A Bright Future

After nearly five decades at Caltech, Tom Soifer is still smiling. The former Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy (PMA) continues to advance our understanding of the universe by hunting for dust-obscured galaxies—DOGs—where others can’t see.

As Caltech’s Harold Brown Professor of Physics and director of the Spitzer Science Center, Soifer (BS ’68) helps to develop new instruments to extend the evolution of infrared astronomy—a field that was founded at Caltech by Soifer’s mentor, Gerry Neugebauer, the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Physics, Emeritus.

Since his undergraduate days, Soifer has seen Caltech expand its preeminence in astronomy and astrophysics through collaborations with JPL to create the world’s most powerful and sophisticated observatories and space-based platforms. Among them:

“We’re interested in leading—interested in breaking new ground.”
- Tom Soifer

Caltech’s unparalleled collection of astronomical facilities provides an extraordinary foundation for the most challenging scientific investigations and discoveries. What’s next? Soifer plans to install his new infrared instrument at the W. M. Keck Observatory in order to study faint objects that are within reach of the Keck telescopes but hidden by dust at optical wavelengths. With this expanded capability, the Keck telescopes will provide new answers to profound questions about galaxy formation, the evolution of stars, and how much of the universe lies behind a veil of dust.

“We’re interested in leading—interested in breaking new ground,” says Soifer.

As the former chair of PMA, he helped to secure an endowment from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, with matching funds from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, to establish the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics. With this endowment, the Burke Institute provides permanent support for Caltech’s exceptional theoretical physicists. Soifer also helped lay the groundwork for an endowment to establish a quantum science institute.

“Quantum computing is a very hard technical challenge—it’s a huge area of scientific opportunity, and we’re investing heavily,” Soifer says. “It’s very high risk. We’re not there yet, but Caltech is leading the way.”

Leading the future of science depends on such endowments, as well as flexible funding. In 2014, Caltech Chairman Emeritus Kent Kresa and Joyce Kresa contributed a $10 million endowment to generate discretionary funds that the chair holder can use to immediately support visionary research opportunities. The chair is currently held by Fiona Harrison, Caltech’s Benjamin M. Rosen Professor of Physics.

“The Kresa gift was a huge boost for us,” Soifer says. “Federal funding sources are exceedingly risk-averse, so it’s really important for us to be able to support work that’s new. If you have a great idea, you need to demonstrate that it actually works. That’s the kind of thing we use unrestricted funding for.”

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