Fledgling scientists meet elder geniuses

Over 400 young scientists brought from 70 countries to Jerusalem are expected to go home and become scientific ambassadors of goodwill for Israel.

PROF. AARON CIECHANOVER, Prof. Robert (Yisrael) Aumann and Prof. Ada Yonath seen here with television presenter Gil Hovav (photo credit: JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVICH)
PROF. AARON CIECHANOVER, Prof. Robert (Yisrael) Aumann and Prof. Ada Yonath seen here with television presenter Gil Hovav
The young science students, from their late teens to early 20s, were clearly not Israeli. Not only were they completely silent as plenary sessions began at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University, they waited patiently in queues for food and drinks during the breaks.
And when more than a dozen Nobel laureates – old enough to be their parents or even their grandparents – appeared on the podium, they acted as if they were rock stars, giving them standing ovations and asking for autographs. The laureates arrived from Britain, France, the US, Canada and Russia as well as Israel.
The recent, four-day event was the World Science Conference Israel (WSCI), organized by the Foreign Ministry with help from the university and the Science, Technology and Space Ministry. As anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions activists make noise on various campuses and elsewhere around the globe, it was refreshing to see 400 bright science masterminds come especially from Poland, Senegal, Macedonia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, Turkey, Brazil, Denmark, Georgia, Finland and many more countries to Jerusalem to praise Israeli science. From their reactions to the program in the Wise Auditorium, it seemed clear that they would turn themselves into scientific ambassadors of goodwill for Israel upon their return home.
Most of the participants are making their first visit to Israel and are not Jewish.
Among the initiators of the World Science Conference Israel (WSCI) was Prof. Roger Kornberg, the Stanford University biochemist and expert in structural biology who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2006 for his studies of the process by which genetic information from DNA is copied to RNA. He is a frequent visitor to Israel with his closest collaborator and Israeli-born wife, Prof. Yahli Lorch, a Hebrew University graduate, Stanford geneticist and daughter of the late historian and Knesset clerk Netanel Lorch. Israeli laureates who spoke included Prof. Ada Yonath, a Weizmann Institute crystallographer (her 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry earned jointly with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz); Prof. Robert (Yisrael) Aumann (mathematician who conducted work on game theory and was the 2005 Economics laureate); and Prof. Aaron Ciechanover, a physician and biologist who shared the 2004 Nobel in Chemistry for work on ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation with his Technion mentor Prof. Avram Hershko and US colleague Irwin Rose.
The diminutive Yonath, who was born in 1939 in the now-ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jerusalem quarter of Geula, was the daughter of Polish parents. Her father was a rabbi and came from a rabbinical family, but he made a bare living running a small grocery store.
Living in crowded quarters with several other families, Yonath recalls that books were her “toys” and kept her occupied.
“I was born to very poor family. My mother was not well educated. Yet, believing in the importance of a good education, her parents sent her to school in the Beit Hakerem quarter. But when her father died at the age of 42, her mother moved to Tel Aviv. “At the age of 20, I wanted to grow cows on a farm,” she recalled.
“Once, I didn’t even know that scientists existed, and once I was aware what a scientist is, I didn’t know that they are paid for what they do. I went to the university because I thought it was very interesting. I received fellowships and grants. I thought the profession of a university researcher suited me. It was so exciting.”
Today, even children know what DNA and genes are, Yonath told the audience. “When I asked kids what DNA is, they say it’s ‘what police use to identify criminals.’” The double- helix structure of DNA was discovered by discovery of the double helix structure of DNA written by James D. Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, she said, when she was 14 and “only a little younger than you are now.”
She described to the students her pioneering work on the structure of the ribosome – a large and complex, showing the excitement of a school girl as her painstaking discoveries were unfurled. She became the first Israeli woman to win the Nobel Prize out of 10 Israeli Nobel laureates, the first woman from the Middle East to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences and the first woman in 45 years to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
“It took me six hours to make a single peptide bond, but ribosomes in the cells make it in a split second,” she told them. “The ribosome is one of the main antibiotic targets in the bacterial cell,” she explained. Crystal structures of naturally produced antibiotics and their semi-synthetic derivatives bound to ribosomal particles have provided great insight into the way they function, Yonath explained, and how they paralyze ribosomes by binding to specific sites. Her scientific work has led to the design of more effective antibiotics that attack bacteria resistant to a variety of drugs.
PROF. ROBERT (Yisrael) Aumann, born in 1930, is an Israeli-American mathematician at the Hebrew University’s Center for the Study of Rationality and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences. He also holds a visiting position at Stony Brook University and is one of the founding members of the Stony Brook Center for Game Theory.
But his lecture had little or nothing to do with game theory, except about an idea devised by his mother to minimize the number of fights with his only brother Moshe.
“We weren’t very well off, but sometimes my mother had a piece of chocolate. She divided it into two pieces and gave me one of them. But either I or my brother was dissatisfied. She thought of a method based on incentives. She gave the whole piece to Moshe and asked him to divide it into two. My job was to choose one of the two parts.”
The crying ended, Aumann remembered.
“I couldn’t complain because I had the right to choose, and he couldn’t complain because he had the job of breaking it into two pieces. If I ended up with the larger piece and my brother complained, my mother said he couldn’t complain because he should have divided the chocolate equally.”
This idea, Aumann added, “was ancient, mentioned even in Bible as a mechanism for fair division when they had no way to measure size.”
It was a high school teacher who got him interest in science.
“I liked both math and Talmud, and at the end of my studies, I didn’t know what to choose. Finally, I went to the university to study pure mathematics. I did my bachelor’s degree and then my doctorate in math, and I found that game theory and economics interested me.”
“What is digestion?” he asked, digressing. “It is transforming food into a state that the body can use. One chews the food, and it goes to the stomach and intestines and waste disposal. It is a proceed needed for energy, growth and body functions. Consciousness is the ability to experience, see, hear, smell and taste.”
It is actually experiencing, “feeling, desiring, suffering, loving, hated, being afraid, being excited, fearing, being glad, sad, having pleasure or pain, thinking, intending, acting. That is consciousness.”
But Aumann, who knows so much about math and economics, told the young scientists that he had “absolutely no idea how consciousness works. “It’s the last great enigma of science. This is the science of tomorrow. This question used to be considered taboo or nonsense among scientists and philosophers. That is, until Francis Crick who co-discovered the structure of DNA raised the issue in the journal Scientific American in 1979.”
“Consciousness is subjective, as you can be sure of consciousness only in oneself. It is the only phenomenon of which you are really sure. There’s nothing with which it compares. It’s very unlikely that a computer can be conscious. Can animals be conscious? We don’t know.”
Aumann challenged the next generation of scientists who sat in the auditorium above him to “do something about it.”
Asking about the function of consciousness, Aumann said it “enables incentives to operate. They are the “driving force of society, especially of economics, the basic driving force of human life.” The three basic needs in life are food, reproduction and self-preservation.
“These are hard-wired in lower forms of life, but in humans, they don’t have to be hardwired. There are incentives that motivate people to do things on their own. People eat because they’re hungry or enjoy food. Pain and pleasantness are incentives. One can’t have incentives without consciousness.”
Lower animals don’t need all this, he said.
But for people to obtain food is very complicated.
“You need the money to buy it, the equipment to prepare it, utensils, pots, a refrigerator to keep it. You can’t hard wire all of this.”
Going on to reproduction, the modern Orthodox scientist said that people “don’t have sex because they are thinking of the evolutionary process,” eliciting embarrassed chuckles from the audience. “They do it because they enjoy it. It is driven by consciousness in humans. You can hard-wire it in lower animals. They don’t have to enjoy sex.”
“But having sex is very complicated. You have to choose somebody to date, buy clothes, buy a present and clothes, obtain skills to earn money and then make a living. Incentives can’t work without consciousness.”
As for self preservation, the incentives are pain, a problem in body, he said. “If you don’t feel pain, you are in deep trouble. Usually, people who don’t feel pain don’t survive for long. Pain provides the incentive to fix a problem, Consciousness enables you to feel pain. The incentive is the desire to stay alive and continue having experiences. They are the functions of consciousness. We know what and why about consciousness, but we don’t know how. I want to find the answers.”
PROF. AARON Ciechanover, who is 67, studied biology but shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with his Technion-Israel Institute of Technology mentor. Prof. Avram Hershko and Irwin Rose of the US for characterizing the method that cells use to degrade and recycle proteins using ubiquitin.
The ubiquitin-proteasome pathway has a critical role in maintaining the homeostasis of cells and is believed to be involved in the development and progression of diseases such as: cancer, muscular and neurological diseases, immune and inflammatory responses.
“I studied at the Hebrew University Medical Faculty, graduated and was an Israel Defense Forces’ combat physician on a Navy ship.
Then I studied surgery. It was very exciting, but practicing medicine was mostly about the what, not about the how, or the mechanism, in disease – what goes wrong. I decided to start all over. I went to the Technion and studied with Avram Hershko. I found it more exciting than practicing medicine.”
Ciechanover said hopefully: “I try hope that in the end, we will live in a cancer-free world. We want to live disease-free lives. During the first 50 years of life, generally we work and are healthy. Most hospitalized people are older. Just a century or so ago, most people died young, of infections. In 100 years, everything has changed. We are paying the price for living longer, collecting degenerative diseases along the way. Cancer is only one. Others are heart and brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons.”
Most of the ancient Egyptians, said Ciechanover, died at the age of 25 or 30.
“It took, 4,000 more years to extend life by 20 years. In 1900, very few people died of cancer; they didn’t live long enough to contract it. But in one century, we have extended life by more than three decades in developed countries, thanks to antibiotics, imaging, surgery, better diet, reducing smoking, vaccines. They all contributed to longer lives, but we pay a price for it with degenerative diseases.”
Will babies born today live 100 years or more, he asked, or will they face entirely new diseases? “We don’t know. Medicine is moving in several directions – devices, nanotech, developing and delivering drugs directly to organs and regenerative medicine using adult or embryonic stem cells to convert them into new, functioning tissue.
Between the 1930s and 1960s, drugs were discovered incidentally, drugs that people didn’t mean to discover, such as aspirin, which was known to the ancient Egyptians but had been forgotten.
“They chewed leaves of a plant and found that it alleviated pain. Only in modern times did Felix Hoffman go to his basement to synthesize aspirin to help his father, who was suffering from arthritis. He gave it to him, and the inflammation and pain disappeared,” said the Technion scientist. “Aspirin also prevents the coagulation of the blood, so heart attack patients are put on it. Many people take aspirin even to prevent the development of some cancers.”
Sir Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin, by chance, when a spore fell on the media in a Petri disk in England. It prevented bacteria from growing.
The lives of hundreds of thousands of people were saved with it in World War II. The next to come was streptomycin, followed by many more microbials that changed the face of medicine.
“The next revolution between the 1970s to the 2000s was the screening of large libraries of chemical compounds to find a drug you never knew about to fit into pathogenic mechanisms. Statins, for example, were found to reduce cholesterol levels. Today, it is a $40 billion-a-year industry. Next came personalized medicine and stem-cell-based therapies,” he said. “What is wrong with the current system is that we use animal models; disease is often different in people, and even in people, some are cured and others will deteriorate and die. We have no predictive tools to say to which group an individual belongs.”
Now, said Ciechanover, the doctor wants to do targeted and personalized medicine, to go down to the level of DNA. “Sequencing the first human genome took seven years and cost $1 billion. Now we can do it in an hour or two, for $5,000 or $6,000. And the price will go down to $500. Doctors will need the help of many professions to deal with the future knowledge of genomics,” he concluded.