Werner Israel

Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space Science

Physicist and cosmologist: Wrote the first logically precise theory for the simplicity of black holes (1967)

"If you really enjoy your work you never need a holiday."

Werner Israel relaxes into the barber chair, daydreaming. He’s thinking about his pending retirement and move to Victoria, British Columbia, while the hair stylist throws a protective cape over his chest and fastens it behind his neck. A 20-something woman, she’s been cutting his hair for about two years. The shop is in an Edmonton strip mall on 87th Avenue, not far from the University of Alberta where Israel works. He’s just gazing out the window when she draws him out of his thoughts by saying, “So what do you actually teach?”

Israel teaches cosmology, but he doesn’t answer right away. A few weeks earlier he had been interviewed for a television show, and the interviewer had mistakenly prepared all sorts of questions about makeup and cosmetics. He doesn’t want that to happen again, so he decides to first tell the hairdresser about the difference between cosmology and cosmetology; cosmology has nothing to do with lipstick or eye shadow. He launches into some basic ideas, about how the universe could have come from nothing, about the big bang theory — the idea that a false vacuum state could be the source of the enormous amount of energy that must have come from nowhere to create everything in an instant, and how cosmologists can accurately predict the relative amounts of elements manufactured in that moment of creation.

The hair stylist cuts his hair, listening attentively.

Israel then describes his own research into black holes, how they are these incredibly massive objects with so much gravity that anything near them falls in, even light. He gets carried away as he explains some of his theories about what happens if you fall into a black hole, and he doesn’t even notice that the haircut is over. “I’m terribly sorry if I’ve been boring you with all this physics,” he says, apologetically.

“Oh no, that was absolutely awesome, what you were telling me about cosmosis,” she says.

Israel quietly pays the usual $12 and his customary tip and walks out into the springtime sunshine, wondering about the meaning of this interesting new word the stylist has invented. At least he wasn’t a cosmetologist this time.

As a young scientist ...

When Werner Israel was about nine years old, both his parents became very ill and had to be hospitalized. Werner and his brother ended up living in the Cape Jewish Orphanage in Cape Town, South Africa, for four years. But they were not unhappy years. Israel remembers how one day, after his father began to feel better, he showed up with a set of encyclopedia books he had obtained from a peddler in exchange for an old suit. His father had been astute in recognizing his son’s talents, for the young Israel spent many hours poring over those books.

Israel became fascinated by stars and cosmology as a boy, but he had to teach himself some mathematics to understand what he was reading. He remembers sitting on the beach in Cape Town when he was 12, studying Calculus Made Easy by Silvanus P. Thompson, and he has never forgotten the epigraph on its first page: “What one fool can do, another can.”

By the late 1950s, Israel was working at the Dublin Institute in Ireland as a research scholar. When his term was almost up, he began looking for a job and discovered an assistant professorship available in Edmonton, Canada. He had no idea at the time where Edmonton was, but he knew it was where mathematician Max Wyman worked. Wyman’s papers on the theory of relativity were well known to Israel. So in 1958 Israel and his wife, Inge, moved to Edmonton, where they stayed for almost 40 years.

Read Werner Israel's answers to questions...The Science