Arts & Culture

Ada Yonath: Israel’s First Female Nobelist

Last week, Weizmann Institute scientist Ada Yonath was named a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry, making her the first Israeli woman to win any version of the award (the prestige of which is actually rather astounding given … Read More

By / October 14, 2009

Last week, Weizmann Institute scientist Ada Yonath was named a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry, making her the first Israeli woman to win any version of the award (the prestige of which is actually rather astounding given that it is parceled out by a star chamber of Swedes).

Nonetheless, Yonath’s Nobel is obviously a mark of great distinction for the individual, and a source of national pride, perhaps all the more so in a nation as embattled as the State of Israel. Commentators have already calculated that Israel now holds the distinction of raising the most Nobel laureates per capita, a claim that certainly smacks of "Jewish exceptionalism" with all of its myriad complications. What is to some the vulgar habit of keeping a scorecard of notable Jews (think the "Hanukkah Song") or even tracing the divine hand at work behind the accomplishments of the Chosen People, is to others a justifiable attempt to exorcise Jewish self-loathing and a sign of the hard work of a despised and displaced minority to justify itself in the eyes of the world (think "Jackie Robinson").

Yonath is the ninth Israeli to win a Nobel, three of which, including hers, have been for accomplishments in the field of chemistry. Neck in neck with the chem winners are the three recipients of the Peace Prize: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres. (Given that the peace process sometimes seems, unfortunately, to have produced little more than ‘fool’s gold’, we might better call it the Nobel Prize for Alchemy). Two Israelis, Daniel Kahneman (2002), and Robert Autmann (2005), have taken home the medal for economics, and one, the great S. Y. Agnon (1966), for literature.

I’m more than happy to let you know that I aced Modern Hebrew Literature at Hebrew U., and so have a pretty good handle on what Agnon did that was so great. Yonath’s work on the structure and function of ribosomes, the sub-cellular mechanisms that translate RNA into protein, is more of a brain-breaker. Over the several decades of her career, which has included appointments in Pittsburgh, Cambridge, Chicago, Hamburg, and Berlin as well as collaboration with NASA and the establishment of her own lab in Rehovot, she has pioneered groundbreaking methods of ribosomal mapping, particularly "cryocrystallography"–flash freezing them in crystallized form, enabling detailed analysis while minimizing the damage caused by exposure to x-rays. This has allowed her to lay bare the sub-structure of what had previously been considered an unchartably assymetrical organelle, with implications not just for abstract scientific knowledge, but for the development of targeted antibiotics.

International recognition has the power to transform dedicated laboratory scientists into high-profile spokespeople, and Yonath is no exception. The first woman of any nationality to win the chemistry prize in over forty years, taking her place among the meager five percent of Nobel prize winners who have been female, she has already proven comfortable serving as an inspiration for women in science. "Women make up half of the population," she told the Israeli media, "I think the population is losing half of the human brain power by not encouraging women to go into the sciences." Born to a poor family in Geula, during the British Mandate, and receiving her schooling only through a combination of parental sacrifice and perseverance, Yonath’s journey also has all of the resonance of a classic Horatio Alger story.

In addition, it almost goes without saying that owing to Israel’s difficult position on the international stage, the event of one of its own receiving the Nobel Prize will not pass without reference to the Israel-Palestine situation. Already hackles have been raised by the omission of Israeli laureates from a retrospective list of winners printed in The Guardian, which, at the end of the day, can probably be chalked up to something like a Freudian typo. Yonath herself has been quite vocal in her opinions, calling for the release of all Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli jails, on the grounds that incarceration will only further radicalize them. Some have welcomed her use of the Nobel platform to express this view, especially in the midst of the Netanyahu-Lieberman era, while others have encouraged her to stick to cryocrystallography.