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Saturday, January 28, 2023
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Last week, SAR High School students and faculty were mesmerized and inspired by a presentation on the James Webb Space Telescope, given by SAR alum and astrophysicist Yarone Tokayer. Tokayer used his extensive knowledge and expertise of astronomy and astrophysics to explain why the successful launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope was named by Science Magazine as the Breakthrough of the Year 2022. It has been described as the “largest and most advanced telescope ever launched by humans,” allowing scientists to see views of the galaxies and stars forming back at the beginning of time—only a few million years after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.

Tokayer explained to the students and faculty the scientific goals of launching this telescope, how it has been designed to send back to earth amazing never-seen-before views of the universe including the farthest galaxies ever seen, and exactly what it means that the images allow scientists to see back to the beginning of time. He shared actual images sent back to earth by the James Webb Telescope and described what scientists have learned so far, and what they hope to learn in the next 20 years of the telescope’s existence.

Over 120 students from all grade levels and students in all science classes—physics, chemistry, and biology—attended his presentation during their free activity period, as well as faculty members from every department.

Tokayer spoke in terms the students could understand, imagine and relate to, giving them terrific analogies that helped them visualize how the telescope works, what is unique about it and what it means that it sees back to the early origins of the universe.

“The presentation was fascinating and provided an easy to understand explanation of what the universe expanding means,” said Benny Rosenblum, a ninth grader. “Learning about how the telescope can see different wavelengths of light and allowing us to see back in time was amazing. The size of the universe compared to us changed my view of everything.”

Students were fully engaged, as he helped them feel the excitement of the telescope’s abilities. He explained clearly, interacted with them—asking them questions, answering the questions they posed and enabling them to comprehend what is so unique about this telescope and this project. He showed them how the honeycomb sunshield unfolded, explained its role and showed amazing side-by-side images sent back by the Hubble and James Webb Telescopes to help the students appreciate the advanced abilities of this new telescope.

“He gave an analogy to explain how the images that we see now, are of events from millions of years ago,” explained ninth grader Eli Bodner. “I used the analogy to explain the telescope to my family.”

Students reacted most positively, staying long into their lunch period to continue asking questions.

“Everything we learn enhances our understanding of the complex universe we are a part of,” said 11th grader Eliana Fromer. “Mr. Tokayer explained that he doesn’t expect our view of the universe to be the same in 30 years because of the findings of this telescope.”

Learning about this powerful invention was especially meaningful for students who are passionate about space and the universe as a whole. Junior Gabriella Friedman explained, “I love to read about astrophysics and theoretical physics, and this felt like the climax of my personal reading. It was encouraging to see a totally Orthodox Jew pursuing fields of study similar to my interests.”

Tokayer, who graduated from SAR High School in 2009 and returned as a teacher from 2014-2019, holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from The Cooper Union and a master’s degree in the philosophy of physics from Columbia. After his time at SAR, he joined the astrophysics laboratory at Columbia University. He is currently pursuing a PhD in physics from Yale University, where he studies cosmology and high energy astrophysics.

“The SAR HS student body and faculty were thrilled to see Mr. Tokayer pursue his dreams and were excited to have him return to enlighten them on this major event in Astrophysics,” said biology teacher Tobie Brandriss, who organized the program and introduced the scientist. She explained that he helped them understand and feel the statements that H. Holden Thorp, the editor of Science Magazine wrote in his editorial explaining the telescope’s choice for Breakthrough of the Year:

This…”remarkable new space telescope…has rekindled a sense of awe and wonder…It’s hard to imagine a more exciting look into the beauty of nature than understanding how the Universe formed and whether life exists elsewhere…scientists recognize how little we understand about the Universe…And it is a reminder of how great science requires great humility.”

The presentation opened the students’ eyes to a view of the universe that has never before been exposed. Said Fromer, “What made the biggest impression on me was how little we really know and how much more there is to learn.” Thanks to the James Webb Telescope, all this is possible.

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