A 'Manhattan Project' for Israeli science

Philanthropists are being sought to establish a $100 million mini-university that will cultivate creative young minds for Israel's future security.

February 17, 2007 20:01
A 'Manhattan Project' for Israeli science

Brezis 88. (photo credit: )

With Jews so well represented among Nobel Prize laureates, many Israelis believe their greatest minds excel in the sciences - but they are mistaken. This false sense of security and complacency, which allows for ongoing government cutbacks in education and research, is extremely dangerous, as the quality gap between Israel and the developed world - especially with Arabs studying sciences in European universities - is narrowing. Before we know it, Israel will be lagging behind - if it isn't already. One of the world's most distinguished theoretical mathematicians, Hebrew-speaking Prof. Haim Brezis of Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris and a member of the National Academy of Science in both France and the US - is very worried by this phenomenon. Brezis, an expert in partial differential equations (a field with close links to physics and the natural sciences), has proposed a practical way to produce an elite cadre of young minds in both disciplines. In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, the 62-year-old French-born professor - who has been named the Technion's current sole visiting distinguished mathematician and who has received three honorary doctorates in China alone - urged the Israeli establishment to think boldly. "I was born in 1944, while my parents hid from the Nazis in a tiny village after marrying during the war. I spent the first months of my life in a little hut," says Brezis, who is the oldest of three brothers, all distinguished professors (one is a senior physician at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem and the other is a philosopher). At the age of six months, he was taken back to safety in Paris by his parents. Brezis studied at the University of Paris, where undergraduates in the violent 1968 "student revolution" demanded the opening of more institutions of higher learning so a larger number could attend. A number of independent universities were established, including Pierre and Marie Curie, which is the largest scientific university in France. Although the center of his teaching and research is in Paris, he also spends time at Rutgers in New Jersey as a distinguished visiting professor. Brezis is married to the award-winning Israeli writer and theater director Dr. Michal Govrin, and their two daughters studied in The Hebrew University High School ("Leyada"). One now serves in the IDF, while the other is in Chicago for graduate studies in psychology and anthropology. Michal's father, Pinchas Govrin, his brothers and his nephew were secular Poalei Zion pioneers who founded kibbutzim and dried swamps in the Jezreel Valley. THUS BREZIS has very good credentials, and it is from his deep love of Israel that he criticizes and suggests solutions. He is particularly concerned about the training of talented students in mathematics and physics. "I have lots of experience with institutions of higher education worldwide. There are severe problems inherent in the Israeli system. When I compare the situation here with that in Paris, it is like night and day," says the professor. "The number of fabulous French and foreign young people going into math and physics year after year is amazing. I have been the thesis adviser of 50 Ph.D. students so far. Many of them are now professors. But in Israel, in my field, it is basically a desert. There are a few excellent students, but they are specializing in limited areas. "One example of an outstanding Israeli mathematician is Hebrew University Prof. (emeritus) Hillel Furstenberg, 71, who made aliya in 1965 with a Ph.D. from Princeton. He has trained several generations of top Israeli mathematicians, and his work has inspired people worldwide. But his case is quite unique. He has just been named for the prestigious Wolf Prize in Mathematics, but the announcement received little publicity in Israel. I do not understand why," says Brezis. "In France, such achievements are widely acclaimed. "Israeli scientists excel in computers and biomedical research, but you can't say the same about math and physics," continues Brezis, who is vice president of the American Mathematical Society (the prime organization in his field) and is regularly invited by countries to evaluate their level of mathematics. He blames the Israeli higher educational system for this failure. "There are very good general universities, but what is missing is an elite university center of excellence for undergraduates [the Weizmann Institute is for graduate students only]). We have such schools in France - the Ecole Normale Superieure, the Ecole Polytechnique and others. Their counterparts in the US are Harvard, Princeton and MIT, among others, or Cambridge and Oxford in Britain." THE MAIN problem in Israel, he adds, isn't money. Elite schools, he insists, are small by nature. Princeton is a very small university, and the Ecole Normale where he taught in Paris accepts only 100 students a year, all scientific fields included. "Look where the Nobel Prize in physics goes; no Israeli has won it. And while there is no Nobel in math, the award that is often considered its equivalent - the Fields Medal, given once a year on average to top minds under the age of 40 - has never in 50 years gone to an Israeli. This is not for political reasons, as the judges are absolutely objective. During the same period, French mathematicians have received it eight times - most of them graduates of the Ecole Normale. "True, Israel is a small country, but Belgium got it twice!Aside from the Fields Medal and the Nobel in physics, other indicators are also red. For example, very few Israelis are elected foreign members of the top academies of science," Brezis says. The ideal age for developing talent in math, he notes, is between 17 and 23 or so; this is a critical period for intensive training. But most Israelis are in the army or in yeshiva at this age. The army "is definitely creating an obstruction to raising a generation of brilliant minds in math. Soldiers finish at 21, then do their bachelor's degree, then an MA. They are usually in their late 20s when they start their Ph.D., and that's too late for mathematicians. Of course there are notable exceptions, but you can count those on the fingers of one hand." WITH SO many Arab and Muslim immigrants to Europe in the past decade, the number of such students in French universities is "surprisingly high. Adding them to the foreign students from Muslim countries, they form about 30% of the total student population at Pierre and Marie Curie University, where I teach. In applied mathematics - computing solutions for differential equations - half of all students come from Muslim, mostly Arab countries. Some become junior faculty in France; others return to their countries," Brezis reports. "And the gap in math and physics knowhow between Israel and Arab countries is narrowing. Israel is ahead for the time being, but if Israel doesn't do something serious, it will be a danger. Israelis live with the illusion that Jews are great in math and will be forever - as if it were in our genes. In 20 years, some Arab countries may will have a higher level in math and physics than Israel, especially in fields such as applied mathematics. In Israel, applied mathematics is almost nonexistent. Departments don't even exist in most universities. It is a catastrophe! For example, if Israelis want to do fundamental research in anti-missile missiles, they need experts in mechanics and applied math." Many physicists today, Brezis adds, work in elementary particle physics and astrophysics. Pure mathematicians are very theoretical. But in between the two are the fields of applied math and mechanics. "My university in Paris has strong departments of applied math and mechanics whose faculty are not engineers but professors doing fundamental research. Believe it or not, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has no department of mechanics at all, and only a tiny department of applied math. The Technion in Haifa has a department of mechanical engineering, but this is not the same." ONE OF Brezis's teachers in France, J. L. Lions, was a math professor at the College de France - the most prestigious French institution of fundamental research - and simultaneously president of France's space agency. "He attracted hundreds of students, serving as a bridge between mathematicians and engineers. Such teams are analyzing together the successes and failures of the well-known Ariane rockets." Brezis is not just a complainer with Jeremiah-like warnings. He also has ideas to remedy the lack of an elite school for young people studying math and physics in Israel. "In 1870, French Jews of the Alliance Israelite Universelle set up the Mikveh Yisrael Agricultural School outside Tel Aviv. Mikveh still exists, owned jointly by the Alliance in France and the Israeli government. It should be an elite school for these disciplines!" Real estate developers would love to get their hands on this gem to expand the Yarkon Park, says Brezis. But with agriculture becoming less important to Israel's economy, leaders of the Alliance in France are searching for new challenges for the 21st century. "I told them about the need for Israel to have an elite school in sciences," says Brezis. Being familiar with the French system, they were tremendously enthusiastic. But they have no money to develop it and no faculty to run it. They just own the place - but what a place! An immense Garden of Eden full of palm trees and exotic plants. Of course, the French model can't be transplanted as is, especially because of the mandatory military service here, but those few chosen could be exempt from standard military service; after all, they will greatly contribute to the country's future security. Since top young Israeli musicians and sportsmen are already practically exempt from IDF service, the concept should certainly apply to this project." According to Brezis's concept, such a live-in school would admit only 20-50 high-school graduates every year. "Pupils would face keen competition to be admitted; high-school grades and the matriculation exam would not be enough. Top high-school pupils in these fields could apply, with the best 500 chosen to take two years of preparatory studies around the country, followed by an extremely tough test to choose the handful for Mikveh Yisrael. "It would be free, subsidized by the state, with a stipend for each student. After three or four years, graduates of Mikveh Yisrael would go on for their doctorates and do research in Israeli universities." Professors would be young, enthusiastic researchers at the peak of their creativity, "on loan" from Israeli universities for five to 10 years. Mikveh Yisrael would, it is hoped, also attract top Jewish students from the Diaspora ("in particular, I foresee many candidates from France, given the anti-Semitic mood there," Brezis suggests). Efforts would be made to interact with noted scientists abroad - Jews or non-Jews - in the form of long visits and mini-courses. They could train Israeli students in areas where Israel is deficient. Brezis, who is modern Orthodox and wears a kippa, is increasingly worried about the trend toward full-time yeshiva study among young religious people, who thereby avoid going to university. In addition, there are the "lost talents" of bright yeshiva students who eschew all secular studies. A friend since childhood of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner - an influential rabbi who heads Jerusalem's Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva - Brezis spoke to him about these concerns and how Israeli knowhow in math and physics is falling behind. "He himself has a scientific background, so he understood. But he asked why secular young people don't do it. I explained that many of them are motivated by the desire for high salaries and don't have the patience to sit and study hard for years. But students from the top yeshivot all receive this kind of training. Rabbi Aviner took what I said so seriously that he issued a written statement titled 'Go Study Mathematics' calling on talented students who don't intend to make the rabbinate a career to go into science." Brezis intends to speak to more yeshiva heads about the matter. "Just think what a revolution it will be in Israeli society if a mathematician with a yeshiva education wins Israel's first Fields Medal! And this is not a far-fetched dream. Such a school could also have a positive effect on the social fracture: In France, many students of the elite schools have come from modest families, and many French Sephardi Jews have taken advantage of this system." IF SUCH a school were established at Mikveh Yisrael or elsewhere, he would be glad to help. "For this, I would come on aliya. But I am too old for the faculty," says Brezis, who was a full professor at 28. "Still, I could share my experience. The whole project wouldn't cost much money, as it would be a very small school. It would be great to find interested donors. Requiring maybe $100 million, such an institution could have an immense impact over the long term." Brezis met Knesset member Limor Livnat and twice discussed his concept with her when she was education minister. "She said she would be willing to speak to the defense minister about military service exemption; she was very enthusiastic about the idea. But she didn't have money for even one person to work on this complex project, and so nothing happened." A few Israeli colleagues - Prof. Zehev Tadmor, a former president of the Technion, and Prof. Mina Teicher, a former vice president of Bar-Ilan - were extremely supportive, but most leaders of the scientific establishment here were not receptive. Their reasons? Israeli politicians are against elitism; Israeli universities will never join in a common cause; the system will favor Russian students; the IDF will be opposed; and students trained at Mikveh Yisrael might leave Israel. When the Alliance realized Israelis did not offer practical help, the organization got cold feet, and the project was completely buried. Is there anybody out there who wants to help?

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