Physics Undergrad, Karl Haislmaier, Wins $25K in Essay Contest

Mason News Nov. 19, 2012
By Tara Laskowski

From the tiny particles that make up physical objects to the galaxies at the far-edges of the universe, Karl Haislmaier’s interests in science really do span the full spectrum. And his passion for the subject was proven recently when he took second place and $25,000 for an essay he wrote in the New Cosmic Frontiers contest funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Karl Haislmaier. Photo by Michael Branscom. Source Mason News

Haislmaier, a physics major at Mason, blended his interest in philosophy and astronomy for the winning essay, titled “The Emergence of Complexity in the Universe as Viewed from a Holistic Perspective.”

“I’ve always loved math since I was a kid, and I also am very interested in philosophy,” says Haislmaier. “I think it’s essential to have both when forming theories and interpretations about the universe.”

Haislmaier is also equally intrigued by solar physics. This past summer, he participated in a National Science Foundation research experience for undergraduates program (REU) at the National Solar Observatory in Arizona, where he looked for a connection between sunspots and solar wind.

But he also loves quantum mechanics and using experiments to see “the wacky things that particles do,” he says.

“As a kid, I was a math nerd. I liked it, but it seemed too abstract. So when I discovered physics, which uses math, but applies it to concrete problems, that sealed it for me.”

While at Mason, Haislmaier has been fortunate to participate in an exciting research project funded by NASA. Haislmaier and Mason physics professor Jessica Rosenberg were able to use the Hubble Space Telescope on a project unraveling the origins of the Leo Ring, a massive cloud of hydrogen gas and traces of other elements orbiting a small group of galaxies in the constellation Leo. Rosenberg and Haislmaier are using quasars—very bright, distant objects in space that Rosenberg calls “flashlights in the universe”—to study this mysterious cloud. By observing how the bright light of the quasars is absorbed by the Leo Ring cloud, the researchers can determine what the cloud is made of, and where it might have come from.

“It’s been great to work with Karl,” says Rosenberg, an assistant professor in the School of Physics, Astronomy and Computational Sciences. “He’s very independent and tries to understand deeply what it is he is working on. He asks very good questions and really thinks through what we are trying to accomplish.”

Haislmaier accepted his award at the New Cosmic Frontiers conference and awards ceremony in Philadelphia last month. He plans to use the money for graduate school in astronomy.

Write to Tara Laskowski at

For more on Karl’s research see this powerpoint of his Leo Ring poster