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Credit: Weizmann Institute of Science
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Interview of Daniel Zajfman by David Zierler on January 13, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Daniel Zajfman, Institute Professor of Physics at the Weizmann Institute of Science, chair of the academic board of the Israel Science Foundation, chair of the Davidson Institute of Science Education, and Chair of the Schwartz/Reisman Science Education Center. Zajfman reviews some of the scientific and administrative challenges he has experienced during the pandemic, and the leadership role the Weizmann Institute has taken to navigate out of the crisis. He recounts his childhood in Belgium and his early interests in science, and he explains how his early inclinations toward Zionism coalesced into his decision to become an Israeli citizen and attend undergraduate school at the Technion. Zajfman discusses his undergraduate and graduate research in atomic physics, under the direction of Dov Maor. He describes his long-term interest in single ion atom collisions and his postdoctoral research at Argonne Lab, where he developed a complete analysis program that allowed the reconstruction of molecular geometries. Zajfman explains the circumstances leading to his initial appointment in the department of nuclear physics at the Weizmann Institute. He discusses his collaboration at the Max Planck Institute on dissociative recombination for a simple, cold, molecular ion, and he explains his contributions on research on gravitational collapse of interstellar clouds. Zajfman conveys his feelings, being the son of Holocaust survivors, on the significance of his collaborations in Germany. He describes the trajectory he was on that led to his tenure as president of the Weizmann Institute, and he explains how he balanced his administrative responsibilities with his strong desire to work in the lab as much as he could. Zajfman reflects on his accomplishments as president and the many responsibilities he could not foresee taking on, and he discusses Weizmann’s work with the Israeli Ministry of Science and its successful record of recruitment on the basis of the Institute being a purely “Curiosity Driven” center of science. At the end of the interview, Zajfman reflects on his contributions as president, and he conveys his confidence that the Institute has a bright future.
Okay, this is David Zierler oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is January 13, 2021. I’m delighted to be here with Dr. Daniel Zajfman. Daniel, it’s wonderful to see you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you for inviting me.
To start, would you please tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?
Well, I have more than one. So, let’s see. First of all, I’m today an Institute Professor of Physics at the Weizmann Institute of Science. I’m also the chair of the academic board of the Israel Science Foundation and also the Chair of the Davidson Institute of Science Education and the Chair of the Schwartz/Reisman Science Education Centers. Alright, so that’s enough, I guess.
Plenty to keep you busy.
Daniel, did you hold- when you were president of the Weizmann Institute did you hold the professorship as well or this is something that you got after you stepped down as president?
No, it’s the opposite. I’ve been at the Weizmann Institute since 1991, so over thirty years now, became a professor of the Weizmann Institute and then became the president of the Weizmann Institute. So, I never lost my professorship. At the Weizmann Institute the president is always a professor in one of the scientific fields. I mean that’s a requirement if you want.
Daniel, I’d like to ask a question very much in the moment before we go back and develop the origins of your life narrative and that is with the pandemic, with remote work, with physical distancing, with all of your responsibilities and affiliations both on the science and the administration and the advisory side, in what ways has remote work and video conferencing been useful and in what ways has it been detrimental to all of the things that you do?
Well, let’s start by the useful part. Like the positive sides. On one hand, I think people have learned that you don’t need to meet in the same room to do something and one can discuss- well, not exactly discuss, but exchange ideas without getting on an airplane. On the other hand, the virtual meetings do not really allow you to argue about issues. The video doesn’t allow it. Also, the remote sessions do not allow for real brainstorming. It allows for reporting and for one-on-one discussion but not really for brainstorming and for arguing about things. So, there’s a positive side and some issues can move a bit quicker. Also, since you travel much less, people, by the way, are much more on time. That’s quite substantial, and I like it very much. The problem, as I mention, is that it’s very, very hard to brainstorm through this kind of online tools simply because when you brainstorm you need the ability to do what I call lateral discussions. In brainstorming, everyone is involved at the same time. As you realize digital tools do not allow to do that. Also, clearly, you know, laboratory work doesn’t work on remote. If you want to tune your laser, there is no way to do it. You have to be in the lab and even if you can be in your lab by yourself it’s not really appropriate to work alone in the lab. Especially a physics lab can sometimes be a bit dangerous, so for safety reasons, this is not always allowed. And as far as teaching is concerned it is quite interesting for the students that we are dealing with. And let me talk more specifically for high school kids, studying physics. Most of them stay quite focused. There’s also, surprisingly, sometimes, some improvement in term of the ability to teach. I’m talking about science teaching not anything else. But of course, there is nothing better than to see the kids in the classroom. Also, there’s more of a gender difference- I don’t think people realize this, between boys and girls in online learning. It’s more difficult for girls at that age than for boys. So, it goes both ways. I’m sure we will keep some of these tools in the future when life would be back to normal, hopefully. But as I said, we all want to be in physical contact with each other, since body language is important. There’s no doubt. And that’s the only way we can really brainstorm and argue about topics.
It’s also a very current question. But what are some of your perspectives on the way that Israel has dealt with the pandemic? What are some things that the rest of the world can learn about the unique Israeli response to this crisis?
(Laughter) Well, the first thing I would say, before I talk about Israel, is that at least we’ve all learned that science is the winner and not politics. Science is going to solve the problem. Nothing else and I think that’s a very strong message. Of course, we need to use physical distancing and confinement, but these are not a solution. The only real solution is the scientific one. What is coming up? Vaccination. There might be additional ones like drugs and treatments, and I think people should start to understand that these science solutions are due to our investment in scientific research in the past. I don’t think that Israel has been better at managing the crisis than any other country. In fact, I dare to say that given the fact that Israel is a bit like an island we should have done better. As you know, we have one airport and not much international land traffic. It’s not like Belgium which is part of a big and open space. We could have managed much better. Let’s face it. On the other hand, when you look at what is happening for the last two weeks in term of vaccination, and I don’t know if you’ve watched the numbers, Israel is leading the world by far.
The reason is that our healthcare system is actually set up in an efficient way, all over the country. The reason it is an efficient one, and that maybe something to be learned, come from the wrong reason. When the country was set up, only one health provider was established. And that health provider was also your insurance, your doctor, your hospital, and everything was integrated and working under one hat which is a bit of a communist way of doing things, and of course, was a bit in line with the socialist view of the early 1950’s in Israel. Today, there are four health providers, and you are automatically cover by one of them. That means there is little competition between them. This is unlike in the U.S. for example, where you have insurances on one side, doctors on the other, etc. Of course, such a fragmented system creates competition. But then there’s no way to tie all the pieces together. Also, the Israeli health system has been digitized very early on. It’s basically a one shop stop, so it’s very easy to get vaccinated. But as far as the way the crisis has been managed, I don’t think we did better than most countries. I believe the major problem we are facing here is the lack of trust between the decision makers and the people. Decisions have been strongly influenced by politics, while, as you know, the Corona virus doesn’t support any political party! That created a lack of trust and of clear and clean communication.
Daniel, in what ways has the Weizmann Institute been a leader both in the research and in the public health aspect of managing this crisis?
The Weizmann Institute of Science is a basic research institute. We always claimed that we are not here to solve the crisis of today. We’re here to solve the problem that do not yet exist! That’s what basic science is all about. We try to understand what nature is all about. Nature being everything around you and everything inside of you, so when a crisis hits, we thought we could be helpful in term of providing services, because we have laboratories and we can do PCRs to help monitoring the spread of the virus. So, in the beginning we could help with some services but then it became too big of an issue. Of course, some of the scientists have moved some of their research in the field of viruses and vaccines and we have now quite a number of projects around these topics. But to be honest with you we knew, I think everyone knew, that the first response to this crisis will not be from places focused on today’s fundamental research. But you need to remember that the solutions to this crisis, like the use of the messenger RNA technology for vaccines, is based on decades of fundamental research. That’s thanks to people who have done this basic research when nobody thought that this would be useful for anything. So, in fact, it is a perfect example of what basic research can achieve. Everyone looks today at the major Pharma companies for solutions, but these companies are in fact basing their products on decades of fundamental research. The whole scientific basis of their work can be traced back to academic work done many years ago.
Of course. And Daniel, your current work in science, what are the kinds of things you’re involved with on the research side?
I’m a physicist and I’ve always been involved in atomic and molecular physics with some “excursion” in the field of astrophysics. As strange as it might seem to some people--there’s a deep connection between the understanding of molecular physics and astrophysics. One could almost say that some part of astrophysics can be seen as an application of molecular physics. I know it is far from what people think “applied science” is all about, but that is my way of looking at things! We need to understand the world. If you look in a very simple way at atoms or molecules, we all know they can be excited in some quantum state and these states live for some time and when they decay, they can emit light. Often this is a very quick process, but in some cases, the process can be quite slow. My interest has been on the slow processes, from milliseconds, to seconds, to even extremely long decay times. Some systems can be even unstable forever. And so, I’ve been focusing on trying to understand the dynamics of these molecular systems, the mechanism of their instability, and how they decay to their stable configuration. It is a field that combines the structure and dynamics of matter (molecules). The structure of a molecule is something which is usually well defined but when the molecule breaks down into its atomic components, it is an intriguing dynamical process which involve many variables at the same time. So, my work, as an experimentalist, has been to try to decipher at a very fundamental level how this is happening. What are the mechanisms and the laws of nature that are governing this kind of processes? How does it influence the composition of interstellar clouds? As you know, a lot of what you see through any telescope or radio telescope is actually produced by processes like these. And as such, it allows astrophysicist to better understand the composition of matter in certain environment.
Between social distancing and the ability of computers to analyze data remotely has your research agenda in the lab over the past year, have you been able to pretty much keep things up or have there been things that have slowed down significantly?
Slowed down significantly. I mean analysis, of course, you’re right. Once you have the data it doesn’t matter. You can be sitting anywhere. But, as I said, running an experiment like this requires manpower, technicians, engineers, students, and it has become very hard to get everyone at the same time in the lab. I mean, it’s a team working, and it is hard when there are restrictions and confinements. It slowed down the progress of research. No doubt.
Daniel, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Let’s go to Belgium and I want to hear first about your parents and where they’re from and what must be formative to their experience during World War II.
Alright, so both of my parents were born in Belgium, but they came from Polish families. Their parents and siblings were born in Poland. My mother and father were the only kids in these two families who were born in Belgium. On my mother side, the family lived close to Warsaw, and on my father side, they come from a small city in the eastern part of Poland. They moved from Poland to Belgium in the 1920’s. And so, when the World War hit, my parents were teenagers. My mother family basically disappeared during the war, and she was left alone with her sister. My father’s situation was better, and his own parents survived the war as well as his sister. They move around during the war, and they could escape being caught by the Nazis. So, both my parents are clearly Holocaust survivors. My Mother could be described as the most typical Holocaust survivor-
-in Belgium? Did they have to go into hiding during the war?
My mother went into hiding for two years as far I know. She was hidden in a small city on the western coast of Belgium. My father went with his family moving around. But, you know, he was a teenager, and I’m not sure exactly what it means to be ten years old, thirteen years old and to get through this, I don’t think we can grasp what it means to be in a situation like this when you’re a young kid. It’s unthinkable. And as I said my mother was the most typical Holocaust survivor you can dream of, in the bad sense of the term, if you know what I mean.
She was very insecure all her life. She didn’t trust anyone.
Daniel, did you ever get a sense from your parents why they decided to stay in Europe and not make aliyah [become an Israeli citizen] or go to the United States.
I don’t know. It’s interesting- well, from my mother’s side she was alone and so, when she met my father that was an important basis for her, if you know what I mean. It’s a good question for my father given that his sister actually moved to the U.S, as well as his parents. But my father was educated as an engineer and did good work in Belgium. He educated my sister and I, we are two, by sending us to a Zionist youth movement which is called Hashomer Hatzair if you know what it is.
This is basically where our “non-formal” education took place, more than at the school. Then my sister, who is three years older than I am, moved to Israel first, at the age of eighteen and then I- when I finished high school, I moved to Israel as well. I think our parents took care of having this Jewish education in the framework of a youth movement. It’s not a Jewish education in the framework of a religious system at all. More a Jewish and Zionist culture.
Daniel, what language did your parents communicate to each other in?
When they talked to us and they want us to understand what they were saying, French. When they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying, Yiddish.
(Laughter) Did you pick up any Yiddish along the way?
No. They were good (laughter).
Daniel, you say that your parents came from more secular backgrounds. How Jewishly connected were you growing up? What traditions did you have? Were you Bar Mitzvah’d? Those kinds of things?
Yeah, I was Bar Mitzvah’d. But otherwise, not much. For example, my parents were fasting at Yom Kippur. I was fasting because it allowed me not to go to school on that day! (laughter) You know, my education was the kind of “Jewish Secular” type. At the Hashomer Hatzair in Belgium we were waving the red flag! It was not an anti-religious education, but certainly not a religious one. But still based on a Jewish culture, which mean we knew when Jewish New Year was, but we didn’t eat kosher. But we had Matza during Pessach [Passover], etc. My parents cared about Israel because they saw that as an additional identification. First of all, they were very proud of it and second, I think because of the Holocaust. I think they, inside of themselves, understood the importance of having a homeland for the Jewish people. We never discussed this in a straightforward way, but they had this understanding that Jews have to find a safe place. And so, we better have a place to go and I think that was the language which was at home.
Daniel, growing up in Brussels was anti-Semitism a part of your reality at all? Either overt or not?
I didn’t even know what anti-Semitism was all about! Really, I mean I might have been blind to it as well a little bit. I got once into an incident in the streets, but I have no idea if this is because of anti-Semitism or it was just, you know, violence in the street. So, I can always claim these people were anti-Semitic, but the truth is I don’t know. This could, probably, have happen to anyone.
What kinds of schools did you go to as a young boy?
The primary school most of the time was in the neighborhood because that’s what was available. The secondary school was a very elite school. Even today it’s considered to be so. The system in Belgium was, at that time, that you could choose where your kids would go. I don’t know about today. I’m talking, forty years ago- or sorry, fifty years ago (laughter). And that school was a very- by today’s standard a very up-tight school. First of all, only boys. You realize this? Only boys, no girls in the school. And a very strict school, which, to be honest with you I really didn’t like. I- to be honest, I suffered most of the years but that was, you know, that was the education (laughter).
This is not to say that the girls had an equally good, separate school. They just did not have the same opportunities as the boys?
No- no. No there was a separate good school which my sister went to, which was also a very good school. The same standard.
Looking back on your childhood were there any formative moments that you can recall that really instilled this life-long interest in science for you?
Oh, yeah. As I said, my father was an electrical engineer and for many years his business was in the house we were living, in the basement. He had- we had a very big basement in the house and in that basement were all the toys, electrical toys you can dream of, starting from wires and lamps to more sophisticated instruments. This was my playground. I would go down and spend hours and hours connecting wires, making things working, even electrocuting myself few times, and I have to say my father gave me complete freedom. I mean I could use whatever I wanted. I was amazed by what electricity could do, and I played there for years and years, and from a very, very young age. I can’t remember but I think I could play with and connect wires and lamp and batteries before I could read and write. And I think that has been very formative, and for me, all these things were a bit like a miracle. I was six, seven, eight, ten years old. It doesn’t matter. Even at fifteen years you don’t really understand how electricity or electronics works. By the way, when I was Bar mitzvah, I remember very well my aunt, gave me a radio transistor as a gift. And for me, the fact that this device was connected to nothing, but I could hear the voice of someone located miles away was a kind of a miracle! And it really frustrated me that I didn’t understand that. This was just the frustration of a young boy who wanted to understand how it worked, and you’re way too young and you don’t have the right background to understand, and it frustrated me. Of course, I open the radio, and disconnected all kind of stuff to try to understand how it worked. How is the radio working? I mean there’s nothing between antenna and the guy speaking in the microphone. People talked to me about electromagnetic waves. So, I remember going to the local library in Brussels. I remember very well and looking for a book on how radios are working. So, I pick up a book, and opened it and it was full of equations. I started reading and there was, of course, no way for me to understand this stuff, and it really frustrated me. I understood I needed better mathematics and physics at a much high level to understand, and it frustrated me. And that frustration stayed with me and somehow, I remember thinking about how I will, one day, understand this. Several years later, about ten years later, when I was a second-year physics student at the Technion Institute of Technology in Israel, I finally understood. We were studying from this famous book on classical electrodynamics, by John David Jackson. You go to the chapter on Maxwell equations and you finally understand that stuff. And, I remember connecting this moment to the radio that frustrated me. These two events were about ten years apart, but I could connect them and for me it was understanding the miracle. And since then I always say that science is magic without lies.
(Laughter) Daniel, as an eighteen-year-old between what your parents wanted for you, perhaps some advice you got from your teachers, and your own ambitions what were the opportunities available to you in education?
My parents never told us really what to do. They were very open and supportive, for both my sister and myself. There was no difference, and the fact that my sister moved to Israel before me impacted me very much. And for me the straightforward path was something related to science. I was a very average student at school, except for the last year. When I got down to the last year of high school, and I really don’t know why, I became a very, very good student. I cannot tell you what happened. You know, you mature at some point and things come out. When I finished my twelve years of schooling I really became in love with mathematics and physics. Also, I had a very, good and beautiful teacher of physics (laughter). I was very impressed- it was a boys’ school, remember.
We were all sitting in the first row of the classroom when the physics teacher came to teach us, and we called her Dr. so and so. I don’t even know if she was a doctor and maybe we invented it, but she was really a very good teacher. So, when I decided to move to Israel, my father thought, of course, that I would learn electrical engineering. So, I went to the Technion, in Haifa, which is mostly an engineering school, and start to learn Hebrew first. I was not sure what I wanted to learn exactly, but after few months, I decided to study physics and I think that decision was related to the frustration I had as a young kid of trying to understand how things work. I realized physics was the answer and when I told my father that I was going to study physics he didn’t say no, but he asked “What is that? I mean what can you do with this?” (laughter) Actually what happened is when I was studying Hebrew, I would spend the weekend at a Kibbutz, Kibbutz Yassur, and my job was, on the weekend, to milk cows. So, my father knew that and when I told him I was going to study physics he said, “You better keep milking cows.”
I’d like to ask you a cultural question. When you got to Israel, right, Haifa is a very real place. It’s not Jerusalem, City of Gold, it’s a regular city, right? What were you surprised at culturally in terms of what Israel was in your mind, in the mind of the dreams of your parents versus the reality of being in a city in Israel?
The truth is I felt integrated on day one. You would believe that for a new immigrant, alone, not knowing the country and neither language, it is a difficult time. But the truth is that it was the best time of my life, and I immediately felt a sense of belonging.
I guess, you know, being an immigrant, a new immigrant in a foreign country is not easy. But to be honest, I never experienced difficulties. I somehow felt at home on day one. It was not easy, but it was not in my mind that I had difficulties that I could not overcome. I found myself at the right place, in the right environment with people like me learning Hebrew. It was a lot of fun and I cannot speak about difficulties, to be honest. I don’t think it was difficult. It was actually naturally easy, lot of fun. Much more interesting than Belgium.
And you knew quickly that you were not coming back?
Oh, yeah. Never, it never crossed my mind. It’s not a question I ever asked myself.
What are the expectations at Technion in terms of declaring a major? Is there a period of where you have a general education and then you focus?
No. Israeli universities are different than American universities in that you choose a major right away. I mean, you get accepted into the physics faculty and that’s your major. In some cases, you can choose two majors. For example, some students can do electrical engineering and physics at the same time and then both of them would be considered as majors. The major (undergraduate) in physics was three years, in addition of one year of learning Hebrew. To be accepted, you had to pass an entrance exam in mathematics and physics, which was the biggest hurdle. So, we were a whole group of new immigrants learning Hebrew at the same time and preparing for an exam in physics and math in Hebrew. Of course, math is math and physics is physics in all languages. You don’t need to know a lot of words, but still. It was the same exam as for the Israeli, in Hebrew, no difference, and looking at this back, I think it was a good system. So, I passed the exam and I start studying physics which I have to admit I immediately loved. I mean this is what I wanted. I quickly realized I’m getting into the secrets of nature, which is what physics really is all about. It is about understanding the world.
And it’s fundamental for your love of electricity going back to when you were a child.
Yes, as I said, I remember in the third semester learning from the Jackson book, and this is where I really get to understand that famous radio, I got at the age of thirteen! How these actual equations are working and the connections between relativity and electro-magnetism. And then you suddenly say well, it’s that simple! But you also realized that you needed ten years of additional learning to get to understand that. And that impacted me also in a different way: I learned that if you really want to understand something it takes time. You cannot just jump over and quickly say you’re an expert in something if you’ve not spent time on it. There’s no short cut in this business. You have to go all the way through it, and I think that was another state of mind that I really appreciated. It’s the step-by-step method, which is how physics is built, in a way. You can’t jump over. If there’s something in some places that is not clear, you won’t be able to understand. And this is very different from some other fields. For example, you could be a musician playing amazing music without knowing solfege, right? But in physics, it won’t work. You need to get all the bricks at the right place in the wall, and that fits my own view of things.
Perhaps one will come back to as a theme and that is what was your understanding of science in Israel? On the one hand being just, you know, basic research for learning how the world works and to what extent was science education part of the Israeli system of supporting the Israeli state and the Israeli project?
You’re talking back in the eighties. I don’t think I was preoccupied by this. I don’t think I understood this. I was a student at the Technion. It was hard enough (laughter). You know to get through it, to get the right grades. I didn’t really understand what the eco-system was at that time to be honest with you. I was very much focused on what I was doing and at being successful at being a student and enjoying at the same time, like any other student studying physics. The rest was irrelevant to me.
And that would include security concerns like the war in Lebanon? You were removed from all of that.
Well, you cannot be fully removed from that if you live in Israel. I always say that living in Israel is a job by itself, right? But yeah, I mean you feel it. Look, you feel it, of course. In 1982, half the classroom disappeared, everyone was involved. I went to the Army later, but you feel it, you see it. It impacts you but I was not yet involved totally in the Israeli society to be honest with you. That came a bit later and the focus on being a student kept me inside a bubble. You’re so busy with your studies that it’s hard for you to really be a full part of the Israeli eco-system and I did not totally understand how it worked. It came to me slowly.
What were your concerns in thinking about pursing a graduate degree in terms of staying at Technion or leaving, going somewhere else?
You know, people always think than I had a plan. I’m a real optimistic person. I just look at opportunities and I move on them when they show up. If you ask me when I was an undergraduate in physics if I thought that one day, I would be at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and even become its president, I would tell you no way. There was no plan (laughter). The only plan I had was to enjoy what I choose to do. Okay, not everyone can afford it, and I got some support from my parents. And so, I finished my undergraduate and I had also some taste of research when I was undergraduate. A little bit here, a little bit there. So, I said to myself, let’s continue since there was an opportunity. And so, in Israel, you do an undergraduate in physics, then a master’s in physics and then a PhD I started my master and a year later I moved to a direct PhD track. I think that’s the day I understood that maybe I’m not such a bad student (laughter). At that time, you had to pass a special exam to get to the direct PhD track, and it was unusual. The exam was about “everything in physics,” and it was an oral exam of about three hours with five professors of physics asking you any questions they want. An amazing moment from which I learned a lot: Hard work pays off. They could ask any questions and you had to solve it on the blackboard. I want to tell you; I suddenly felt a huge amount of confidence. It was an amazing experience to prepare for such an exam, and even to pass it. I think that moment for me was a formative moment.
As a student, you have a lot of insecurity. Everyone is a bit insecure, right? And then you pass an exam like this, which includes all fields of physics, from classical mechanics to electro-magnetism, quantum, solid state physics, statistical physics and more. It provided me some confidence, and I moved to a PhD which I finished officially in 1988, while I was already drafted for military service.
Now, your specialty is atomic physics. Did you start with that in graduate school or this was already in undergraduate you knew you wanted to focus in this area?
No, only in graduate school. I looked around and I liked the experimental techniques. What attracted me most in that field was not too much the topic itself but the techniques that were being used. The variety of tools. I’m clearly a laboratory person. I like technology, lasers, accelerators, electronics, vacuum, and all kind of tools you may combine to be able to measure nature. And I liked the complexity of these machines. I think that comes back to my playground, when I was a teenager in Belgium.
Who was your graduate advisor?
My graduate advisor was Dr. Dov Maor. He was part of a team of additional scientists in the lab. One thing I liked very much is that he provided me with a lot of freedom. I could almost do what I wanted: I had a PhD topic, but I went much broader and I really work on three different topics. There were also additional students. One of them, by the way, was my wife. Well, at that time not my wife. So, physics and that lab brought me my wife (laughter). She’s also a physicist but today she’s an artist as well. So, she is much more talented than I am.
Of course. Good.
But the benefit of that lab was the huge freedom we had, as graduate students.
You could come with your own ideas and you could do it and work with a team of students and enjoying and discussing. It was very stimulating. And by the way, it was not a well-equipped lab. Not a lot of funding, so that you really had to have a lot of imagination to make a good experiment, since comparable lab around the world where much more sophisticated. And that pushed me to be very inventive, and find different way to do things, and I believe that was also part of very good education. Things didn’t come easy as far as instrumentation was concerned. I did not know that when I was a student, but I realized later on that these were good training grounds, since it forces you to be inventive. It is also a bit of the Israeli way to do science which I started to feel. We’ll talk about this later.
To be resourceful.
What was your thesis research on? What did your experiment focus on?
At that time, I was interested in single ion atom collisions and few electron systems. Processes like electron exchange between hydrogen ions and helium atoms, or helium ions and helium atoms. When colliding, they can exchange electrons, a process called electron capture or transfer. This process is very fast, and the dynamics are interesting. There were some very curious effects that were happening, and we couldn’t really understand them. For example, at some collision energies, transferring two electrons in one collision seemed to be easier than transferring one electron, which doesn’t make sense statistically speaking. I mean the best description of this process was to look at it step-by-step. So how come transferring two electrons could be easier than transferring one. We called this the inversion effect. And that was the focus of my thesis, trying to understand how this could happen. To be honest, it ended up to be relatively simple. We could actually ultimately solve this by a two-by-two matrix. But you really needed to get to the fundamentals of it. I also learned a lot of computer simulation tools. I also enjoyed the experiments, which were not easy to perform, as I had to extract some very weak signal from a lot of noise.
(Laughter) Daniel, at this point in your academic career how parochial was your world view? In other words, were you aware of work in the atomic physics that was going on in Europe, in the United States, in Japan-
-or was it really focused on Israel and your world in Haifa?
No- no, no. No- no, at that point first of all, I went abroad. I went to some conferences. Also, during my PhD. I spend three months at the Argonne National Lab before I went there as a postdoc. This was an amazing experience for me, because in three months and it’s all about being at the right time, at the right place--in three months I did more work than I did in all my PhD! It was different topic. We were doing coulomb explosion experiments, which is what I did during my postdoc afterwards. But I met amazing people and I just came to this lab at the right time. They were just ready to make these experiments and I simply arrived at the right time. It was 1986 and I think we published five papers from the three months of work! Three of them in Physical Review Letters! So, when I was there in 1986, during my PhD at Technion, I started to get a more global view of science. By the way, when I finished these three months in the U.S. I decided that an academic career is not for me. The reason was that the people I worked with in the U.S. were so much better than I was. I thought I would never be able to do what they are doing. But then, I also met someone later who convince me that I should not think this way, and he convinced me to think about an academic career. I came back to Israel, and went to the army, and then I also took a night job, and worked in the industry at a company named Elscint which was developing and building computerized tomography device. We’re talking the beginning of all these wonderful imaging devices, and of course, this is all about, detectors and x-rays which I could play with. This was my first contact with the industry which I also liked very much. But when I finished my army service, I got convinced to look for a postdoc position, and received a hint that, perhaps, after I finish my postdoc, I would be hired back by the Technion. So, I decided to go for a postdoc back to Chicago to Argonne National Lab because I enjoyed my time there in 1986. And so, in 1989 I went back to Chicago for two years as a postdoc working on coulomb explosion imaging of small molecular ions. This was an innovative way to directly measure the structure of single molecules without using any spectroscopy tools. The idea was to accelerate the molecular ions to a relatively high energy (MeV), smash them on an ultra-thin foil, something like twenty to thirty angstroms, so that lots of electrons are being stripped from the molecule and when the molecular fragments emerge from the other side of the foil, a process that takes only few femtoseconds, the molecule explodes because of the Coulomb repulsion between the various ions. These ions then hit a position sensitive detector, and by measuring the position of all fragments, this allows you to inverse the trajectories and find the initial geometry of the molecular ion before it hits the thin target. And if you do that multiple times, what you get is a direct image of the square of the nuclear wave function of the molecule. And so, during my postdoc I developed a complete analysis program that allowed the reconstruction of these molecular geometries. It was not an easy task, as there were several effects that needed to be taken into account, but it worked. I continued to work on this several years after that. It was quite an interesting problem and one could learn a lot about molecular physics.
Daniel, comparing to the relatively rudimentary laboratory that you had at Technion what was your reaction when you got to Argonne and you saw what a national lab was capable of providing?
To be honest, it was quite a revelation. In fact, back in 1986, when I was a PhD student at the Technion, the University of Chicago which operate Argonne National Lab offered me to stay for a longer time, and finish my PhD in the US, saying that what I have done during these three months would be the basis for my PhD theses. I was very surprised to be honest, but I went back to Israel. But yes, that influenced my view and I learned a lot. And, by the way, the scientist who was my host there in 1986 and then later on my postdoc advisor was an outstanding experimentalist really taught me about using this kind of sophisticated equipment. His name is Elliot Kanter. He taught me a lot about how you design and perform sophisticated laboratory experiment at a very high level. I learned so much during these three months and the two years of postdoc. Elliot Kanter was someone was extremely careful about designing experiments that could provide the most reliable picture of what we were studying: It is easy to measure something, but more difficult to make sure that there are no artifacts, etc... And it puts you into the right track of what it is to be an experimentalist in physics. Of course, you want data, but that’s not enough. You have to be able to design the right experiment because the interpretation of the data might be dependent on how the experiment is being made. This something I’ve been teaching my students as well: Be careful with data. If you don’t know how the experiment is being made and what were all the parameters, be careful about conclusions, even if the data is clean. In short: Be skeptical. Incidentally, during my times at Argonne, I also met a professor from the Weizmann Institute who was in sabbatical leave, and that’s how basically my romance (laughter) with the Weizmann Institute started.
So, you had to be in Illinois to learn about the Weizmann Institute (laughter).
In a way, yes. This was Professor Zeev Vager. He was a professor of physics from the Weizmann Institute and at that moment also the Dean of its Faculty of Physics. He was spending times at Argonne National Lab.
What was Zeev’s research? What was he doing?
Well, Coulomb explosion imaging as well. He worked in collaboration with Argonne National Lab and of course we started working together while he being in Israel and me at Argonne National Lab. He would be coming often to Argonne and the whole thing became a collaboration between Weizmann Institute and Argonne National Lab. It’s not that I came to Argonne to be involved with the Weizmann Institute, but it so happened that that was the situation. And so, after two years of postdoc I got an offer from the Faculty of Physics of Weizmann. I travel back to Israel and gave a colloquium at Weizmann. This was an interesting time: it was the beginning of the Iraq War when scud missiles were falling on cities in Israel.
And so, in the summer of 1991 I became what is called a senior scientist which is like an assistant professor at the Weizmann Institute.
As a tenure track with the same system?
Same system, tenure track. I started my independent research career and created my own research group and developed new ideas. The Weizmann Institute wants to see in each of its PI a leader in the field.
Did you get any indication or interest in wanting to stay in the United States further or you knew you always wanted to come back to Israel?
I wanted to come back to Israel. The United State is fine. Maybe a bit less these days!
Not so fine (laughter).
Yes, you’ve got to be worried about democracy, but the United State is a strong country, and it will be fine. Of course, life in the U.S. is easier than in Israel but my mind was focused on living in Israel. There was no doubt about it.
And what experience did you have with the Weizmann Institute? Did you know generally what its mission was before this?
Well, yes, of course. I mean I have been here even when I was a PhD at the Technion I came here a few times, met some people, but of course, you don’t know the details until you really get into it. I knew the place in general but not in the details. I knew it was a very good research institution. I was very happy to be hired by the Weizmann Institute. But you had to create your own group and that’s the start of a new life. It was 1991, and I was thirty-two years old.
And what was the department or program that you were hired into at Weizmann?
So, at that time it was called the department of nuclear physics which changed its name later on. The nuclear physics was in decay already, and the department was renamed the department of particle physics and today it is the department of particle physics and astro-physics, The starting point of my research group was related to a significant meeting I had when I was still at Argonne, when I went to listen to a seminar. There was a scientist, Prof. Dieter Habs, coming from Germany from the Max Planck Institute for nuclear physics to give a seminar. You know, one of these weekly seminars and these are not the seminars I would usually go because they were in nuclear physics. So, I would not usually go there, but the topic was interesting, and he was going to talk about a new technique called heavy ion storage rings. These are large devices that provide the ability to store fast (MeV) ion beams for a time which is sufficient to cool beams using electron coolers or laser beams, and I found this interesting. So, I went to the seminar and Dieter Habs gave a very nice lecture about how you could cool beams with laser, even making what was called crystal beams. Back in the late eighties this was a very hot topic: creating cold stored beams. And while I was sitting there, I suddenly realized that I had an idea of what to do with such a storage ring in the field of molecular ion physics: We could store molecular ions for a time which was long enough to cool them to their ground vibrational quantum state. This was a problem which was impacting all kind of experiments we were trying to do: How to produce cold molecular ions. So, I asked if we could talk after the seminar and he came to my office. I told him of my ideas about molecular ions, and he immediately said, “Why not?” So, I said, alright (laughter) and when I arrived at the Weizmann Institute this is what I had in my mind. I went for a trip to Germany, and I gave a seminar about these ideas and the kind of experiment we could do using the heavy ion storage ring (called the Test Storage Ring, TSR) located in Heidelberg. There were very few machines like this in the world. At that time, I think there were two or three, something like this. These are very expensive devices. The scientists from the Max Planck Nuclear Physics Institute in Heidelberg were extremely welcoming, and basically told me “Come over” - we will try! So, I wrote a proposal, I even got it funded, and went there. It was maybe a year after I arrived at the Weizmann Institute and we had our first experiment and it was quite a success. We measured, for the first time, a process called dissociative recombination for a simple, but cold, molecular ion, and the results were showing completely new features. We also realized this would have ultimately implications for the modelling of interstellar molecular clouds.
Daniel, between the instrumentation and the collaboration, the people, what made it such a success?
First, the scientists at the Max Planck in Heidelberg were outstanding people, and very open minded. You know, I was just a young scientist, just assistant professor, maybe six months on the job, coming from Israel, and the lab in Heidelberg never did any molecular physics. But they were so supportive, and we immediately hit the ground together. And that’s how my connection with Germany started. We could see we had a new window into the world of molecular physics. And of course, from there on, we started collaborating and most of my activities at the Weizmann Institute were for many years very much focused on this collaboration.
And physically, Daniel, where would you be spending most of your time during these years? Would you be shuttling back and forth, or you spend long periods of time in Germany?
During the first six, seven years most of the time in Israel. I would go to Germany for a week or ten days for an experiment because an experiment would take a full week. And at the same time, the German colleagues started to hire students on this topic, so it became a real group collaboration.
And over the years the Max-Planck lab became more and more involved in molecular physics.
I believe it is one of the best examples of how a scientific collaboration can really create something that none of us, separately, could have achieved.
Daniel, the question that’s always so important is in fundamental discovery in new physics when you discover this new science essentially what questions are you now able to ask as a result of the discovery that were not even possible to ask, let alone find out the answers to?
So, I think, you know, there are two prongs here. One of them is in astro-physics. Scientists in the field of interstellar molecular clouds were in need of data for modelling these clouds, from which stars and planets are formed. You know that stars and planets are born out of the gravitational collapse of interstellar clouds. A lot of atoms and molecules in these clouds are ionized by UV radiations in space and there’s a lot of molecular physics happening there before you get to the gravitational collapse which lead to the formation of stars or planets. The composition of these clouds is very interesting, and more and more complex molecules have been discovered, including water and even organic molecules and molecular ions. Remember that at the beginning, you basically have hydrogen, helium and some trace of lithium. But after the primary stars are formed from these components, they eject large amount of heavier atoms (for example, during supernova explosions), which form more complex molecules, creating new and more complex molecular clouds which includes all kind of species, and not only hydrogen and helium. So, our experiments could provide some very important insight about the way these molecular components would behave in these molecular clouds. It would also be of importance to understand the degree of ionization or radiative cooling taking place in these clouds, which is important during star and planet formation.
The second focal point of our work was related to the fundamental of dissociation dynamics. Even for simple molecular ions, such as ionized hydrogen, which is made of two protons and one electron, the dissociation mechanism is very intriguing. And since this is a three-body problem, we cannot solve it in a straightforward way. So, one could use this simplest three body system, with a very well-known initial structure, and study its dynamics. Simpler than that you can’t dream. Two protons plus one electron and you ask yourself alright, what’s the dynamic of the system? How does it break down? How much of the released energy is going into kinetic energy, and how much is left in the internal energy of the fragments? And how does it change if you increase the dissociation energy? These are very fundamental question that you can ask. All these things were of very fundamental interest, and our experimental techniques provided unique tools for this.
And then on top of that what were some of the both theoretical and experimental limitations that stymied the research where you had a sense of where it might be able to go but based on these limitations there was a certain place where you had to stop?
We had some good theory groups working with us, from the U.S., Japan, France, and Sweden. We succeeded in forming a very nice community. And remember that these processes had been studied many years ago, but we were discovering very new features, because of our experimental toolbox. And the more we pushed forward; the newer features were coming up. So, it was a very exciting time.
But it has to be a-
-more on the sociological question. As the child of Holocaust survivors doing this fundamental research at Max Planck did that give you any satisfaction that science would allow for there to be healing to go beyond the political and hatred divisions?
Oh, boy. That is a very long story. How many hours do we have? So, my mother could not, you know, my mother refused to come to Germany.
My father, on the other hand, worked with German people. He very much liked German engineering. My mother could not understand this, and it was not easy. And for me, coming here to Germany and working the first few years was also not easy. My German colleagues were very nice. But to be honest, at the beginning, every time I would land at Frankfurt Airport sitting in the El Al plane, you immediately see this German policeman with a big dog.
And even if I knew that this German policeman is there to protect me, it was a strange feeling. But once you start working, you realize the advantage of science: there’s no narrative behind it and the results of experiments done in Germany are exactly the same result as if you do the experiment in Israel or in Iran for that purpose. This is a big advantage. And science has been a major player in the establishment of the diplomatic relationship between Germany in Israel.
And, in fact, historically, both the Weizmann Institute and the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg played a major role in this relationship. So, I was basically working at a place where the diplomatic relationship between Israel and Germany were born. The name of the lab I was working was Gentner Lab. Wolfgang Gentner, who established the lab in Germany was a critical figure in the connection between Germany and Israel. So, I knew the historical context, and I quickly realized there was more than just science in what I was doing. But my mother, she would not forget. It’s not that she was trying to convince me to avoid working in Germany, but I could feel it was not easy for her. In fact, several years later, I got a prize in Germany called the Minerva Prize. Not a really big one but anyway this was to be awarded in Heidelberg by the mayor of Heidelberg, in the town hall. So, I decided to invite my parents to Germany and for the first time in her life my mother came to Germany, driving a Mercedes, because my father, of course, was driving a German car (laughter). I’ll tell you this was quite an emotional moment. First, of course, I could see how she came out of the car. It was a sunny day in Heidelberg. She looked around and then I could see she was disturbed, and I remember we went to the street and to a coffee shop. It was beautiful day, and she was sitting there, and she couldn’t believe she was there. In the evening, there was the ceremony. She was sitting there first row, and she cried. It was an amazing moment. Not because of the prize.
She wasn’t crying for only one reason. There were a multitude of emotions that were going through her for crying.
Definitely, no, this was quite a moment.
Perhaps she let her guard down a little bit after that and became just a little more trusting of the world as a result?
She had a very difficult life later on. I mean she became sick. I don’t think this event converted here(laughter). This was really complicated for her.
Daniel, I know you say there was not a path, that, you know, there was no grand plan for where you were headed next but to the extent that you achieved a director position at Max Planck did that give you a sense that you were being groomed for leadership at Weizmann? Was that sort of a stage in the process?
No, I do not think so. I had two wonderful collaborators at the Max Planck. The director was Professor Dirk Schwalm and working with him was Professor Andreas Wolf. After several years we worked together, Dirk called me to his office and asked me out of the blue, if I would like to become a director of the Max Planck Institute (laughter). I said, “Me?” He then said, you know, I’m going to retire and so and so. Why don’t you take my place?” (laughter). Alright, you know, it was not in my plan. This is really out of the blue. I said, “I have to think about it.” I came back home. And started talking to my wife.
The same one! We had, at that time, two young kids, and nobody thought of moving anywhere. But of course, being a director at the Max Planck is a good position, right? People in Germany say being director of the Max Planck is as close to God as you can get in term of science. You have funding. You can do a lot. I mean what else can you dream of? But we decided it’s not going to happen for family reasons and so I wrote back, and I said ‘Look, I’m not going to be able to do that.” I knew that there was a possibility they would close the lab once Dirk retires, because that’s the Max Planck way of doing things: When a director goes away, the lab is often closed down. So, I came up with a strange idea. I said, “Look, that’s a pity because we have lots of good science to do. What if I’ll be the director but I’ll be there one week a month?” Which was some kind of hopeless proposal. I didn’t expect this to work, but it worked. We agreed, and from that time on I stayed as a professor of the Weizmann Institute and became a director of the Max Planck and spend a week every month at the Max Planck in Heidelberg. And that went on for quite a few years and no, I had no ideas that this would lead me to become the president of the Weizmann Institute. I’m a scientist. I mean I never thought of becoming the president of anything (laughter). You know, I worked in the lab. I know how to connect the wires and to get the lasers straight. I mean that’s my profession. That’s who I am.
Daniel, did you recognize that there would be a concern that with administrative responsibilities it would pull you away from the laboratory and the science?
You mean at the Max Planck?
And then ultimately at Weizmann?
My life was being in the lab. I could not think about anything else! I mean for me it was “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I became the director because I wanted to do science not because I wanted to be the director to be honest. I had no interest in administrative positions. There was this amazing synergy between the Israeli team, my students here at Weizmann Institute, and the German team and the students there. We really enjoyed working together. At that time, I also started to develop a different lab here where we start developing a new technique of what is called electrostatic ion beam trapping. These were much cheaper devices that could store keV ion beams. So, I had two labs to take care of, and I enjoyed my time. I mean this was wonderful science and we were publishing important papers and doing new experiments. I had my hands full, enough funding, lots of very good people and students and no complaints!
Did you think that you would stay at Max Planck for longer than you did?
Well, I knew these kinds of things. You start something, and you never know where you will end. And Max Planck is a heavy weight, in a good sense (laughter). And then, one day, in the fall of 2004, someone called me and said I want you to talk to you and this was a phone call from the previous president of the Weizmann Institute, Professor Haim Harari. I knew him of course, since he was the president of the Weizmann Institute until 2001. So, we met in his office, and he asked me what I would you think about becoming the president of the Weizmann Institute?
(laughter) It’s the same question.
(Laughter) Indeed. I say, “I have no idea of what you’re talking about.” I have two research groups. I enjoy myself; I do a lot of science and have big science ideas. I have everything I need (laughter). And then, I asked, what is the president of the Weizmann Institute actually doing? So, we had a short discussion, and after a few weeks I came back and of course, part of my mind was already busy with this new opportunity!
Daniel, as you were contemplating this opportunity did you recognize that in terms of responsibility and profile that this would be a quantum leap above your director position at Max Planck?
Well, look, in 2004, I was forty-five years old! I mean usually president of universities have a white beard and it is usually your “end of career position,” right? Of course, but at that point I think I knew- there’s one thing I learned in life. I’m a risk taker and I like challenges, and opportunities. I’m a risk taker and I think the way I moved to Israel is- you know, if you look back, the first big risk I took. I look at opportunities and I’m usually not afraid. Maybe it is a bit of a naïve way of looking at this, but that’s always my starting point. And of course, as I said, once prof. Harari asked me that question it took me, I can’t remember, a few weeks, and I came back to him and say, “Can we talk again?” So, I went to see him again, and asked again what is the president of the Weizmann Institute doing? (laughter) I knew what a director of a Max Planck needed to do. But this is not the same thing as running a whole institute in all field of science, since Weizmann includes life science, chemistry, mathematics, computer science and physics. It is a totally different position. So, we had discussions and then came the time when the institute, indeed, decided to elect a new president and a search committee was established, and I was asked if I’m willing to be a candidate which, to be honest, at that point I was still finding a bit strange. I was forty-five years old. Every other candidate was close or above sixty years old. But because I liked the opportunity and I like risks, I really took it easy and thought that even if I’m not picked up, it’s a nice way to learn something new. So, when I decided to “play the game,” so to speak, the first thing I did is to start learning everything about the Weizmann Institute. I’ve been here, at that time, for fifteen years but when you’re a scientist in physics at the Weizmann Institute, you don’t really know how the Weizmann Institute works.
Given that the Institute is very international, a first interview with the search committee was scheduled for July 2005 in New York. So, I had few months to learn as much as possible about the Weizmann Institute. And I really went into the details and I did my homework. Just like you need to do to pass an exam. I then went to New York and I was grilled by a search committee of fourteen people. That was the first session, and I did something that I still think they did not expect. For me, one of the best ways to develop my thinking and ideas is to write them down. I cannot really understand what I want to do before I write this in details. I think it is part of being a scientist. So, I wrote a working plan. I wrote six pages, first for myself, before the interview. I was not asked to do that, but when I went to New York for the interview, I made fourteen copies of it and, somehow, I think it impressed them (laughter). I enjoyed the interview very much, and it reminded me of the exam I had to go through, more than twenty years before, to get accepted to the direct PhD track at the Technion.
Why New York?
Because the board of the Weizmann Institute is very international. The Institute is located in Israel, but it is an international institute. Everything is done in English. We teach in English. So, that’s the reason the meeting was in New York and most of the people on the search committee were not Israeli.
So, Daniel to come back to a question I poised during your undergraduate experience when you were starting to learn about the ways that science was and was not put in service to the Israeli state. As you were writing this document and articulating your vision for the Weizmann Institute, how did you couch that vision in terms of science being an international endeavor and in terms of the Weizmann Institute supporting Israeli society more generally?
Yeah, so that’s the moment you start to form your ideas.
It is when I started writing this document that I realized the difference between being a scientist, working in your own field, and looking at the much bigger picture. You start thinking about how making science better, how to better support graduate students, scientists, and what is the role of scientific research in society. So, I started thinking about the role of a research Institute like Weizmann could play, not only in Israel, but internationally. I spent six months on this, and I learned what leadership is all about in the world of science. I had a lot of reading, and it was very interesting. And clearly my international exposure that I had over all these years helped me. It provided me with a more cosmopolitan view of science and of its culture, of the way it influences the world. I started asking questions such as what can we really do? What can be our impact? How to achieve it?
Daniel, in facing these choices with how to articulate this vision there’s always the distinction between emphasizing continuity and emphasizing your own vision. So, what did you see based on your own experience in talking with your predecessor at the Weizmann Institute in terms of its strengths that you wanted to build on and where did you see opportunities to really bring the institute into new directions under your leadership?
There is a very strong bottom-up culture at the Weizmann Institute It’s nice to have a good president, but the most important people are the scientists. Everyone knows that, including the president and if he doesn’t know that, he’s not going to stay president. And being a scientist myself, I knew I wanted to continue, and even strengthen that culture. So, that is the continuity part. For me, the real leaders of science are in the lab. These are the people who lead the system. The work of the president of a research institute is to listen carefully to the scientists, try to understand what they want to do, and support the best. Science is driven by people, and not by the topic and if you look at the history of science you will find that, naturally, the best people do the best science. It’s not the best science done by people. It’s first of all the best people, so the attitude at Weizmann has always been, forget about fields. It doesn’t matter. Try first to recognize the best people and for me, and for many people, it’s much easier to recognize outstanding people than to recognize promising fields. Because recognizing an excellent scientist is mostly based on his or her past, while recognizing a promising field is mostly looking into the crystal ball.
-is this the say you worked to encourage a research culture that fosters collaboration across fields?
For sure. But mostly I really tried to foster the bottom-up culture. I said look, I’m the president but in fact I’m here to help you. That’s my job. So, you tell us what you want to do, you tell us what you need, and we will try to help you. Of course, we can’t do everything. We make a choice but I’m not going to invent something that you don’t want to do. I’m not going to move the institute in the direction that no scientists want to go. That’s an unworkable system. We look at the scientists we have, and those we hire, and we move the institute in the directions that these individuals want to. And remember, we don’t hire scientists because they do something very important. We hire them because they’re outstanding. Another advantage is that we have no quota and no slots in any department. In the thirteen years I’ve spent as president of Weizmann, I kept saying to the scientists “don’t come to the management and tell us that your topic is very important.” There are many important scientific topics and fields. We cannot really make a judgment. We will support the best scientists, since, as far as I’m concerned, all fields are equivalent. Also, we never tried to equilibrate the budget among the various research fields.
Daniel, in this position what level of contact did you have with the Israeli government and, you know, the science ministry?
The science ministry in Israel is not the ministry supporting scientific research in the universities. University money, including the research part, mostly come from the ministry of education. This is the way the system is set up. But you need to know that the university system is not connected directly to the ministry of education either. Many years ago, the Israeli government created an independent body which is called the planning and budgeting committee and the council for high education. That council is an independent body, and the only political person that sits there, as chair of this council, is the Minister of Education. The planning and budgeting committee has the freedom to make decisions about funding. Universities are quite independent from the government. There’s almost no political game about how much funding each university gets. I don’t want to say that political aspect never influenced the system, but still I think that when you compare our systems to many other systems in other countries, ours is not bad, as far as this subject is concerned. I don’t want to compare to the American one when you also have private universities. That’s of course a different situation. Also, concerning Weizmann, you need to understand that only twenty-five percent of our budget comes from direct state funding. By the way, fifteen years ago it was about fifty percent. So as funny as it may sound, as a president my goal was to reduce the government support without reducing the budget at all, which in fact, we double.
Where did you make up the difference? Where did that come from?
(Laughter) One important source was fundraising and the second one is tech transfer. While we mostly do basic science, for more than sixty years, the management of this institute has been very clever in keeping the link between basic research and applications. Nothing that we do today affect this but everything that was done twenty years ago affect that. There is often a long delay between any action you do at the level of basic research and the outcome that can bring some financial results. So today, about thirty-five percent of our budget comes from our own endowment, which is a combination of revenues from tech-transfer and philanthropy. I believe it is a very good example of what is the value of basic research, and long-term vision. And that has become very attractive to donors as well, since they can see the impact of their philanthropy. Government funding will always look at the short term. Philanthropy has a different role to play and that’s the long-term view. Philanthropy can afford to look twenty years down the road, and I think that’s where philanthropy should be focused.
Daniel, perhaps one part of this story in these recent years has been another modern miracle in Israel and that’s the growth of tech and start up culture in Israel. And I wonder to what extent is the Weizmann Institute integral to the origins of this remarkable start up culture and in what ways has this tech start up culture given back? And that’s part of the funding success that the Weizmann Institute has achieved over these recent years.
You are talking about the story of the startup nation, as people call it. You know, there’s never a single event or a single reason for such a high-tech eco-system. There are many reasons behind the creation of such an eco-system. One of them clearly is a high-level education. It doesn’t matter how rich you are and how much you want it. If you don’t have the right people, it won’t happen. So, the first step is to create a high-level education system for scientists, engineers, technicians at all levels. And I think Israel has not been bad at doing that, to be honest. If you want to create high level industries, it takes decades to create the people, the engineers and the quality of the universities is of course critical. The second point is the willingness to take risk. Many people would say that Israel is, by itself, a high-risk country. I disagree. It is true that living in Israel is a profession by itself and we are all used to changes of direction, or war that start instantaneously, rockets that fall on our heads and more. So perhaps this is influencing the way people think, since you need to develop quick problem-solving skills. The third point is the army, the defense industry. Israel understood from the very beginning that in order to survive, we needed to create a qualitative advantage. Israel is a small country in an unstable region. The only thing you can do to defend yourself in such a situation is to create leverage and the best leverage we could create is technology. So, the defense industry has been very important in this process, first creating the demand for high level scientists and engineers, and then these people were focused on finding innovative, high-risk solutions. And when these engineers and scientists retired from the army and you retire from the army relatively young in Israel, they were in the middle of their career, and so they could start a new career. So, they created these high-tech companies, often using military or defense technology that could be translated to civil technology. And the last point, which I think is a bit more difficult to grasp, is the Jewish culture which, as you might know, is a culture where asking questions is a must. This is a culture where arguing is part of the discussion. And as you know, often new ideas, new initiatives are born from the best questions and arguments. And Israeli are well known for arguing a lot, and not always in a nice way. Maybe one of the best examples for this is when I was once asked by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany about the difference between scientific research in Israel and in Germany. Not an easy question. I asked him if he ever went to Israel? He said yes. I asked him “Did you drive in Israel.” He answered, “Oh yes, it is terrible.” Well, I told him, we Israeli scientists are doing science the same way we are driving, and you, the German scientists are doing science the same way you are driving as well. So, first, I saved the diplomatic relationship between Israel and Germany. But think about this: Israeli drivers often treat the red light as an indication and the stop sign as a suggestion. This is of course very dangerous. But think about this behavior in the lab. This is how new ideas come up.
As your academic background in atomic physics to the extent that physics is the foundational science and to the extent that the atom is the foundation of reality to some degree, do you feel like your educational and scholarly background served you well in your role as president in terms of fostering a culture of collaboration among all of the scientists at the institute?
I’m not sure if that influenced the collaborative part. What it does influence is the way you manage the Institute. Physicists are mostly data driven; evidence based. You know, management has to be evidence based. You hear a lot of insights, and people come to you all the time and you have to make sense of all of this. My education as a physicist always pushed me to look at the evidence by myself. So, I think the scientific culture I grew up with has been a very important factor for any kind of decision I took.
I want to ask some of your achievements in the world of recruitment. One of the challenges and also blessings of being a world class science institution is that you can attract the top people in the world, but those top people are also thinking about places like CERN or Harvard. What have you found have been some of the best tools to attract those people to come to Weizmann?
That’s a very, very good question and it took me a little time to understand what are the advantages of the Weizmann Institute. How do we differentiate ourselves? When I came to the institute, thirty years ago, I got $60,000 as a budget. Today the average start-up fund of a young scientist is about a million and a half dollars and that’s the average. But we are not the only one to be able to do that, and that is not the way to compete with Harvard or others. We also have very good scientific core facilities but again we are not the only one. And in term of salaries, we are clearly not as attractive as Harvard. But on the other hand, our academic environment, the freedom we offer, and the much-reduced red tape we have is, I believe, much better than most Ivy League institutions. The difficulties we are facing is that we are relatively far from the strong science centers, located in Europe and the U.S. But today communication technologies allows us to overcome this, at least partially. Also, some scientists love the fact that Weizmann is purely curiosity driven. If you want to do curiosity driven research and you believe in this method, you ought to be at the Weizmann Institute. I’m not claiming this is the best place in the world. Not at all. I’m just saying this is how we look at the world of science. And it is very attractive for certain scientists, especially the very curious one! An additional issue in this competition is the pool of talent. Since living in Israel can be an issue for many people, we do not have a very large pool of talent to fish into. That is unlike Harvard and others who can be very attractive to a much larger pool of talent. But, if you look at countries that have been successful in scientific research, usually these are countries that have a generous immigration policy. The United States is a clear example. Israel is a country of immigration, but to a much smaller subset of the population than the U.S.!
Daniel, I know that you probably had the same instinct that you did when you were named director at Max Planck that you were going to stay in the lab. Was that feasible at all when you became president? Was there any opportunity you had to stay current with your science?
Well, yeah. I mean being the president of the institute is only 150-percent of your time. Everything else is for your lab (laughter). So, at the beginning, I said sure I will do both the Institute management and the scientific research. But then you’re drawn into the system. Being the president is a twenty-four hour a day job, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It keeps you busy not only physically but mentally. But don’t be mistaken, I enjoyed every single day of these thirteen years. No regrets.
Did you have what we call in America a kitchen cabinet? An informal group of advisors that you would bounce ideas off of?
No, I had four outstanding vice-presidents, each one responsible for a different aspect of the Institute, and this was my dream team. Sometimes, of course, I had people whom I knew that I would call and asked for their opinion, but not in a systematic way.
Daniel, given the complexity of the operation and just how much there was to keep track of what were some of the baseline feedback mechanisms that you would use to determine are we on the right track or are we not on the right track?
Talk to the students.
Talk to the young scientist. That’s your best feedback. You have to go down to the laboratories themselves. Just go and talk to the people, not only the scientists, and this is your feedback, because that’s the place where things are happening. It’s always too easy to look at a research institute from 30,000 feet. You have to get your hands dirty.
Daniel, were there aspects of your work that had a national security component? Did you work with people in the military?
The Weizmann Institute is a public institution and we don’t do any defense research.
Who were some of your peers internationally that were important just in terms of sharing ideas, thinking about what they were doing?
Institutions like the Max Planck or like Rockefeller University, MIT, Stanford, the Pasteur Institute in France, and many more. Weizmann scientists cooperate with a lot of institutions worldwide.
Let’s go to legacy questions. What do you see as your greatest contributions during your tenure at Weizmann?
To be honest with you, I’m a not sure. I see the role of a president as cultivating the people at the bottom. I’m a very curious person and I love the way science progress and to watch what society can do with it. We did a lot of things, built several new buildings and facilities, create many new research centers. But I think that, perhaps my best legacy is the idea that, at the Weizmann Institute, the president should always be a lover of science and not a manager or a bureaucrat.
Daniel, when did you know it was time to step down and what were you confident about in terms of leaving a strong legacy and what were you concerned that needed to be done that might not get done as a result of you no longer being president?
I was always very concerned about excellence. And I hope this will continue.
If you look at what happened to the institute during the last fifteen years, for example looking at the Leiden research index which is very much focused on science, you clearly see that the ranking of the Institute, normalized to its size, has improved very much. I’m not a big fan of ranking, but the sign is clear. And I know exactly why. It’s because we spoke science every day, we hired the best people, we provide them with a good infrastructure, and allowed them the freedom to think. In fact, I dare to say, it is quite simple! Now in term of stepping down at the right time, I believe you have to leave room for the young people. So, when I became sixty, it was enough. Also, it is hard to reinvent yourself all the time. I could see these young scientists coming and thinking differently. It was not always easy for me to understand them. Not in terms of science but in term of attitude. So, I realize it was time to step down. I believe we need young leaders, and I’m so happy that the president who replace med is also a young person.
Daniel, for my last question is as I’m sure you were so excited to fully embrace the science again to put the administrative responsibilities behind you. What did the experience of being president- how did that enhance your insensibilities as a scientist both, you know, in terms of just the knowledge base of the things that you were exposed to and just the wisdom that you gathered over these years?
How does this help you in terms of your future research and how you might want to get there?
I was just a physicist before and for thirteen years I’ve been exposed to people doing amazing things in various fields. I’ve learned a lot from them, and today I have a different view of science than the one I had when I started. I have a much broader view of science. I now became the chair of the academic board of the Israel Science Foundation, which is the national research granting agency, a bit like the NSF. So, I can now use what I have learned as president of Weizmann and see if I can drive the granting process to an even better place. On the other hand, this foundation also deals with Humanities and Social Science, which I know much less about. So, I still have a lot to learn, and that is always enjoyable.
(Laughter) Are you most excited about the way that nuclear physicists and atomic physicists continue to contribute to astrophysics?
Yeah, I like this connection between the very small and the very big. It is always an interesting place.
The bottom line is that I’m a scientist, and I just love turning the screws and getting the experiment working right.
Just like when you were a kid in your dad’s basement.
Absolutely. I just love it.
Daniel, it’s been a great pleasure spending this time with you. Thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.
Well, thank you for your patience. I hope it was fulfilling.