Meet Is­rael’s big noise in the Big Bang ex­per­i­ment

Daniel Zai­jf­man is help­ing to play a cru­cial role in the hunt for the Higgs Bo­son par­ti­cle

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

IF YOU have any in­ter­est at all in sci­ence, a chat with Daniel Zai­jf­man can be pretty in­struc­tive. As head of the world-renowned Weiz­mann In­sti­tute in Is­rael, he is at the fore­front of sci­en­tific re­search in his coun­try. Dur­ing an hour’s con­ver­sa­tion at his London ho­tel, top­ics veer from the ori­gin of the uni­verse to how to make a ra­dio from rot­ten pota­toes.

Zai­jf­man, in London for the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s gala din­ner, is en­thused by the fact that the Weiz­mann In­sti­tute is play­ing a sig­nif­i­cant part in the ex­per­i­ments at the Large Hadron Col­lider de­signed to nail down the ex­is­tence of that elu­sive par­ti­cle, the Higgs Bo­son.

Zai­jf­man, a Bel­gian-born Is­raeli who has been in charge of the in­sti­tute since 2005, care­fully ex­plains the im­por­tance of par­ti­cle physics in terms that some­one whose sci­en­tific ed­u­ca­tion ceased at the age of 14, might just un­der­stand. “This ad­ven­ture is as im­por­tant as land­ing on the moon. And as with the moon land­ing, the long-term im­por­tance may lie in the new ideas and in­no­va­tions you need to de­velop to ac­com­plish the ob­jec­tive. To build the Large Hadron Col­lider you need a leap in sci­ence to get this huge ma­chine work­ing. There are many tech­nolo­gies which have been de­vel­oped for which we might only find a use later.”

And the Higgs Bo­son? “Dis­cov­er­ing it will mean that we can pin down a model which has been on the ta­ble for decades. If we do not find the Higgs it will be much more sig­nif­i­cant be­cause it will mean we have made mas­sive mis­takes in the way we un­der­stand the world.”

Is­rael’s con­tri­bu­tion to the ex­per­i­ments lies in the de­vel­op­ment of part of the de­tec­tors used to an­a­lyse data. Zai­jf­man feels that the at­tempt to repli­cate the mo­ment af­ter the Big Bang serves as a les­son to hu­man­ity. “It’s an amaz­ing show of hu­man col­lab­o­ra­tion. The rea­son you can get hun­dreds of in­sti­tu­tions from dif­fer­ent coun­tries all work­ing to­wards one end is that the goal is univer­sal. There is no di­vi­sion of cul­ture or pol­i­tics or re­li­gion. The end has the same value for all of us.”

Zai­jf­man is proud of the achieve­ments of the in­sti­tute which con­sis­tently punches above its weight in terms of ground-break­ing re­search. “The most im­por­tant thing we do is hire top sci­en­tists. It’s more im­por­tant than even rais­ing money. We can’t pay them a top salary but we can pro­vide an en­vi­ron­ment which is sup­port­ive of what they want to do. We al­low peo­ple to take high risks in their cho­sen en­deav­our. It can be chaotic when you work in this way, but we have also had a lot of suc­cess.”

Zai­jf­man is par­tic­u­larly ex­cited about a new drug which may make it pos­si­ble for those suf­fer­ing with type one di­a­betes to in­ject once ev­ery three months rather take in­sulin sev­eral times a day.

Is­rael’s sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy sec­tor has driven an econ­omy which has weath­ered the global down­turn bet­ter than most. Zai­jf­man puts the coun­try’s suc­cess down to a num­ber of fac­tors — first, the fact that it has few nat­u­ral re­sources. “Our re­sources are 1.7 me­tres above the ground — they are our brains. We Jews have al­ways been ac­tive in the arts and sci­ences. It’s not ge­netic, it’s cul­tural. But there has to be a rea­son why Jews, who make up 0.02 of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, have sup­plied 25 per cent of the No­bel Prize win­ners.”

He adds that Is­rael is a coun­try in which peo­ple can progress fur­ther and faster than in most other ad­vanced economies. “We are a na­tion of risk-tak­ers, which is good for a dy­namic econ­omy, but less good on the roads.”

Zai­jf­man,whois53,wasim­bued­witha aloveof sci­ence­fro­may­oun­­fore he could read and write, his en­gi­neer fa­ther had taught him how to con­nect elec­tri­cal cir­cuits. He re­calls: “I could put to­gether re­sis­tors and lamps at the age of five. Other chil­dren had Lego and toy cars, I had elec­tri­cal cir­cuits.”

When he was still young he started to build his own ra­dios. “This re­ally fo­cused me. I even dis­cov­ered that if you stick elec­trodes into rot­ten pota­toes, you can re­ceive ra­dio trans­mis­sions. I wanted to un­der­stand it and the only way was to study physics.”

He was happy as a re­searcher and teacher at the Weiz­mann for 14 years be­fore he be­came pres­i­dent. “I had no thought to ap­ply be­fore they asked me ,but I’m de­lighted they chose me. You can make things hap­pen here.”

Zai­jf­man, pres­i­dent of the Weiz­mann In­sti­tute

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