Eight scientists awarded ‘Pre-Nobel’ Wolf Prize

Winners for excellence in science and the arts take home $100,000 each, and gain prestige that often results in further recognition

President Shimon Peres with the winners of 2013 Wolf Prizes (Photo credit: Courtesy)
President Shimon Peres with the winners of 2013 Wolf Prizes (Photo credit: Courtesy)

On their way to the Nobels, many scientists and researchers take a detour to Israel in order to pick up a Wolf Prize, a $100,000 award given out for excellence in five areas — agriculture, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, and the arts. Originally endowed in 1978 by Dr. Ricardo Wolf, a German-born inventor and former Cuban ambassador to Israel, the Wolf Prize has gotten a reputation in the scientific community as a “pre-Nobel” award, second only in importance worldwide to the Swedish-awarded prizes.

With good reason: over one third of Wolf winners go on to win a Nobel in in the fields of science honored by both prizes – medicine, physics, and chemistry. For example, 14 of the 26 winners of the Wolf Prize in Physics between 1978 and 2010 have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, five of them in the year after they got their Wolf Prize.

In a gala ceremony at the Knesset Thursday evening, President Shimon Peres and Education Minister Shai Piron presented the five awards to eight winners from four countries – the United States, Canada, Sweden, and Taiwan, with the prizes for agriculture and medicine presented to two and three researchers respectively.

The winners of the agriculture prize were Prof. Jorje Dubcovsky of the United States and Prof. Lief Andersson of Sweden, both of whom (working separately) developed cutting-edge genomic technologies for the study of plants and animals. The prize in mathematics will be awarded to Prof. Peter Sarnak of the United States, for his deep contributions in analysis, number theory, geometrics, and combinatory.

In chemistry, the prize was awarded to Prof. Chi-Huey Wong of Taiwan, who developed methods of synthesizing complex carbohydrates, glycoproteins and related substances that could not be synthesized by other methods. His work is being used by carbohydrate chemistry and biology researchers to arrest progress of cancer and viral infections, and increase immunological functions in the body.

In medicine, the winners were Prof. Nahum Sonenberg of Canada, for his discovery of the proteins that control the protein expression mechanism (in which proteins dispatched to various parts of the body); and, working separately, to Professors Gary Ruvkun and Victor Ambros of the United States for the discovery of the micro-RNA molecules that play a key role in controlling gene expression in natural processes and disease development.

Even the winner in the arts — Swedish artist Olafur Eliasson – received his award for a scientific-related endeavor, using scientific principles related to geometry and space in sculptures and light installations. Eliasson may not be a scientist, the prize committee said, but he’s got the right idea: “Eliasson’s art responds to today’s socially and ecologically connected world… applying an artistic vision to scientific concepts and a scientific spirit of experimentation in art.” It’s cutting-edge, said the Committee – just like the work of the other winners, all of whom have already contributed a great deal to humanity, and will continue to do so.

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