The past, present, and future of science, technology, and other areas of human achievement were to be spotlighted Sunday night, as the Dan David Foundation and Tel Aviv University give out the annual Dan David Prize.
Named for the eclectic Jewish businessman whose gift sustains the prize, the foundation annually distributes three prizes of a million dollars apiece to be shared by six outstanding individuals whose unique innovations have impacted the world. The prize is considered one of the most important in the academic world.
The prizes are granted for “proven, exceptional and distinct excellence in the sciences, arts, and humanities that have made an outstanding contribution to humanity,” and are presented for “outstanding achievements in the three time dimensions – Past, Present and Future,” according to the foundation.
In the Present, this year’s sole winner is Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, the ubiquitous online encyclopedia that is utilized by nearly all Internet users to access information. Wikipedia is user-sourced, meaning that the information in its compendium – which seeks to cover all areas of human knowledge – is written by volunteers, and curated and corrected by a community of people who are interested in that topic.
While this sounds like a recipe for abuse, with agenda-driven groups taking control of specific topics – there are, for example, numerous websites and Facebook groups dedicated to rooting out anti-Semitism and anti-Israel presentations on Wikipedia – Wales believes that the system has proven itself over the past 14 years.
“We have internal debates about policy which sometimes get rowdy, but overall I think we do a very good job of maintaining objectivity,” Wales told The Times of Israel. “The community has proven itself reliable, and so has the Wikipedia model.”
While Wikipedia has its critics, it also has many fans who laud its attempt at giving users control over the “official record” that Wikipedia hopes to become. But Wales believes that it’s the Future candidates – Prof. Michael Waterman, Dr. Cyrus Chothia, and Prof. David Haussler, all of whom are pioneers in the area of bioinformatics and biomechanics, both high-level genetic sciences – that really deserve the accolades, and awards.
Waterman, who is accepting the award on behalf of the group, is one of the founders and current leaders in the area of computational biology, and has developed many algorithms that are used in DNA sequencing.
“We caught the transformation of biology from mostly a descriptive subject to an information-rich science,” Waterman said. “Our research was not then in any hot-topics category; we simply found fascinating problems that were irresistible and we were determined to pursue them. We greatly appreciate the Dan David Foundation and Tel Aviv University for choosing Bioinformatics as the area for the award and we are deeply honored to be the awardees.”
The Past, too, is represented in the Dan David Awards, in the work of oral historians, who seek to learn how perception and fact interact from the way stories about events and people have been handed down throughout the generations.
Prof. Peter R. Brown and Prof. Alessandro Portelli have studied oral history, examining the interaction between private and collective memory and developing groundbreaking studies that have reshaped the way we understand social and cultural change.
Portelli is best known for his book, “The Order Has Been Carried Out,” which tells the story of the massacre of 355 Jewish and non-Jewish civilians by Nazis in a suburb of Rome in 1944. It is a legendary event in Italian collective memory. Portelli examined numerous oral accounts to reconstruct the horrific events and their political uses in subsequent decades. What made the book so striking was not just the myth-shattering story, but the fact that many of the witnesses got the facts wrong; memories and facts were so clearly at odds.
“I was surprised when I was chosen for this,” Portelli said. “It’s a recognition of the work I and others have done in this field. I am very glad to accept it on behalf of my colleagues.”