Nobel Prize

Happy Yom Yerushalayim From Talmudology

The Nobel Prize, Jerusalem, and Being a Mensch

As we celebrate the liberation of Jerusalem with prayer and festive meals (and in Jerusalem itself, with parades and barbeques) let’s remind ourselves of a person who personifies the essence of a commitment to Jewish tradition, science and Zionism: Robert Aumann.

As we have mentioned before, in 2005 Aumann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. It recognized his work on conflict, cooperation, and game theory (yes, the same kind of game theory made famous by John Nash, portrayed in A Beautiful Mind). Aumann worked on the dynamics of arms control negotiations, and developed a theory of repeated games in which one party has incomplete information.  The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted that this theory is now "the common framework for analysis of long-run cooperation in the social science."

Jews have been yearning for the land of Israel, and for Jerusalem, for close to 2000 years – ever since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70, and the ensuing exile of the Jewish people. In our central prayer, which we recite three times a day, we ask the Lord to “return to Jerusalem Your city in mercy, and rebuild it and dwell therein.” Jerusalem is mentioned many thousands of times in the scriptures, in our other prayers, in the Talmud, and indeed in all our sources. So when the state of Israel was established in 1948, my brother and I made a determination eventually to make our lives there.
— Robert Aumann. "Biographical." From Nobel.org

Aumann’s speech to the Swiss Academy was a moving testimony to the Zionist dream, in which he was proud to have played a part. And Aumann knows the price of this dream; his oldest child, Shlomo, was killed in action while serving in the Israel Defense Forces in the 1982 Lebanon War.

Here is what the good Professor said in Stockholm. It is surely the only Nobel Prize Banquet Speech ever to mention the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem.

.ברוך אתה יי אלו-ינו מלך העולם הטוב והמיטיב

Blessed are you, God, our Lord, Monarch of the Universe, who is good and does good.

After partaking of a meal with fine wines, we recite this benediction when we are served with a superb wine.Your Royal Highnesses, we have, over the years, partaken of many fine wines. We have participated in the scientific enterprise: studied and taught, preserved, and pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge.

.למדנו ולימדנו, שמרנו ועשינו

We have participated in the human enterprise – raised beautiful families. And I have participated in the realization of a 2000-year-old dream – the return of my people to Jerusalem, to its homeland. And tonight, we have been served with a superb wine, in the recognition of the worth of our scientific enterprise. I feel very strongly that this recognition is not only for us, but for all of game theory, in Israel and in the whole world – teachers, students, colleagues, and co-workers. And especially for one individual, who is no longer with us – the mother of game theory, Oskar Morgenstern.

So, I offer my thanks to these, to the Nobel Foundation and the Nobel Committee, to our magnificent hosts, the country of Sweden, and to the Lord, who is good and does good.

For me, life has been – and still is – one tremendous joyride, one magnificent tapestry. There have been bad – very bad – times, like when my son Shlomo was killed and when my wife Esther died. But even these somehow integrate into the magnificent tapestry. In one of his beautiful letters, Shlomo wrote that there can be no good without bad. Both Shlomo and Esther led beautiful, meaningful lives, affected many people, each in his own way.
— Robert Aumann.

Robert Aumann and his cousin, Oliver Sacks

In 2015 the late great neurologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote a moving piece called The Sabbath. In it he recalled growing up in the orthodox Jewish community of north-west London. “Though I could not understand the Hebrew in the prayer book” he wrote “I loved its sound and especially hearing the old medieval prayers sung, led by our wonderfully musical hazan.”

But Sacks had a secret: he was attracted to men. His father made him admit to this, but Sacks asked that he not tell his mother. Sacks continues:

He did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at me: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” (She was no doubt thinking of the verse in Leviticus that read, “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”)

The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.

Sacks wrote about his homosexuality for the first time in his 2015 autobiography On the Move: A Life. And he found love later in his life, with his partner Bill Hayes, with whom he lived until Sacks died in 2015.

The cruel treatment Sacks received from his mother must have been a life-long burden, but Sacks found some solace in the behavior of his cousin - Robert Aumann. Let’s let Sacks tell the story:

During the 1990s, I came to know a cousin and contemporary of mine, Robert John Aumann, a man of remarkable appearance with his robust, athletic build and long white beard that made him, even at 60, look like an ancient sage. He is a man of great intellectual power but also of great human warmth and tenderness, and deep religious commitment — “commitment,” indeed, is one of his favorite words. Although, in his work, he stands for rationality in economics and human affairs, there is no conflict for him between reason and faith.

He insisted I have a mezuza on my door, and brought me one from Israel. “I know you don’t believe,” he said, “but you should have one anyhow.” I didn’t argue.

Towards the end of his life Sacks paid one last visit to Aumann.

I had felt a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover, Billy — my mother’s words still echoed in my mind — but Billy, too, was warmly received. How profoundly attitudes had changed, even among the Orthodox, was made clear by Robert John when he invited Billy and me to join him and his family at their opening Sabbath meal.

The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?

Robert Aumann, is not just a Zionist or a Nobel Laureate. He something far, far more important. He is a mensch.

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Israel's Noble History

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Update: There have been  no new Israeli winners of the Nobel Prize since this was posted last year. But the story of this remarkable group of talented Israelis is certainly worth telling again today, the Fifth of Iyyar, the anniversary of the day on which Israel declared statehood in 1948.

ISRAELI NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS FOR $200 PLEASE, ALEX

Quick. Name three Israelis who have won a Nobel Prize. Come on. You can do this. Still need a hint? Click here. See, I told you you'd know.  

OK, those were easy. How about this one.  Which Israel won a Nobel Prize for literature? Need a hint? He was awarded it in 1966 for " his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people" and his photo is shown here. Still not sure? You may have read his work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which was translated into English as Days of Awe...Of course; it was Shai Agnon, who was born in Galicia, moved to what was then Palestine (twice) and died in Jerusalem in 1970.

As of this year there have been twelve Israeli winners of the Nobel Prize. We've noted Agnon as the single winner for literature, and (as you may have answered correctly) there have been three winners of the Nobel Peace Prize: Menachem Begin (1978), Yizhak Rabin and Shimon Peres (both in 1994).  That leaves eight more prizes. In honor of Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, we will pause from our analysis of science in the Talmud and reflect on the Israeli winners of this prize, given each year (in accordance with the will of Alfred Nobel) "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."

DANIEL KAHNEMAN, ECONOMICS, 2002

Following at an eight year prize-drought, Israel picked up her fifth Nobel in 2002, when Daniel Kahneman was awarded the 2002 Prize in Economics. In his biographical sketch, Kahneman credits his early days in the IDF with the first cognitive illusion he discovered.

“… after an eventful year as a platoon leader I was transferred to the Psychology branch of the Israel Defense Forces….We were looking for manifestations of the candidates’ characters… we felt…we would be able to tell who would be a good leader and who would not. But the trouble was that, in fact, we could not tell... The story was always the same: our ability to predict performance at the school was negligible...I was so impressed by the complete lack of connection between the statistical information and the compelling experience of insight that I coined a term for it: “the illusion of validity.” Almost twenty years later, this term made it into the technical literature. It was the first cognitive illusion I discovered.
— Daniel Kahneman, Biographical sketch at Nobelprize.org

(I was about two-thirds of the way through Kahneman's recent best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow, when I left it on a flight from Tel Aviv. Please let me know if you find it.) 

CIECHANOVER AND HERSHKO, CHEMISTRY 2004

In 2004 Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko, both from the Technion in Haifa (together with Irwin Rose), were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of how cells breaks down some proteins and not others. They discovered ubiquitin-mediated proteolysis, a process where an enzyme system tags unwanted proteins with many molecules another protein called ubiquitin. The tagged proteins are then transported to the proteasome, a large multi-subunit protease complex, where they are degraded.

ROBERT AUMANN, ECONOMICS, 2005

Robert Aumanm from the Hebrew University won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on conflict, cooperation, and game theory (yes, the same kind of game theory made famous by John Nash, portrayed in A Beautiful Mind). Aumann worked on the dynamics of arms control negotiations, and developed a theory of repeated games in which one party has incomplete information.  The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted that this theory is now "the common framework for analysis of long-run cooperation in the social science." The kippah-wearing professor opened his speech at the Nobel Prize banquet with the following words (which were met with cries of  אמן from some members of the audience):

ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוקנו מלך העולם הטוב והמיטב

The four-minute video of his talk should be required viewing for every Jewish high school student (and their teachers).

ADA YONATH, CHEMISTRY, 2009

Remember ribosomes from high school? They are the machines inside all living cells that read messenger RNA and link amino acids in the right order to make proteins.  In 2009, Ada Yonath from the Weizmann Institute shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on the structure and function of the ribosome. Specifically, she reported their three-dimensional structure and her work in the 1980s was "instrumental for obtaining the robust and well diffracting ribosome crystals that eventually led to high resolution structures of the two ribosomal subunits." Why is this important?  Well, many antibiotics target the ribosomes of bacteria, and so knowledge of how antibiotics bind to the ribosome may help in the design of new and more efficient drugs.  

Available structures of antibiotics targeting the small ribosomal subunit (30S). From Franceschi and Duffy. Structure-based drug design meets the ribosome.    Biochemical Pharmacology    2006; 71; 1016-1025.

Available structures of antibiotics targeting the small ribosomal subunit (30S). From Franceschi and Duffy. Structure-based drug design meets the ribosome. Biochemical Pharmacology 2006; 71; 1016-1025.

DAN SHECHTMAN, CHEMISTRY, 2011

in 1982, Shechtman was working at the US. National Institute of Standards and Technology. As he waslooking through an electronic microscope at the structure of new material that he was studying, and noted that the atoms had arranged themselves "in a manner that was contrary to the laws of nature." 

אין חיה כזו – There is no such entitiy" was how he recalled responding to what he had seen.  Shechtman double checked his findings and submitted them for publication; the paper was rejected immediately, not worthy even of being sent on for peer review.  But Shechtman did manage to get his work published, work that the Nobel Committee found questioned a fundamental truth of science: that all crystals consist of repeating, periodic patters. Shechtman's discovery of what were later to be called quasicrystals  was important not only because of what he found. It was important that he found. Here's why:

Over and over again in the history of science, researchers have been forced to do battle with established “truths”, which in hindsight have proven to be no more than mere assumptions. One of the fiercest critics of Dan Shechtman and his quasicrystals was Linus Pauling, himself a Nobel Laureate on two occasions. This clearly shows that even our greatest scientists are not immune to getting stuck in convention. Keeping an open mind and daring to question established knowledge may in fact be a scientist’s most important character traits.
— The Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2011. Information for the Public

ARIEH WARSHEL AND MICHAEL LEVITT, CHEMISTRY 2013

Israel's two most recent Nobel Prize winners are Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt. In 2013 they shared the prize in, yes, you've guessed it...Chemistry, (together with Marin Karplus, a Jew, but not yet an Israeli).  Working together in the 1970s on GOLEM, the supercomputer at the Weizmann Institute, they developed computer programs that could simulate chemical reactions with the help of quantum physics.  These programs, and their offshoots, are used in a variety ways, from optimizing solar panels to designing new drugs.

THE LAST WORD

There you have it. Twelve remarkable Israelis who have contributed to peace efforts, science and literature, and whose efforts were recognized by a Nobel Prize. As we celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut, let's give the last word to the 2005 winner Robert Aumann, who noted in his banquet speech just  what it really important in life. 

We have participated in the human enterprise – raised beautiful families. And I have participated in the realization of a 2000-year-old dream – the return of my people to Jerusalem, to its homeland.
— Robert Aumann, Nobel Prize banquet speech, 2005.

 

 

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Israel's Noble History

Free Clipart

Israeli Nobel Prize Winners for $200 Please, Alex

Quick. Name three Israelis who have won a Nobel Prize. Come on. You can do this. Still need a hint? Click here. See, I told you you'd know.  

Picture of Agnon.jpg

OK, those were easy. How about this one.  Which Israel won a Nobel Prize for literature? Need a hint? He was awarded it in 1966 for " his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people" and his photo is shown here. Still not sure? You may have read his work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which was translated into English as Days of Awe...Of course; it was Shai Agnon, who was born in Galicia, moved to what was then Palestine (twice) and died in Jerusalem in 1970.

As of this year there have been twelve Israeli winners of the Nobel Prize. We've noted Agnon as the single winner for literature, and (as you may have answered correctly) there have been three winners of the Nobel Peace Prize: Menachem Begin (1978), Yizhak Rabin and Shimon Peres (both in 1994).  That leaves eight more prizes. In honor of Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, we will pause from our analysis of science in the Talmud and reflect on the Israeli winners of this prize, given each year (in accordance with the will of Alfred Nobel) "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."

Daniel Kahneman, Economics, 2002

Following at an eight year prize-drought, Israel picked up her fifth Nobel in 2002, when Daniel Kahneman was awarded the 2002 Prize in Economics. In his biographical sketch, Kahneman credits his early days in the IDF with the first cognitive illusion he discovered.

… after an eventful year as a platoon leader I was transferred to the Psychology branch of the Israel Defense Forces….We were looking for manifestations of the candidates’ characters… we felt…we would be able to tell who would be a good leader and who would not. But the trouble was that, in fact, we could not tell... The story was always the same: our ability to predict performance at the school was negligible...I was so impressed by the complete lack of connection between the statistical information and the compelling experience of insight that I coined a term for it: “the illusion of validity.” Almost twenty years later, this term made it into the technical literature. It was the first cognitive illusion I discovered.
— Daniel Kahneman, Biographical sketch at Nobelprize.org

(Last summer I was about two-thirds of the way through Kahneman's recent best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow, when I left it on a flight from Tel Aviv. Please let me know if you find it.) 

Ciechanover and Hershko, Chemistry 2004

In 2004 Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko, both from the Technion in Haifa (together with Irwin Rose), were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of how cells breaks down some proteins and not others. They discovered ubiquitin-mediated proteolysis, a process where an enzyme system tags unwanted proteins with many molecules another protein called ubiquitin. The tagged proteins are then transported to the proteasome, a large multi-subunit protease complex, where they are degraded.

Robert Aumann, Economics, 2005

Robert Aumanm from the Hebrew University won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on conflict, cooperation, and game theory (yes, the same kind of game theory made famous by John Nash, portrayed in A Beautiful Mind). Aumann worked on the dynamics of arms control negotiations, and developed a theory of repeated games in which one party has incomplete information.  The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted that this theory is now "the common framework for analysis of long-run cooperation in the social science." The kippah-wearing professor opened his speech at the Nobel Prize banquet with the following words (which were met with cries of  אמן from some members of the audience):

ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוקנו מלך העולם הטוב והמיטב

The four-minute video of his talk should be required viewing for every modern-orthodox high school student (and their teachers). 

Ada Yonath, Chemistry, 2009

Remember ribosomes from high school? They are the machines inside all living cells that read messenger RNA and link amino acids in the right order to make proteins.  In 2009, Ada Yonath from the Weizmann Institute shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on the structure and function of the ribosome. Specifically, she reported their three-dimensional structure and her work in the 1980s was "instrumental for obtaining the robust and well diffracting ribosome crystals that eventually led to high resolution structures of the two ribosomal subunits." Why is this important?  Well, many antibiotics target the ribosomes of bacteria, and so knowledge of how antibiotics bind to the ribosome may help in the design of new and more efficient drugs.  

Available structures of antibiotics targeting the small ribosomal subunit (30S). From Franceschi and Duffy. Structure-based drug design meets the ribosome.    Biochemical Pharmacology    2006; 71; 1016-1025.

Available structures of antibiotics targeting the small ribosomal subunit (30S). From Franceschi and Duffy. Structure-based drug design meets the ribosome. Biochemical Pharmacology 2006; 71; 1016-1025.

Dan Shechtman, Chemistry, 2011

in 1982, Shechtman was working at the US. National Institute of Standards and Technology. As he was  looking through an electronic microscope at the structure of new material that he was studying, and noted that the atoms had arranged themselves "in a manner that was contrary to the laws of nature." 

אין חיה כזו – There is no such entitiy" was how he recalled responding to what he had seen.  Shechtman double checked his findings and submitted them for publication; the paper was rejected immediately, not worthy even of being sent on for peer review.  But Shechtman did manage to get his work published, work that the Nobel Committee found questioned a fundamental truth of science: that all crystals consist of repeating, periodic patters. Shechtman's discovery of what were later to be called quasicrystals  was important not only because of what he found. It was important that he found. Here's why:

Over and over again in the history of science, researchers have been forced to do battle with established “truths”, which in hindsight have proven to be no more than mere assumptions. One of the fiercest critics of Dan Shechtman and his quasicrystals was Linus Pauling, himself a Nobel Laureate on two occasions. This clearly shows that even our greatest scientists are not immune to getting stuck in convention. Keeping an open mind and daring to question established knowledge may in fact be a scientist’s most important character traits.
— The Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2011. Information for the Public

 

Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt, Chemistry 2013

Israel's two most recent Nobel Prize winners are Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt. In 2013 they shared the prize in, yes, you've guessed it...Chemistry, (together with Marin Karplus, a Jew, but not yet an Israeli).  Working together in the 1970s on GOLEM, the supercomputer at the Weizmann Institute, they developed computer programs that could simulate chemical reactions with the help of quantum physics.  These programs, and their offshoots, are used in a variety ways, from optimizing solar panels to designing new drugs.

The Last Word

There you have it. Twelve remarkable Israelis who have contributed to peace efforts, science and literature, and whose efforts were recognized by a Nobel Prize. As we celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut, let's give the last word to the 2005 winner Robert Aumann, who noted in his banquet speech just  what it really important in life. 

We have participated in the human enterprise – raised beautiful families. And I have participated in the realization of a 2000-year-old dream – the return of my people to Jerusalem, to its homeland.
— Robert Aumann, Nobel Prize banquet speech, 2005.

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