The Schwartz/Reisman Institute for Theoretical Physics

The massive laboratories where scientists probe the nature of the universe – think the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, or the Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory in Shanghai – can cost millions or even billions of dollars to build. But in the world of theoretical physics, the smartest possible investment simply involves gathering the best minds together where the conversation—like the coffee—can freely flow.

This is the “business model” behind an exciting new initiative at the Weizmann Institute of Science: The Schwartz/Reisman Institute for Theoretical Physics.

“Discussion drives discovery,” says Prof. Eli Waxman (pictured here), a theoretical astrophysicist who serves as director of the new Institute. “Unlike professional conferences, which are often rigidly structured, we hope to create an open environment that will encourage the emergence of new ideas.”

Established by a major gift from The Gerald Schwartz & Heather Reisman Foundation of Toronto, The Schwartz/Reisman Institute of Theoretical Physics has a three-fold mission:  to highlight the exceptional theoretical physics work being done at the Institute, to attract world-leading theoreticians to the campus, and to create the personal connections that can lead to fruitful international collaboration.

Following the successful model established by a handful of other theoretical physics institutions—most notably at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and also including Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz—ITP “conversations” are kicked off in the context of specialized, on-campus workshops. Scheduled approximately four times per year and lasting up to two weeks each, these workshops attract a diverse cadre of senior researchers, postdocs and students from around the globe.

Participants in the inaugural workshop at the Weizmann Institute, which took place in the spring, included theoreticians from Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, CERN, TIFR and many other leading institutions, alongside a number of “local stars” from Israeli academia.  Entitled “Cosmological Probes of Fundamental Physics,” the workshop was conceived of and hosted by the Weizmann Institute’s Dr. Kfir Blum who says that, due to dramatic changes in the way we observe and measure cosmological phenomena, it’s time for a dramatic change in the conversation.

“Scientists are swimming in new data, thanks to state-of-the-art detection techniques,” he says. “With three lectures a day plus plenty of free time for informal discussion, we examined how these revolutionary developments are affecting the way we approach the big questions. It was a very rewarding event.”

The second workshop, scheduled for December, will be hosted by Dr. Erez Berg of the Department of Condensed Matter Physics. The subject: quantum phases of matter.

”The subject is rich in terms of theory, but it also has plenty of practical significance—for  instance, for establishing the principles needed to design new materials,” Dr. Berg says, adding that the workshop will also focus on the unexpected convergence between condensed matter physics, high energy physics, and quantum information theory. “For most of the participants, this will be their first visit, and I’m looking forward to introducing them to Israel, as well as to the great work being done here.”

In physics, theory can lead to new experimental approaches, something that ITP director Prof. Waxman knows from personal experience. 

He models transient emissions from deep space, something scientists know about theoretically, but is difficult to measure. He is working on a practical Israeli-American project that aims to develop a mini-satellite for detecting the emissions that he and his team have predicted. “If the satellite project is successful,” he says, “it will allow us to study stellar explosions and the dynamics associated with super-massive black holes. It may also help detect the source of gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of space-time predicted by Einstein back in 1915, but first observed by astronomers just this year. As a theoretician, I never planned to go into the satellite-building business. But you never know where the theory will take you.”

Prof. Eli Waxman