Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Tiny Israel a Nobel heavyweight, especially in chemistry

Tiny Israel a Nobel heavyweight, especially in chemistry

Latest Israeli laureates, Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt, are the fifth and sixth winners of the chemistry prize in under a decade
By Haviv Rettig Gur

The Nobel chemistry medal (photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel has long punched far above its demographic weight when it comes to the Nobel Prize.

The latest Nobel laureates, Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt, announced Wednesday, mark Israel’s fifth and sixth winners of the chemistry prize in under a decade.

Israelis Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover won the prize in chemistry in 2004, together with American colleague Irwin Rose, for their research into ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation, a process within cells responsible for diseases including cancer, cystic fibrosis and others.

Ada Yonath won the 2009 chemistry prize, together with colleagues Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz, for her study of the protein-producing part of the cell known as the ribosome – groundbreaking work that led to treatments for leukemia, glaucoma and HIV, as well as antidepressant drugs.

Israeli Nobel Prize winner Ada Yonath, who is also a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science, at a press conference in Rehovot (Photo credit: FLASH90)

Yonath was the first woman among Israel’s Nobel laureates, the first woman from the Middle East to win a science Nobel and the first woman in 45 years to win the prize for chemistry.

Tel-Aviv born Daniel Shechtman’s 2011 chemistry Nobel for the discovery of quasicrystals was perhaps the most dramatic of the awards. Shechtman’s discovery of quasicrystals, made in 1982, “fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter,” according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman speaks to media at a press conference in Jerusalem on October 09, 2011. (Photo by FLASH90)

But the discovery faced ridicule and disbelief among scientists. “For a long time it was me against the world,” Shechtman once said. “I was a subject of ridicule and lectures about the basics of crystallography. The leader of the opposition to my findings was the two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, the idol of the American Chemical Society and one of the most famous scientists in the world.”

Shechtman was eventually vindicated, with his discovery playing a key role in the development of important industrial and commercial materials.

Former science minister Daniel Hershkowitz (second from left), in an unusual meeting in July 2012 with Israeli Nobel laureates. Participants included Ada Yonath (left), Aaron Ciechanover (second from right), and Israel Aumann (right). (photo credit: Gil Yohanan/Flash90)

Israelis have also won Nobels in other subjects in recent years.

Daniel Kahneman (photo credit: US GOV, Wikimedia Commons)

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel in economics in 2002 for his study of risk in economic behavior.

Three years later, Hebrew University professor Yisrael Aumann also won the economics prize.

Aumann won for his groundbreaking study of game theory, the study of decision-making among multiple interacting parties in a group or system, such as governments, markets or organizations.

Professor Yisrael (Robert) Aumann (photo credit: Flash90)

Three Israelis have also received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in seeking regional peace agreements. These include former prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, and Israel’s current president Shimon Peres.

And Israel boasts one Nobel Prize in Literature: S. Y. Agnon, who won the prestigious award in 1966 “for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people,” in the words of the Swedish award committee.

S.Y. Agnon, the only Israeli author who has ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature, published his first novella a century ago. (photo credit: Courtesy Agnon House/JTA)

The last two 2013 Nobel prizes, for literature and for peace, will be announced Thursday and Friday, respectively.

The Nobel Prizes were established in the 1895 will of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. Each award is worth 8 million kronor, or about $1.25 million.

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