Quantum theorist, popular geographer among ‘pre-Nobel’ winners

Laureates of Israel’s Wolf Foundation prize in the science and arts often bound for global honors

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)

It’s sometimes referred to as the “Israeli Nobel Prize,” but it might be more accurate to call the Wolf Prize, which was awarded to eight recipients by President Shimon Peres Sunday night at the Knesset, the “pre-Nobel Prize.”

Among the winners were popular author Jared Diamond, a champion of geographical determinism, and MIT professor Robert Langer, a pioneer in creating polymers for time-release drugs.

Some of the prizes were awarded for largely theoretical work. The mathematics prize was shared by Prof. George Mostow of Yale, and Prof. Michael Artin of M.I.T. Mostow received the prize for his “fundamental and pioneering contribution to geometry and Lie group theory,” the Wolf Foundation said, while Artin was awarded the prize “for his fundamental contributions to algebraic geometry, both commutative and non-commutative.” In physics, the prize was shared by Prof. Juan Ignacio Cirac of the Max Planck Institute, Germany, and Prof. Peter Zoller of Innsbruck University, Austria. Cirac and Zoller are among “the most prominent theorists in quantum optics, quantum information science and the theory of quantum gases. Their impact on these fields of research cannot be overestimated and is outstanding by all means used to evaluate them,” the foundation said.

More practical were the achievements of this year’s winner of the prize for chemistry, Prof. Robert S. Langer of MIT, for his work in designing biodegradable polymers. The polymers that he developed are used to deliver time-release pharmaceuticals for long-term, short-range delivery of drugs to specific areas of the body. In addition to his pioneering work on designing polymers for drug delivery, Langer has been the leader in designing bioabsorbable polymers to serve as scaffolds, with his work the basis for the first “artificial skin” based on synthetic polymers that was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration.

In agriculture, the prizewinners were Prof. Joachim Messing of Rutgers, and Prof. Jared M. Diamond of UCLA. Messing was honored for his groundbreaking work in gene function, gene cloning, gene sequencing, all geared towards crop understanding and agricultural improvement. Messing developed the unique “shotgun DNA sequencing” method, a cloning technology that has served as the basis for analysis of large size genomes as found in crop plants. His consequent technological innovations allowed sequencing genomes of complex organisms, and particularly those of importance to agriculture. Importantly, Messing’s work was freely available to the public, and his methods and findings are used by scientists and researchers around the world.

Diamond, who wrote the bestselling “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which took the  Pulitzer Prize, is the author of a multidisciplinary theory that shows how ecological and geographical differences between societies affected their domestication opportunities, their agricultural trajectory and other aspects of human evolution: spread of languages, evolution of epidemic diseases and collapse, survival and prosperity of societies. Diamond’s theories show how short-term decision-making ignoring natural resource dynamics may lead to agricultural collapse, and makes a strong intellectual case for policy making that emphasizes sustainability considerations, the Wolf Foundation said.

In architecture, the winner was Eduardo Souto de Mouro of Portugal “for the advancement of architectural knowledge in showing how buildings can philosophically and experientially engage with the natural world, and for his exceptional skills as a designer,” the Foundation said. De Mouro is the designer of the Braga Municipal Stadium, which was carved from a quarry that overlooks the city of Braga.

Speaking to the winners, Peres said that he was “proud to live in a creative country whose cultural, scientific, and technological achievements have earned it an honorable place in scientific advancement.” Israel, though small in land mass, was a world power in science, Peres added.

Many winners of the prize, awarded by the Wolf Foundation — founded by Dr. Ricardo Wolf, a German-born inventor and former Cuban ambassador to Israel — go on to win the Nobel prize. 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 the very next year. So far, 282 recipients from 23 countries have been awarded the prize.

The Wolf Prize is distributed annually in five out of eight disciplines (the disciplines change on a rotation basis). This year, the five prizes, worth $100,000 each, were distributed among eight winners from four countries. The prizes were awarded in physics, mathematics, agriculture, chemistry and architecture.

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