Meet Israel's big noise in the Big Bang experiment

By Simon Round, April 4, 2012

If you have any interest at all in science, a chat with Daniel Zajfman 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.

Zajfman, 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.

Zajfman, 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. Zajfman 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."

Zajfman 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."

Zajfman 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. Zajfman 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."

Zajfman, who is 53, was imbued with a a love of science from a young age. Before 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."

    Last updated: 3:31pm, April 5 2012