850 גג

European Space Agency refuses to name Israeli in sensational discovery

Prof. Tsevi Maze is among those responsible for the discovery of a new black hole, the heaviest on the Milky Way; 'All our science depends on international collaborations and if that comes to an end, science here will freefall into an abyss

Elad Zeret|
In the late 1930s, Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, along with his partner Hartland Snyder, formulated a theory tracing the collapse of a star and its transformation into a black hole. Black holes hadn’t yet gained importance in physics at the time and the theory attracted much opposition. But what started out as formulae and calculations rolled into popular science fiction books and, more than 30 years later, into the sensational discovery of the first black hole, Cygnus X-1.
Just two weeks ago, the European Space Agency announced the discovery of a new black hole, the heaviest on the Milky Way, 33 times bigger than the Sun and 2,000 light years from Earth. Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Tsevi Mazeh, who was recently awarded the Israel Prize in physics, is among those responsible for the European Gaia spacecraft’s discovery. But if you ask him how excited he was that week, in which he both learned of his Israel prize award and his research on the new black was published, he’ll swiftly answer “The Israel prize wins bigtime.”
3 View gallery
פרופ' צבי מזא"ה
פרופ' צבי מזא"ה
Prof. Tsevi Mazeh
(Photo: Tel Aviv University)
“I cried a bit. I’m Polish” Prof. Mazeh recalls the emotional moment. “I knew I was nominated but I saw the award announcement - except for physics, so I thought ‘OK, they probably decided to give physics a miss’. And then, just as I started my weekly Gemara study, they called me and said the minister of education wanted to talk to me. I didn’t put it together at all. I then called my wife and wrote to the children. But I went back to learning Gemara.”
So, the local beats the big universe? “This black hole is a process that’s taken years. We’ve been dealing with it for seven months, but the Israel prize came all at once.”
Receiving the award comes at tense times. Prof. Mazeh’s political views are deeply rooted in the left and he’s a staunch opponent of the government and its leaders.
You nonetheless agreed to accept the prize from this government. “True, I’m very much on the left, and I’m ambivalent about the ceremony, but convinced me it’s a state ceremony, and it’s not as if Netanyahu and Kish are giving me the prize, but rather the State of Israel and the committee of experts in chemistry and physics, so I decided to accept it.”
Under his scientific books on the matter, Stephen Hawkins is probably the person probably most identified with the concept of black holes. Most of us, however, don’t understand what they are and what they mean.
Help us understand. How does astrophysics affect our lives? “I have a parable for this. Let’s imagine we’re born in a closed world with no windows or openings. In this world, there’s one plant and people develop biological theories based on this plant. Now, someone comes along and drills hole in the wall and peeks out, suddenly discovering a whole world of trees and grass and flowers. That’s what we’re doing. We’re taking telescopes and peeking out to the world. The telescope is the hole in the world and the world is different from what we know. There’s no black hole on Earth and we, the astronomists, managed to discover the first black hole back in 1971.”
And what does your new discovery mean? “Not only is this black hole broad and heavy, it seems to have been created during the very early stages of the galaxy. It might even be a cluster of stars external to the galaxy that merged and then dispersed. It gives us some kind of leverage in trying to understand how black holes are formed. As for the most recently discovered one – it’s very close.”
Close? Can we get pulled into it? “If you get too close, you’ll get pulled in. But it’s thousands of light years away and getting close isn’t easy. In-universe terms, it’s close, but the galaxy is huge.”
Is space full of black holes? “I think so, but at great distances from one another. The closest two are two thousand light years away from us. That’s far away enough not to worry.”
What about asteroids hitting us? “I don’t think we can say there’s nothing to worry about and we can’t say that some asteroid won’t come close to us in two years. Asteroids have come to visit us and they made a huge mess.”
Do you mean at the time of the dinosaurs? “Yes, 65 million years ago.” No time at all. “Again, in space terms.”

Putting an end to the oil superpowers

This isn’t the first time Prof. Mazeh (78) has been involved in groundbreaking ideas. He was among the first to look for planets beyond the solar system and before they were discovered, was one of the earliest astrophysicists to insist that the solar systems are not like each other.
“The technology was different when I started looking for planets. They told me, ‘Do you really want us to give you observation time to look for something we know doesn’t exist?’ There was a theory that planets have to be like in the solar system, and that all solar systems are like each other. I set out on my search believing it doesn’t have to be so. In the end, it turned out it really wasn’t so.
This is the essence of astronomy: peeking out and seeing the universe. It can lead to a better understanding of the laws of physics that apply to the universe, and to us.”
3 View gallery
(Photo: Rian Frois)
Like what? “Like the helium element, named after Helios the sun god, first observed in the sun. You could say ‘What do I care about what elements there are in the sun? Why are you even going to look for things so far away?’ But here we are. We discovered a new element and it can serve us here. There’s proton-proton fusion inside the sun turning hydrogen into helium. So, if we learn how to imitate the inside of the Sun, we’ve solved our energy problem. We’ll be able to produce hydrogen out of helium, releasing a great deal of energy as the sun does.
Putting an end to the oil and gas superpowers like Qatar and Saudi Arabia? “Yes, the story would be over. We’re working on it right now. I recently read that they managed to hold the plasma for a hundred seconds at a temperature of ten million degrees, that’s what’s needed to release energy.
“There’s a famous story about Queen Victoria visiting the royal laboratory in London where they were playing around researching electricity. It was so theoretical – totally physics in a lab. When the queen was shown what they were doing, she asked ‘What is this good for? What is this nonsense and why am I paying English taxpayers’ money for it?’ She concluded saying ‘I’d be very glad if you could find a way to operate this electricity to collect more taxes from British citizens.’ Everything we’ve developed, like electricity and computers, started out as scientists playing around in laboratories. And now, as the innovation rate has grown exponentially, we have no way of knowing where it’ll lead. Astronomy is founded on human curiosity about what’s going on outside."

ESO doesn’t want us

And this is all about budgeting. “It’s all a question of resource allocation. Building and launching the European Spacecraft Gaia cost $1 billion. All the countries in the European Space Agency give money. Israel isn’t a member of the organization. Shay Zucker (who had been my student and is now a professor here in Tel Aviv) and I were taken on for our abilities. They thought we could help them. But the Israel Space Agency, for which I have respect, isn’t part of it.”
Do you have your criticism on this front? “Sure. I’d like Israel to be a member, but I’m not sure they’d have us. I always tell myself I’m a guest and that I need to be grateful the Europeans have granted their space agency huge budgets. Their ESO space observatory is a dream. Nearly all the European countries are members of the organization and they give lots of money. Not Israel. I don’t think Israel would be accepted today anyway.”
The war has turned us into pariahs. ”Yes, they don’t want us. Look, it doesn’t affect me. I think about the young people who’ve just completed their doctorates and how much it’ll affect them. Anyone who belongs to an academic institution in ESO member countries can submit a research proposal and get time on one of ESOs fantastic telescopes. Time means a lot in our profession. As Israel doesn’t allocate funding, you need to rely on collaborations with people within ESO countries. Since October 7, we’re in a very difficult position when it comes to cooperation.”
Do you feel it on a personal level? “Firstly, I had an article rejected by a British journal. I don’t know how many times this has happened over my career. Maybe once or twice. This time, I think it’s political. My articles generally don’t’ get rejected. Of course, it could happen, but usually, the reviewers tell me to fix things here and there. But rejecting my article without giving any serious reason is pretty final. Even the journal’s editor noticed and suggested we request an arbitrator to review it.”
What did you do with the article? “We sent a letter to another journal, an American one. We’re waiting. We’ve been waiting while the British journal has been trying to find an arbitrator. But at a certain point, I said we should submit it somewhere else. It’s an excellent article and it’s, as yet, unpublished. And we live on publications. I think it’s because of the war. I have no proof. It’s what I feel.”
How bad can it get? “It could be much worse. They could say they don’t want Israeli members in the AIA (Aerospace Industries Association). I can imagine that happening. I hope it won’t. All our science depends on international collaborations and if that comes to an end, science here will freefall into an abyss. And you know, Israel’s aerial defense against the Iranian attack – where’s that from? This is totally physics and engineering developed by the greatest scientists Israel has to offer who studied at universities where they learned their thinking and got their inspiration. And all this will very quickly disappear. Sadly, those in charge of the State of Israel’s policies don’t understand this.”
Do you think they don’t understand this? “I feel they don’t. There are politicians – without naming names - who don’t can’t even speak English. Some say ‘Why should we care about the rest of the world? We can get by without them.’ What do they mean by ‘Why should we care about the rest of the world?’ We’re connected in every way to the rest of the world. When the world spits us out, and it’s spitting out more and more, we won’t be able to hold up here. We can’t agree to such deterioration. Most people don’t understand this. I said the world would spit us out when I was in America 40 years ago.”
3 View gallery
מחאות נגד ישראל באוניברסיטת ניו יורק שבארה"ב
מחאות נגד ישראל באוניברסיטת ניו יורק שבארה"ב
'These protestors at the universities will be running things in a few years'
(Photo: AFP)
Your detractors will tell you they’ve seen what happened when we relied on the rest of the world. It didn’t go well. Look at the protests at America’s leading universities. “You can always blame whoever you like. That’s not the issue. The issue is what did you do when you got to this situation and what you can do to improve it. In the eyes of the world, we’re doing things that shouldn’t be done. And these protestors at the universities will be running things in a few years. They’ll be the leaders. We have the responsibility to recognize our own situation, that’s terrible. That’s the first thing. Only then can we start talking about what’s going on with them.”
Do you fear for your work? Your contacts? “Lots of my friends know I strongly oppose this government, so they make the distinction. But I had a Zoom call last week in which the European Space Agency spokesman told me, ‘A decision has been made not to mention your name on the publication because you’re from Israel.’ And I said ‘This is a strange situation, as I also oppose the government,’ but they decided and that’s the way it was. I didn’t think it was worth fighting over. I’m so grateful to the European Space Agency for letting me work with them. But we’re still paying and will continue to pay a price. It's a slow process and it’ll blow up in our faces.”
A few days after that scandalous Zoom call disowning Prof. Mazeh’s contribution, European Space Agency Director of Science, Carole Mundell announced that the organization has no policy against Israel and that someone had made it up. Although what she said didn’t sound realistic, it’s hard to not feel uneasy about what one of Israel’s top astrophysicists said. The situation is unpleasant for Israelis, on all fronts.

"The stars that we see in the sky are actually suns"

He was born in Jerusalem into a Zionist- Religious family. His mother had come from Poland before the war and his father came on his own from Bialystok to study at the Hebrew University. “My father didn’t finish his studies,” he says. “He’d always say, ‘I want you to complete what I didn’t finish’. I think I’ve lived up to that.”
Did he live to see you become a professor? “Not a professor, but he saw me complete my PhD. He was very pleased. Later on, I don’t remember in which year, I signed a petition in Ha’aretz against the settlements He was a staunch Betari and when he saw it, he looked at me and said ‘That’s what you got a PhD for?”
Mazeh completed a BA in Mathematics and Physics at the Hebrew University and a master’s degree in Theoretical Physics and the Theory of Relativity. In search of a doctoral supervisor, he met astrophysicist, Prof. Yacov Shacham. He then realized he wanted to deal with astronomy.
For your doctoral thesis, you researched the Three-Body Problem. There’s a Netflix series now by that name. “Yes. I heard about that but I haven’t watched the series. I researched something very specific in the Three-Body Problem. I then moved to Tel Aviv University to deal with astronomy which requires observations. In Jerusalem, I was dealing with astrophysics that involves taking other people’s observations and interpreting them, what exactly is going there in the stars, based on what other people see.”
How do you conduct observations? “Right, so it’s changed dramatically since I started in the 70s. We used to have to read articles on certain subjects and when I’d spot something mysterious or incomprehensible, I’d try checking if my assumption was correct via observations. In the beginning, I’d drive to Mitzpe Ramon and sleep there. That’s where the only telescope was. Now, it all comes to you.”
Space has now become a tourist destination for billionaires like Elon Musk and Eytan Stibbe. You can go if you can afford it. Would you like to go to space? “Not at all”
Really? “I’m interested in data that comes from space. Going to space would make me like everyone else. It’s no secret that space is the final frontier. As soon as the Phoenicians in Tyre learned how to make ships, they crossed the Mediterranean and reached Carthage.”
“At first, they established a small trading station with a few people. It gradually grew into Carthage which became larger than Tyre. America is another example. As soon as the Dutch and English could build ships that could cross the Atlantic, it changed the whole story. Very rapidly, this little colony became its own mother state. I’m certain that’s what will happen in space. There’s already in colony in space, just like the Phoenicians’ little trading station. Gradually, and I don’t know how long it’ll take, they’ll build more and more there because it’ll be a colony where people will live their whole lives. The turning point will be when people start regarding this station as their home.
Who’ll emigrate there? “It's always the young and daring.”
A colony on Mars, in a sense, would be a station? “I don’t know. It could be Mars or the Moon, or a space station. There’s already a space station and tourist trips taking people there. It’s a question of the cost of launching every kilogram into space. There’ll be a breakthrough as soon as the price comes down.”
“Technological advance is speeding up at an exponential rate. I think about my grandfather and what kind of changes he experienced throughout his entire life. What did he see when he was 60 that he didn’t see when was ten? Almost nothing. Maybe radio. Now, think of yourself and what you’ve witnessed from the ages of ten to 40. You can’t even think about it. There were no mobile phones, no WhatsApp. Even home computers were a dream.”
What do you feel when you get pictures of gas nebulae from space, like those the Hubble telescope sends us? “Firstly, it’s amazing that we can get such quality photographs, but I’m more interested in what astrophysics we can learn from these pictures. Beyond the beauty and vastness of the universe, one asks what we learn about space. People are always involved in themselves. We used to think we were at the center, that Planet Earth was at the center and the Sun went around us. Copernicus came along and said it wasn’t so. The Sun is at the center and we are one of the planets. They then realized that these stars we see in the sky are suns like our sun. They gradually realized that there are a thousand billion such stars in our galaxy alone. And now – and this is the great breakthrough that I had the honor of being part of, is that these suns have their own planets circling them. Perhaps like Planet Earth, perhaps like Mars, perhaps like Jupiter. We don’t know yet. We’ve just begun. We don’t know their characteristics. We know about 5,000 planets, but we’re interested in the bigger galaxy. The theory now is that each sun has at least one planet.”
So, Natan Alterman’s ‘Stars Outside’ aren’t really stars but suns. "This is the central thing about astronomy: The stars that we see in the sky are actually suns. What’s a sun? A sun is something that burns inside and produces energy more or less at the strength of our sun. And now we also know that they have planets around them. So, what are we? We’re a speck of dust in the universe. The whole of Planet Earth is a speck of dust to this enormous force of the universe. We need some humility here. The psalmist said “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the Moon and the stars, which you have set in place. What is mankind that you are mindful of them human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4).
This citation is by no means unusual in conversation with Prof. Mazeh which is made up of scientific thinking peppered with sayings and quotations from the Hebrew Bible, Mishnayot, and a whole bookcase of Jewish books, Copernicus, Maimonides, Einstein and the Psalmist. He’s a kippa-wearing, mitzva-keeping man with one foot planted in space and the other planted firmly in the ground, in the history of the Jewish People. It might be an unusual and somewhat surprising combination, but it’s important in appreciating Mazeh’s breadth of vision.
Doesn’t dealing with astrophysics contradict religion? “No. Why?”
Because religion says that God created this universe for man “No. That’s what you say.”
So, for what? “I don’t have an answer to that. God created the world. I don’t know why. I believe there to be a transcendent god who is above the corporeal universe. He created the world. Period. Why? I don’t know. I firstly believe in a god who willingly created the universe and I believe in the Jewish religion that guides me as to how to worship Him.”
But how does your understanding of the universe sit with men prescribing how to worship God? “I worship God the way the sages decided because this is the way the Jewish People have chosen to worship our god. Why? I don’t have an answer. I’m committed to it, maybe it’s because of my education I think it’s important to worship God. There are Muslims and Christians who worship God in other ways. I was educated and raised in Jewish texts. I learn Gemara. I’ve taught Gemara. I’ve edited books about ideas in the Torah. I’m constantly involved in these things. I think the Jewish People have created a magnificent work of culture, and part of that is keeping mitzvot.”
“The Torah says “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” It says it three times. Does that mean not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, or not cooking meat and milk together? That’s the question. The sages decided. I wouldn’t dare put a spoon that touched milk into a pot of milk.”
But the sages said a lot of things that are not relevant to our times “How Biblical ethics are viewed has definitely evolved. It’s a dynamic process. Sadly, our current rabbis aren’t so dynamic and we can only hope the Jewish religion will be able to adapt itself to changing times. But what worries me more is what people do in the name of the Jewish religion. The land isn’t ours. God says this all the time. If you don’t act well here, I’ll start over, as he’s done several times. We forget that we’re here on probation. Any rabbi telling you otherwise is distorting Judaism.”
You mean the settlements. “Definitely. Their ethics are in contravention of the Torah. If we really want to plant ourselves in the entire country, they should give Palestinians citizenship. But the moment that happens, the Zionist enterprise is over. Everyone gets that. Israelis and Palestinians are subject to two different legal systems. A Palestinian child walking five or six kilometers to school on his own needs Israeli military protection so settlers don’t bother him. This doesn’t shock all Israelis. The easiest thing to do is ignore it. Why have we built the fences? So, people won’t see what’s going on over there.“
Do your identity or religious symbols make you feel ashamed? “No, because my Jewish religion is true. What I see before me is a Judaism that has become a hatchet for digging by people whose views I very much oppose. If we don’t stop them, the State of Israel will sink. The Iranians are only one part of the problem. We obviously need a strong army, but we must understand that force isn’t everything and nothing’s solved by force. At the end of the day, we need to live in peace with the people around us.”
You know what I’ve noticed? Over half our conversation has been about black holes, the universe and the Sun’s path and you’re all excited. Ultimately, with all this universe, what affects our lives is human ethics. “That’s the tension. On one hand, man is a speck of dust in the universe, but this speck of dust has a moral responsibility. What are you? We’ll all soon be in the ground. Why should we argue about this piece of land? How can we argue in God’s name over jurisdiction over the Temple Mount? When you come to a sacred place, you must bow your head in subservience, not argue about jurisdiction. I believe this is the opposite of true religion. Judaism has understood this all along, apart from in the most recent generation. It was forbidden to go up to the Temple Mount but, because of their religion, they want Armageddon. They want to destroy the Dome of the Rock. We’re in big trouble.”
Who would you choose, dead or alive, to have a conversation with? “Obviously, with no hesitation, the man I most respect, Maimonides the greatest Jewish philosopher. He was committed to Halacha but also wrote the philosophical book, Guide to the Perplexed. He’s an amazing man. I’m not sure he’d agree to talk to me. It would be hard to find out. But I’d be very glad to talk to him about everything.”
So, if you had to choose between science and Judaism, you’d choose Judaism. “Yes, For sure.”
<< Follow Ynetnews on Facebook | Twitter | Instagram >>
The commenter agrees to the privacy policy of Ynet News and agrees not to submit comments that violate the terms of use, including incitement, libel and expressions that exceed the accepted norms of freedom of speech.