THE DEPARTMENT OF ASTRONOMY AND ASTROPHYSICS
TAU's Florence and George Wise Observatory, located in Israel's Negev Desert
Despite universal fascination with the cosmos, very few countries in the world produce high-impact astrophysics research. Israel is one of them.
A great deal of Israel's research is being carried out at the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Tel Aviv University, where teams explore humankind's primal questions: How did we get here? How did stars first form? Why is the universe drifting apart at an accelerating rate?
"We seek to understand the nature and fate of the universe as a whole," says Prof. Dan Maoz, a physicist and astronomer who chairs the department in the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences.
The Orion nebula, where a cluster of newborn stars illuminate the clouds of gas and dust from which they were formed
Although TAU astronomers live in the realm of pure science, they are equipped with a practical tool unique in the Middle East — the Wise Observatory. With the help of this "telescope in the desert," astounding discoveries have already stretched the boundaries of science, including the discovery of new planetary systems around stars thousands of light years away from us utilizing the "light-bending" effects predicted by Einstein. Algorithms developed by Prof. Tsevi Mazeh have been used to find many of the 2000 planets discovered with telescopes on earth and in space orbit. And data collected at the Wise Observatory established the "Kaspi Relation" used by astronomers worldwide to weigh the super-massive black holes that power quasars.
With their high ranking in the scientific community, TAU astronomers gain access to the largest and most advanced telescopes on the ground and in space — the Subaru telescope in Hawaii or NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, for instance. Alongside the "observers" who collect and analyze data, the TAU Astrophysics Department can boast of a strong group of "theorists" who use the results to develop and understand the physical theory underlying it all.
A Bold Vision Brought to Life
Prof. Dan Maoz, Chairman of TAU's Astrophysics Department
The idea that Israel should have its own observational astronomy research was formulated decades ago by physicist Prof. Yuval Ne'eman, the second president of Tel Aviv University and founder of the School of Physics and Astronomy.
"Ne'eman's vision was remarkably far-seeing," says Prof. Maoz, who earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Tel Aviv University, and is its first homegrown astronomer
Maoz's group is a leader in finding supernovae — exploding stars — that are Nature's sole method for creating heavy elements through nuclear reactions, the elements in the Periodic Table beyond oxygen. He takes the adventurer's view: "We'd have a boring universe without them: these elements are the atoms that make the ground we stand on, and the iron in the blood that flows through our veins."
The same explosions can also be used as cosmic beacons for measuring distances. And TAU is taking part in the observations revealing how the expansion of our universe is accelerating, propelled by an enigmatic "Dark Energy" whose nature is not understood. Yet.
Brightest Stars from Darkest Matter
Space telescope image of supernova 1994D (at lower left) — the brightness of the explosion rivals that of an entire ten-billion-star galaxy
The Department's academic all-stars are internationally recognized.
Professors Amiel Sternberg and Hagai Netzer have had a long-term collaboration with the Max Planck Institute in Munich, and are studying how galaxies formed and evolved together with the super-massive black holes that lurk at their centers. Prof. Rennan Barkana is shedding light on the "infant" universe and the emergence of the first stars that lit it up, ending the billion-year period astronomers prosaically call "the Dark Ages."
Prof. Yoel Rephaeli uses clusters of galaxies — the largest bound structures known, each millions of light years in size, to gauge the nature of Dark Matter — another missing piece in the cosmic inventory. And it is a big piece: at least 80 percent of all matter in the universe is made of such stuff, whose nature is unknown. And TAU is also home to Dr. Ehud Nakar, who is unraveling the mysteries of gamma ray bursts, the brightest explosions in the universe.
The level and impact of their research is high, comparing favorably with that of astronomers at the best American institutions. "We are certainly as good, and in some cases even better," notes Prof. Maoz.
Prof. Haim Wolfson, Dean of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences
Astronomers around the world compete for time to use facilities and the TAU group is disproportionately successful in gaining access to them due to the researchers' reputation and their prominent presence in publications in leading journals. Similarly, TAU astrophysics doctoral students consistently succeed in winning many of the most prestigious postdoctoral positions in the U.S.
Within the Tel Aviv community, the TAU Astroclub, established and operated by astronomy graduate student volunteers, already has a decade-long tradition of providing lecture series and star-gazing nights that make astronomy and astrophysics accessible for young people and adults — and perhaps inspiring the next generation of scientists to carry forward Prof. Ne'eman's vision of decades ago.
"It's a vision fulfilled," says Prof. Haim Wolfson, Dean of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences. Taking Prof. Ne'eman's dream one step further, Prof. Wolfson envisions turning the Wise Observatory, which is in a developing area of the Negev Desert, into a major hub for space education — for tourists, high-school students, and young scientists.
Good for the local economy and for training tomorrow's astronomers, "I'd like the Wise Observatory to be a magnet, a center for young people to get the thrilling, hands-on experience of turning the knobs of a telescope," he says. "This kind of experience fuels the imagination of young and old alike, and reminds us how much there is left to learn about what's in our Universe."
How you can help
A remnant of a supernova explosion of 1572, in a composite photo from the Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer space telescopes
- You can provide remote access to the stars with a $150,000 contribution to complement the instrumentation at the Wise Observatory with a new robotic telescope. This technology will operate directly from the TAU campus, three hours away from its desert home, and will double the current light-gathering capabilities of the observatory.
- Your support can create a new "space oasis" in the Negev Desert. Built around the Wise Observatory, your $1 million investment can lay the foundations for a major TAU Space Observation Educational Center — a home to train tomorrow's astronomers and raise the standard of education in the peripheral community.
- And with your help TAU's astrophysicists can get an even more sophisticated view of the cosmos. Currently, despite their stature in the field, Israel is the only industrialized country whose astronomers lack guaranteed shareholder's access to any of the giant telescopes that have become the tools of the trade. Instead, TAU must compete for the limited "open time" available at foreign facilities. Your generous donation of $2 million can make a real difference, underwriting an annual timeshare at a new facility to allow the observations required for further groundbreaking science.
Read more about the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics
Read more about the Florence and George Wise Observatory
Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics
PROF. AVI LOEB
Prof. Avi Loeb
Professor and Director, Institute for Theory and Computation, Harvard University Department of Astronomy
Visiting Professor, Tel Aviv University
"The Astrophysics Department at Tel Aviv University is among the best in the world. It is both exceptionally good and very young, and is regarded as one of the major nodes of astrophysics research in the world, with itsfaculty among the best international 'stars' in the field," says Prof. Avi Loeb.
Prof. Loeb is a faculty member at Harvard, running the world's largest Institute for Theory and Computation in Astronomy. He's also a visiting professor at Tel Aviv University's Department of Astronomy, and hopes to make the relationship permanent. "We had two hundred international applicants to the postdoctoral fellowships in our Institute at Harvard this winter. The eight members of our selection committee voted unanimously to offer two out of the four fellowships to former students of TAU's Astronomy Department. There is no better testimony to the superb quality of TAU's astronomers."
Loeb explores how the first stars formed in the universe, a topic on which he published a new book this year. "Then there was light, like in the story of Genesis: How the first light was created, that's what I investigate scientifically."
From various observatories, including the Wise Observatory at TAU, Prof. Loeb explores how galaxies and stars were formed. His relationship with TAU is key: "To open the minds of astronomers, it is important we visit each other's group. When I am at Tel Aviv University, it leads to very important long-term collaborations with researchers like Prof. Dan Maoz, who exposes me to things I wouldn't necessarily find at home, at Harvard."
PROF. REINHARD GENZEL
Prof. Reinhard Genzel
Director, Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Munich
Visiting Professor, Tel Aviv University
Stretching back over the last 23 years, Prof. Reinhard Genzel from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany has enjoyed a working relationship with Tel Aviv University astronomers. "Back then, when I started research into massive black holes, I was delighted to find several experts in this exciting area of modern astrophysics research at Tel Aviv University. This was the beginning of an immensely profitable and long-lasting collaboration.
"Today I have a long-standing collaboration with several of the TAU faculty in Astrophysics," he says, pointing to attractive grants between Germany and Israel for keeping the momentum strong. If he's not in Israel, then several of the TAU group are in Germany, with each others' students constantly engaged in cross-country exchanges, in either Munich or Tel Aviv.
"There is a very strong institutional connection between Max Planck and Tel Aviv University, and Israeli institutions in general. Tel Aviv boasts an outstanding group of individuals working in theoretical astrophysics, and we put our minds together while trying to understand how galaxies like our Milky Way have formed and evolved."