David Kaplan’s Curious Path to Physics and Particle Fever

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics

David Kaplan’s Curious Path to Physics and Particle Fever


Kendra Redmond, Contributing Editor

It wasn’t until his second physics postdoc that David Kaplan could actually see himself as a physicist. In a fitting turn of events, his 2013 documentary Particle Fever has inspired many young students to envision themselves as physicists.

“I always thought the people around me were much more accurate and rigorous in their abilities to do a calculation,” Kaplan explains. “Even as a postdoc, when I was doing research, I was still not sure I was supposed to be a physicist,” he says.

Everything changed when he met Savas Dimopoulos, a faculty member at Stanford University. Dimopoulos was rigorous in other ways, explains Kaplan. Rigorous in his choice of research projects, in questioning the direction of a project, in applying physical intuition, and in reducing an idea to its bare bones. Kaplan says, “Once I understood that he could be  a great physicist, I thought I had a chance, too.”

Empowered to tackle important physics questions from this critical, “big picture” approach, Kaplan fell in love with physics. He joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University in 2002, and his contributions to physics research populate an impressive CV.

Particle Fever grew out of his constant questioning. Like other theoretical particle physicists, most of Kaplan’s research focused  on questions that could be answered by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Despite his scientific predictions, as the world’s largest particle collider neared completion in the mid-2000s, Kaplan couldn’t shake the thought that the field was at a turning point. “Are we missing something?” he wondered.

Either the LHC would find something and confirm that particle physicists were on the right track, or it would find nothing. If it  found nothing, then what? Because the theoretical particle-physics community was so narrowly focused on ideas that could be tested by the LHC, Kaplan worried that the entire field might crumble if it came up empty.

Whether the LHC saw something or nothing, Kaplan realized, the story would be significant and dramatic. He wanted to capture and share the human side of this drama—the scientists who, above all else, were committed to the pursuit of truth regardless of whether it supported their scientific predictions. In Kaplan’s words, “What we discover belongs to all of humanity.”

The result is a documentary that follows Kaplan and a handful of other physicists on a journey from nervous anticipation to new scientific results, from the LHC’s first run to its first monumental discovery. The film dispels the notion that being a physicist is all about calculational ability, highlighting the intense passion, curiosity, and humanity of the scientists that worked on the project. It was coproduced by Kaplan and Mark Levinson.

The response to Particle Fever has been overwhelmingly positive, and the film has received numerous awards. Earlier this year the parent organization of SPS, the American Institute of Physics, honored Kaplan with the 2018 Andrew Gemant Award, which recognizes contributions to the cultural, artistic, and human dimensions of physics.

Since the film’s release, Kaplan has been most moved by the response of young students, like a 13-year-old girl who asked for advice on becoming a particle physicist after watching the documentary. To her and the many others that ask the same question, Kaplan advises, “When you have a choice, try to get the best teachers you can.”

Reflecting on his physics journey, Kaplan seems amused at where he is now. He clearly enjoys his research, seeking to extend the standard model of physics and cosmology and develop experimental strategies to probe his theoretical predictions. He loves his colleagues and relishes the freedom to consider risky ideas and pursue interesting projects—like a Broadway musical loosely based on Particle Fever. For someone that had a hard time seeing himself as a physicist, he seems right where he should be. “Physics is so much fun,” he says. “If you can do it, I recommend it.”

For more information about the Andrew Gemant Award visit: www.aip.org/aip/awards/gemant-award

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics