Fourteen Israeli professors awarded top EU research grants

Researchers from the Hebrew University, the Technion, Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute to each receive €2.5 million in funding from the European Research Council

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Composite image showing, from left to right, Prof. David Kazhdan, Prof. Maren R. Niehoff and Prof. Nathan Lineal of the Hebrew University. (courtesy)
Composite image showing, from left to right, Prof. David Kazhdan, Prof. Maren R. Niehoff and Prof. Nathan Lineal of the Hebrew University. (courtesy)

Fourteen researchers from Israeli universities have been awarded prestigious Advanced Grants by the European Research Council (ERC), it was announced Thursday.

The EU-funded research grants are each worth approximately 2.5 million euros ($2.68 million), disbursed over five years, with an additional 1 million euros ($1.07 million) available in certain cases.

The grants are “among the most prestigious and competitive research grants offered by the European Union. These grants provide seasoned researchers with the opportunity to pursue ambitious projects capable of catalyzing significant scientific breakthroughs,” the Hebrew University said in a statement announcing its  three winners.

The Hebrew University recipients were Prof. David Kazhdan, from the Einstein Institute of Mathematics; Prof. Nathan (Nati) Linial, from the Benin School of Computer Science and Engineering, the Einstein Institute of Mathematics, and the Federman Center for the Study of Rationality; and Prof. Maren R. Niehoff, Max Cooper chair of Jewish Thought in the Faculty of Humanities.

At the Technion, Prof. Michael Glickman, dean of the Faculty of Biology, and Prof. Jackie Schiller from the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine received the grants.

The Weizmann Institute of Science had six winners: Prof. Irit Dinur of the Faculty of Computer Science, Prof. Mike Fainzilber of the Department of Biomolecular Sciences, Prof. Sarel Fleishman also of the Department of Biomolecular Sciences, Prof. Itay Halevy of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Prof. Michal Irani, dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science, and Prof. Rony Paz of the Department of Brain Sciences.

There were three awardees from Tel Aviv University: Prof. Yair Bar-Haim of the Sagol School of Neuroscience, Prof. Amir Shpilka of the Department of Computer Science, and Prof. Rafael Pass, also from the Department of Computer Science.

In advance of the awards announcement, The Times of Israel was able to conduct short interviews with the three recipients from the Hebrew University.

Grandmaster of mathematics

In their announcement, the Hebrew University noted that Prof. David Kazhdan was honored for “his research on uncovering hidden symmetries across various mathematical fields and exploring their applications. His work aims to illuminate unexpected connections between disparate mathematical theories and leverage these symmetries to solve intricate problems.”

When asked on a Zoom call about his research, Kazhdan, 77, noted that “it’s completely impossible to present these ideas to the general public.” High-level mathematics, “in general, you can’t explain to a regular person — you use terms they won’t know,” he added.

Example image showing a variety of mathematical formulae. (Inga Nielsen/Shutterstock)

“Many things don’t look symmetric, but there are hidden connections,” he went on. His research is “a way of finding unexpected synthesis. It’s hard to explain. I will stress the fact that, even though the development of abstract mathematics usually doesn’t have immediate applications, overall mathematics is extremely useful and applicable, but it takes time for things to be realized.”

Kazhdan pointed to classical Newtonian mechanics and the “pure mathematic Fourier series.” Both of these, he said, are now used in computer science and in many other ways but started “as total abstract thought.”

He admitted his own mathematical research has “no immediate practical applications” but said that in the long run it could be used in myriad ways. “I don’t know how people will apply it,” he said.

Born in Moscow in 1946, Kazhdan had an illustrious career at Harvard, where he is now a professor emeritus, before immigrating to Israel in 2002. He had a MacArthur Fellowship in 1990-1995 and received the Israel Prize for his work in 2012. He also was awarded the prestigious Shaw Prize for Mathematical Sciences in 2021. This is the third time he has received the ERC Advanced Grant for his research.

Kazhdan plans to use the grant to fund postdoctoral students, organize conferences, and invite lecturers from abroad.

The noise fixer

The other Hebrew University mathematician awarded the prize, Prof. Nathan (Nati) Linial, researches error-correcting codes. “All communication, whether among humans or machines, is susceptible to external noise. In his research, Linial and his students have developed mathematical methods employing analysis, optimization, and combinatorics to analyze the optimal balance between the rate of an error-correction code and how many errors it can correct,” the announcement notice said.

Linial, a friendly, enthusiastic man, was wearing a Petaluma T-shirt when he was contacted via Zoom in a classroom, for the small California town where he helped develop the “Petaluma model” for knot theory, one aspect of the mathematical theories he researches.

“Broadly speaking, my research deals with famous, difficult problems. I am trying hard to solve them. The questions are so well-known and difficult, even if we make some progress, that is great,” he said.

Illustrative: Programming scripts on a computer monitor. (Motortion/iStock by Getty Images)

The main problem “is about coding and error correcting codes. This is a very important problem in many different ways,” he said. When computers communicate, there is “always noise,” meaning small errors or unwanted modifications, “so the receiver doesn’t always receive what the sender has sent.”

“This is called the ‘distance vs. rate problem’ in codes. As strange as it sounds, it’s a very fundamental question, and the amazing thing is, the last significant progress was made in the late 70s, so we have been stuck with this for many years,” Linial said.

The research he and his students are doing represents “some new ideas, some initial progress” on this issue, he said. “Codes are used everywhere, in every communication. Many critical technologies depend on clean codes… Error-correcting codes are all over the place. These are questions that are very fundamental and critical for a lot of technologies,” he stressed.

This is the second time Linial has received the ERC Advanced Grant. He plans to use the funding to bring more postdoctoral students and invest in computer clusters, which are a linked series of powerful computers chained together to perform advanced processes and tests.

Linial also plans to use the funding to send his students to conferences abroad and organize academic meetings in Israel. “Because of the political situation in the country, it’s a good service to bring people from abroad. I think in these times, good news is few and far between. It makes me very happy… the awards are fantastic. [We got] two in math and one in the humanities,” he said.

A new way to look at the Judeo-Roman past

The third Hebrew University grant was awarded to Prof. Maren R. Niehoff, a historian of ancient Judaism and surrounding cultures, for “her research on the interface between Judaism and Greco-Roman culture, with a particular focus on the influence of Rome. Her work delves into how Judaism evolved within the Roman Empire from philosophical, legal, and literary perspectives, uncovering parallel transformations among the Greeks and Christians,” the notice said.

Reached by phone, Niehoff explained that “the main point of the project is to create a new language about the understanding between Jews, Greeks, Christians, Romans and Latin speakers” in the ancient world.

“The assumption of the project is that Rome played a vital role” as an imperial, colonizing force, not only influencing the myriad cultures under the empire but being influenced by them in turn, she explained.

“We can’t understand the development of Judaism, the emergence of Christianity or the dramatic changes in Greek culture without looking at the impact of Rome, which is usually overlooked,” Niehoff said.

Cherubs carrying a menorah on a cast of a 2nd- or 3rd-century Roman relief. The original is in the National Museum of Rome. (G.Dallorto/Wikipedia/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“Everyone knows Rome conquered the ancient world,” so traditionally historians have focused on the military, political and economic aspects of Roman history, she explained. “There was a disconnect… This project is about putting things together, about how Rome reinterpreted international heritage” and influenced the cultures the Romans subdued.

Niehoff plans to use the grant money to build a multidisciplinary and international team of doctoral and postdoctoral students, visiting staff and researchers from abroad. “The idea is for people to talk to each other and work as a team, to bring a think tank that works together on a daily basis,” she said. All the primary sources are digitized, she said, which facilitates this kind of collaboration.

Besides plans to publish the research results, Neihoff hopes that her work will have “a very concrete impact on the educational system.” Through contacts with the Education Ministry, she intends to conduct special seminars for high school history teachers to “refresh a bit how ancient Judaism is taught in high schools in Israel… we hope to have very concrete results. One part is to translate some texts from Greek and Latin [into Hebrew] so they will be more easily available, so high-schoolers and educated general readers can make the connections themselves between different cultures.”

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