NJ academics collect top prizes in Israel

NJ academics collect top prizes in Israel

Then Israeli President Shimon Peres congratulates Wolf Prize recipients, including Rutgers microbiologist Dr. Joachim Messing, third from left, and Princeton mathematician Prof. Peter Sarnak, left.     
Then Israeli President Shimon Peres congratulates Wolf Prize recipients, including Rutgers microbiologist Dr. Joachim Messing, third from left, and Princeton mathematician Prof. Peter Sarnak, left.     

In June, two New Jerseyans traveled to Israel to collect their Wolf Prizes, academic honors that in various fields rival or anticipate the Nobel Prizes. 

The awards highlight achievements in science, medicine, mathematics, agriculture, and the arts.

Recently, NJJN had a chance to talk with both local winners. Dr. Joachim Messing, director of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, won the 2013 Wolf Prize in Agriculture, and Prof. Peter Sarnak, of the Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton University, who won the 2014 prize in mathematics. 

Sarnak, a graduate of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Stanford University in California, is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton, and also serves on the permanent faculty at the School of Mathematics of the Institute for Advanced Study. The foundation said of him, “By his insights and his readiness to share ideas he has inspired the work of students and fellow researchers in many areas of mathematics.”

He received the award for his achievements in number theory, “uncovering deep and unsuspected connections” among various mathematical fields, according to the prize committee.

“Given the modern digital world, this classical topic, which was considered to be theoretical and pure, is today quite central in many applications,” Sarnak said.

“Being added to this list is very humbling for me,” he said. That the award is based in Israel was significant as well, he said; the country is one of the “leading centers” in mathematics. 

“They have fantastic talent at every level,” said Sarnak. “This has been the case for some time and especially after the influx to Israel of many Russians in the last 30 years.”

One condition of receiving the award, Sarnak pointed out, is a willingness to come to Israel to receive it. The ceremony took place at the Knesset.

“Some people have used the opportunity to express criticism of Israel, and the Wolf people place no restriction on that,” said Sarnak, who is the grandson of one of Johannesburg’s leading rabbis and lived in Israel for three years as a child. In accepting the award, he said, recipients are making it clear that they are not among those boycotting the country. 

Messing received his award for his research efforts and innovations in recombinant DNA cloning and for deciphering the genetic codes of crop plants — both essential in the burgeoning and sometimes controversial realm of crop resilience and productivity. 

He is the second Waksman faculty member to achieve the honor; Dr. Karl Maramorosch was awarded the Wolf Prize in Agriculture in 1980 for his work on the interaction between insects and disease agents in plants.

Messing, who comes from Germany and has been at Rutgers since 1985, didn’t attend the ceremonies in 2013, the year he was chosen. “I got ill just days before the ceremony,” he said. “But the organizers just wished me well and said to come next time.” 

He went this year accompanied, as it happened, by his physician, Dr. Arthur Miller of Highland Park.

Messing and his wife, Rita, are avid travelers, but it was their first visit to Israel, and they made the most of it. “Some people left immediately. We stayed on, and we went all over,” he said, listing the major sites and some more obscure ones, from one end of the country to the other.

For Sarnak, it was a very different experience. The South African-born mathematician has lived in the United States since 1976, but has spent two sabbaticals in Israel, and has been back frequently. In 2010, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem awarded him an honorary doctorate.

On this occasion, his wife, Helen Nissenbaum, and their three grown daughters accompanied him. “It was a lovely trip, and more so because my parents live in Herzliya,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to have all the family together.”

The Wolf Foundation was established with an initial endowment fund of $10 million donated by the family of Ricardo Wolf (1887-1981), an inventor and former Cuban ambassador to Israel. The foundation is a private not-for-profit organization, operating under Israel’s state comptroller, with the minister of education and culture acting as council chair.

Past recipients include Zubin Mehta, Placido Domingo, Frank Gehry, and Stephen Hawking.

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