that connects us all to each other, and to key events of the past, present, and future of Earth and the cosmos itself. The choreographers are the laws of the universe. The performers are the atoms themselves. The Universal Timekeepers offers a cosmic perspective like no other." Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History

Copies of the book will be available for purchase and signing at the event.

Picture1.jpgDavid J. Helfand, former chair of the Astronomy Department at Columbia University, has served on Columbia’s faculty for nearly five decades. He is the author of over 200 scientific publications and has mentored 22 PhD students, but most of his pedagogical efforts have been aimed at teaching science to non-science majors. Twenty years ago, he finally succeeded in implementing a vision he began working on in 1982 that has all Columbia first-year students taking his science course as part of the University’s Core Curriculum. He received the Columbia’s 2001 Presidential Teaching Award and the 2002 Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates.

Helfand was also president and vice chancellor of Quest University Canada. He is currently chair of the American Institute of Physics and past president of the American Astronomical Society. His commentary has appeared in Nature, Physics Today, the Globe and Mail, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, among other publications, and he is the author of A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age (Columbia, 2016).

November 30, 2023 at 6:30pm - 8pm

Busboys and Poets

450 K St NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

Miyako Yerick

Sorry, this event is sold out.