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Listening to the stars

Physicist Pierre Kaufmann was one of the pioneers of radio astronomy and solar physics in Brazil

Public domain image Kaufmann, who died at the age of 78, became a leading figure in radio astronomy in BrazilPublic domain image

Pierre Kaufmann’s fascination with astronomy began back in his childhood, when he observed the trail of light left behind by shooting stars streaking through the sky at the ranch where he lived with his parents and brother, in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. His desire to understand this and other celestial phenomena led him to pursue a career in physics, and years later he would become one of the pioneers of radio astronomy in Brazil. Kaufmann died in São Paulo on February 17, 2016, at the age of 78.

Kaufmann came to Brazil in 1941 with his family, fleeing World War II. In 1957, when he was 19, he began his undergraduate studies in physics at the Mackenzie Presbyterian University School of Philosophy, Sciences and Literature in São Paulo. Before that, in 1954 he joined the Association of Amateur Astronomers, which set up the first radio telescope in Brazil in 1962 at the Ibirapuera Planetarium. In 1960, the association became part of the newly formed Mackenzie Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics Center (Craam).

“Professor Kaufmann was the father of radio astronomy research in São Paulo, having obtained FAPESP support for a project on radio stars back in 1962,” FAPESP Scientific Director Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz tells Agência FAPESP. “With a highly successful career, he made a strong contribution to the development of science and technology in the state of São Paulo.” Astronomer Jacques Lepine of the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences of the University of São Paulo (IAG-USP) says that “Kaufmann played an important role in radio astronomy research and helped make it possible to build a radio telescope in the city of Campos do Jordão in 1964 and later in Atibaia.”

The antenna built in Atibaia was the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere and helped Kaufmann produce an extensive body of scientific works on radio astronomy and solar physics. “The installation of the radio telescope was very important for strengthening radio astronomy in Brazil and for making Kaufmann a great figure in the field,” Lepine adds.

Kaufmann was also a researcher at the Center for Semiconductor Components (CCS) of the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and associate professor at the USP Polytechnic School. He helped build the Solar Submillimeter Telescope in the Argentine Andes. There, in 2004, Kaufmann and his colleagues identified a new type of solar explosion that produces what are called T rays (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 188). “Kaufmann looked into the future and found important niches in which Brazil could make groundbreaking scientific discoveries with major impacts,” says physicist Adriana Valio, graduate course coordinator for sciences and geospatial applications at Mackenzie and coordinator of astronomy and space science for the FAPESP Office of the Scientific Director. “He was an example of determination and loyalty,” she adds.

Kaufmann published more than 200 scientific papers in addition to the book La atmósfera solar y su investigación a través de ondas radioeléctricas [The sun’s atmosphere and research through radio electric waves]. In 2016, he and his associates observed solar explosions in the 3 to 7 terahertz (THz) frequencies for the first time. The announcement was made at the annual meeting of the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society in June 2016 in Colorado, USA.