EMET Prize awardees strive to make excellence a way of life

The truth about winning.

Dan Shechtman (2011) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Dan Shechtman (2011)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The intention of the Alberto Moscona Nissim Foundation’s EMET Prize is to “acknowledge those who view excellence as a way of life, and the fulfillment of human potential as essential to creating a better world for future generations,” according to Moscona. The annual prize is awarded for excellence in academic and professional achievements that have far-reaching influence and have made a significant contribution to society in Israel.
How can excellence be a way of life? Do prize winners really change the world? Looking at the legacies of several winners, including those who won not only the EMET Prize but also a Nobel Prize, the answers to these questions are evident.
TAKE PROF. DAN SHECHTMAN, who earned an EMET Prize in exact sciences in 2002 and a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2011. A professor at Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Shechtman won his awards for creating a new branch of science through his discovery in 1982 that while crystals may be ordered materials, their atomic order can be quasi-periodic rather than periodic.
Since then, quasi-periodic materials have developed into an exciting interdisciplinary science with modern application, including improving processes such as 3D printing, whose applications can be both industrial and life-saving.
However, Shechtman does not believe that being “the father of the science of quasi-period materials,” as he is known around the world, will ultimately be his legacy. Rather, he hopes that he will be remembered for his international advocacy for increased science education and technological entrepreneurship, which he sees as key to world peace and prosperity.
KING CARL XVI Gustaf of Sweden walks down the stairs with Ada Yonath, the 2009 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry (and who won an EMET Prize in 2006), as they arrive for the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm that year.KING CARL XVI Gustaf of Sweden walks down the stairs with Ada Yonath, the 2009 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry (and who won an EMET Prize in 2006), as they arrive for the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm that year.
“A prize is a good way of becoming famous or leaving a legacy, but it is not enough,” says Shechtman, who last year alone visited 30 countries and gave well over 100 lectures promoting education. He also meets with world leaders in an attempt to convince them that education should be the No. 1 job of every government.
“The most important natural resource of every country is not oil or minerals; it is human ingenuity,” says Shechtman. “It is sustainable and it will last forever, but you have to develop it.”
At home in Israel, Shechtman is likewise influencing society in a deep way.
He says, “I am a Zionist. My mother was born in Israel. My grandfather came here on the Second Aliya and was among those who built this country from scratch. I carry with me this heritage, and I try to contribute to Israel as much as I can, in what I can do best.”
Right now, Shechtman is advocating early scientific education and later on technological innovation in the Jewish State. He has worked with the mayor of Haifa to launch several scientific kindergartens that are picking up traction across Israel.
Moreover, he teaches a class on technological entrepreneurship at the Technion, which is designed to encourage graduates to open startups.
Over the last 30 years, 25% of class graduates have opened startups.
“My theory is that a child who understands the world around him or her will like science because he or she will understand science and vice versa,” says Shechtman. “Once you embed a love of science in the mind of young people, they will carry it with them for the rest of their lives.”
Aaron Ciechanover and Avraham Hershko 2004 (Reuters)Aaron Ciechanover and Avraham Hershko 2004 (Reuters)
In addition to working at the Technion, for many years he was a guest professor at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland.
PROF. ISRAEL AUMANN, who was awarded the EMET Prize in 2002 for social sciences and became a Nobel Laureate in 2005 in economics, says he, too, wants to contribute to the State of Israel. He made aliya from the United States more than 60 years ago “because I was a Zionist.”
Since then, Aumann developed tools for precise analysis of economic systems, where groups of participants exercise significant influence on the result, while the individual influence of each participant is very small. He also helped develop and establish a new stage of game theory – the mathematical modeling of strategic interaction among rational (and irrational) agents. Specifically, Aumann formulated the mathematical underpinning and then proved that in repeated interactions, there is more of a tendency to cooperate.
Aumann, who was born in Germany and raised in New York, received his doctorate from MIT in Boston. He says he cannot judge his contributions – “I’ll let other people judge my work” – both because he is modest, but also because he equates his discoveries with his children.
“You don’t ask which of your children you are most proud of,” Aumann notes. “So I don’t think there is one piece of work that I am more proud of than any other piece.”
But Aumann has plenty for which he can be proud. He has innovatively used his scientific work to play a role in Israeli society, specifically leveraging game theory to help understand the Talmud and Jewish law in depth.
In 2011, Aumann came out against Israel’s deal with Hamas in exchange for IDI prisoner Gilad Shalit based on the commonality between game theory and Jewish law as it is presented in the Talmud.
“There is a rule about redemption of prisoners. The Talmud says that redemption of prisoners is a very big mitzva,” explains Aumann, “but there is also a specific rule in the Talmud that one should not redeem prisoners for more than a reasonable amount, for more than the going price. Now comes the game theory part of this: if we do start redeeming prisoners for large amounts, then the goyim will run after us and take more and more prisoners. What happens if you do x and then what will happen if other side does y.”
During the period of negotiation between Israel and Hamas, Aumann spoke up against the deal at a Knesset hearing and tried to stop it from going through.
“The Shalit redemption was a very bad idea and we are suffering from it up until now,” says Aumann.
Nobel Prize laureates attend the award ceremony at the Concert Hall in Stockholm that year (Reuters)Nobel Prize laureates attend the award ceremony at the Concert Hall in Stockholm that year (Reuters)
The professor said he is very proud to have won both the EMET and Nobel prizes.
“Whatever I try to do, I try to do perfectly. I don’t always succeed, but I try. When you are doing scientific work, to make sure you do things right, that is a positive thing,” Aumann says. “The [EMET and Nobel] prizes are very prestigious prizes, and naturally I feel good about them.” PROF. AVRAHAM HERSHKO has reason to feel good about his work and prizes, too.
The 2002 winner of the EMET Prize in life sciences and medicine and a 2004 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Hershko significantly contributed to the understanding of regulation processes in the delegation of intracellular proteins and the opening of new horizons in biological and medical research.
Hershko’s most recent work, studying the roles of the ubiquitin system in controlling the cell division process, is playing a key role in understanding and curing certain types of cancer.
“My discovery has already helped mankind, and I hope it will continue to do so,” says Hershko, who is an active researcher at the Technion.
Although Hershko has received many prizes over the last decades, he says he is especially “glad to receive the EMET Prize” because it is an Israeli award.
“It gives me a lot of happiness,” Hershko says, noting that he received the EMET Prize before the Nobel Prize, which means the EMET selection committee saw the importance of his discoveries even before what is commonly considered the highest scientific prize.
Hershko was born in Hungary and immigrated to Israel in the 1950s. He attended Israeli schools and received his medical degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he ultimately received his doctorate in biochemistry.
His advice to young researchers is to look for something outside the mainstream if you really want to make a contribution. He says if you don’t do this, then “big, elaborate scientists will get ahead of you,” and life will be a lot less interesting.
At 80 years old, Hershko is still following his own advice.
“I am still working, and I would like to make more contributions that may help human health,” he says.