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Some creative ideas start in the air. Literally. David Tannor, an Israeli professor of physical chemistry at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, was on a plane when he recognized his old karate buddy, Sam Solomon, whom he had not seen for 20 years.
During the long flight, the two black belt achievers had a chance to catch up. Solomon, a businessman, said that he was looking for ideas to re-energize Safed, the picturesque capital of the Galilee, (and Israel's second poorest city.)
"Yes, I have an idea, why not organize scientific conferences in Safed?" said Tannor. "Safed is 10 degrees cooler than Tiberias."
His instant mental association was of Aspen and other scenic spots in Colorado, Telluride in particular, where he had participated in seminars as a post-doc at the University of Chicago and later organized as a young professor.
Four years later, with eight high-level scientific workshops scheduled for 2007, the Safed Conference Project is definitely off the ground, even though it was delayed by a year. A successful seminar on "Continuing Professional Development Programs for Science Teachers," went off as scheduled the first week in July, but the Second Lebanon War broke out, Safed was targeted by rockets, and five other seminars/workshops had to be postponed.
This year, the "Safed Conferences" will be run under the administrative auspices of The Israel Academy of Sciences, with seminars along the lines of Molecular Electronics; Real Time Quantum Dynamics; Solid State NMR; Quantum Thermodynamics; the Physics of Biological Systems; Density Functional Theory; and Alternative Energies. Speakers will include Nobel laureate Pierre Gilles DeGennes of the Institut Curie, and other top scientists.
A workshop entitled "Innovative Pest Control Methods," with guests from Spain and France, held in January, was deemed both productive and enjoyable.
"Feedback was very positive," said organizer Dr. Murad Ghanim from the Institute of Plant Protection in the Volcani Agriculture Research Center in Beit Dagan.
Can science breath life into a sleepy ancient treasure? Filling in ISRAEL21c on the birth pains of the project, Tannor recalled his own positive personal experience with professional workshops held in a non-conventional place, outside a city.
"I remembered that the scientific community loved the camaraderie of informal conferences. It had an important effect on me as a young scientist. I liked the format of informal lectures in the morning. We could talk to top people in a field. Later in the day, we would walk for two to three hours to see a waterfall and have a chance to talk with other people in similar or different areas of research. You could learn about an entire new area of research," said Tannor, 49.
And, science, it turns out, is bigger than politics. Disassociating from the boycott of Israeli institutions by the Union of British Universities, Philip Earis, the editor of PCCP (Physical Chemical and Chemical Physics) wrote in an e-mail last week to the organizer of the upcoming seminar on "Real Time Quantum Dynamics," scheduled for June 24 in Safed: "The PCCP is committed to publishing the best science irrespective of its geographic origin... Israeli academics are involved with the journal at every level."
Ronnie Kosloff, a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who attended the University of Chicago with Tannor and is now his right-hand man in the Safed Conference Project, agrees that science cannot be conducted in a vacuum, and said that Safed is the perfect site to break down any possible barriers.
"Scientists need to exchange ideas in an informal place. In a city, people get lost; they go to a museum. Here, you can sit on a bus, continue the talk on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, discuss an abstract problem, and gain insight."
Safed has long been known as the birthplace of the Kabbala (Jewish mysticism.) Its oldest synagogue, Ha'ari (the Lion,) is named for the great master, Rabbi Izhak Luria. Luria's student, Rabbi Joseph Caro, wrote the Code of Jewish Law in Safed 1555-1563.
More recently, the city got a little positive buzz when Madonna expressed interest in building a center for Kabbala studies in the area.
"Science is complementary rather than contradictory to the ideas of Kabbala," says local resident David Freedman, who studied in the Rhode Island School for Design before he moved to Safed, where he designs Kabbala art and lectures to visitors.
Tannor explained how Solomon and Binny Shalev (the head of the Safed Foundation at the time) were instrumental in finding a donor to grant $10,000 for each conference to help pay for accommodation and travel expenses of foreign scientists.
Recruiting a team of scientists, mostly chemists - including Nimrod Moiseyev from the Technion, Eitan Domany from the Weizmann Institute, and Abraham Nitzan from Tel Aviv University - Kosloff and Tannor made their first reconnaissance visit to Safed in 2004 to find a place to hold the meetings.
"One of our purposes was to have an impact on the old city of Safed," said Tannor. "When we inquired... about a caterer, we were directed to the Mercazi Hotel. That is how we met Yossi Meibar, the manager and owner."
The problem was that the hotel needed renovation. Undaunted, Tannor offered the Mercazi owner an advance of $30,000.
A tribute to his confidence, all 39 rooms in the Mercazi Hotel were filled for a seminar on Molecular Electronics held at the end of April this year.
The initiators of the Safed Conference Project are already gearing up for 2008. Also on the agenda is a spin-off idea: to hold four public lectures a year for teachers. "We have many people who want to hold scientific seminars in Safed," said Tannor. Of course, one of the main attractions is the subsidy. Since the original donor has put a ceiling on his grant, Tannor and his team have another challenge: to find an additional donor.
"The project offers an excellent opportunity for an entrepreneurial donor to be part of an exciting, multi-yielding high level start-up initiative in Israel," says Tannor. "It gives a boost to science, to the 16th century town, and offers visitors a chance to experience and see the beauty of the land of Israel and of the holy places."
Tannor and Kosloff are just finishing the design of a logo for the Safed Scientific Conferences, which they say is a blend of chemistry and Kabbala.
And yes, indeed, science can breathe life into a sleepy ancient treasure. (ISRAEL21c)