A remarkable week for Jewish Nobel Prize winners

October 10, 2013
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Holocaust survivor Francois Englert, who shared the Nobel in physics with Peter Higgs (Photo: AP)

Holocaust survivor Francois Englert, who shared the Nobel in physics with Peter Higgs (Photo: AP)

No less than six Jewish scientists were awarded Nobel Prizes this week, and two others came very close.

Belgian-born Francois Englert won the accolade in physics for his groundbreaking work on the origins of sub-atomic particles.

Prof Englert, 80, spent decades studying the Higgs boson particle, and was recognised “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of the mass of subatomic particles”.

Prof Englert, who is a Holocaust survivor, shared the prize with Edinburgh University professor Peter Higgs, after whom the particle is named.

Professor Englert survived the Nazi occupation by hiding in orphanages

“At first I thought I didn’t have it because I didn’t see the announcement,” said a “very happy” Prof Englert.

The theoretical physicist teaches at Tel Aviv University and is emeritus professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles, where he graduated as an engineer and received a PhD in physical sciences in the 1950s.

Born into a Belgian Jewish family, Prof Englert survived the Nazi occupation by hiding in orphanages and children’s homes in Dinant, Lustin and Stoumont until Belgium was liberated by the US army.

Also this week, two American Jews were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine, pipping two Israelis to the post.

James Rothman and Randy Schekman, together with German researcher Thomas Suedhof, were awarded the prize for their work on how proteins and other materials are transported within cells.

Hebrew University professors Aharon Razin and Howard Cedar were very close contenders.

Professor Rothman is based at Yale University and Professor Schekman teaches at the University of California.

The Nobel committee said their research on “traffic” within cell vesicles — bubbles within the cells — helped scientists understand how “cargo is delivered to the right place at the right time”.

Prof Schekman said he planned to celebrate the award with his colleagues. “I called my lab manager and I told him to go buy a couple bottles of Champagne and expect to have a celebration with my lab,” he said.

The trio have been working on cell transportation “over years, if not decades”, Prof Rothman told Associated Press.

Meanwhile, three Jewish-American scientists, Arieh Warshel, Michael Levitt and Martin Karplus, shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The trio won the award for their work on computer simulations that enable the closer study of complex reactions such as photosynthesis and combustion, and the design of new drugs.

Prof Warshel, who has Israeli citizenship, studied at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. Prof Levitt also holds an Israeli passport and taught at the Weizmann Institute throughout the 1980s. Vienna-born Prof Karplus, who received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology, fled the Nazi occupation of Austria as a child in 1938.

IT'S A WIN-WIN SITUATION

An estimated 190 Jewish or half-Jewish people have received Nobel Prizes since they were first handed out in 1901.

Jews have won more than 20 per cent of the 850-plus prizes awarded, despite making up just 0.2 per cent of world’s population.

The first Jewish recipient was Adolf von Baeyer, who received the prize in chemistry in 1905.

Other notable recipients include writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, physicist Alfred Einstein, playwright Harold Pinter, novelist Saul Bellow and Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Jews have received awards in all six categories, with the most won in medicine.

Last updated: 2:46pm, October 10 2013