Tag Archives: Chemistry

Jew of the Week: Ada Yonath

The Woman Who Revolutionized Biochemistry

Yonath at the Weizmann Institute (Credit: Miki Koren)

Yonath at the Weizmann Institute (Credit: Miki Koren)

Ada Yonath (b. 1939) was born in Jerusalem, the daughter of Polish Zionists that immigrated to Israel in 1933. Growing up in poverty, she found solace in books, and was inspired by the Polish-French scientist Marie Curie. Yonath studied chemistry at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and earned a Ph.D from the Weizmann Institute in 1968. Her focus was on x-ray crystallography, a technique for visualizing biochemical structures. After postdoc studies at Carnegie Mellon and MIT, Yonath returned to Israel to establish the country’s only protein crystallography lab. In the 1980s, she started developing a new crystallography technique that was initially met with a lot of resistance from the scientific community. Yonath silenced her critics with amazing results, and discovered some of the key mechanisms in the body’s production of proteins. By 2001, she unraveled the mysteries of the ribosome, the structure responsible for producing protein from the body’s genetic code. In addition to this, she discovered how dozens of antibiotics impact the ribosome, contributing tremendously to our understanding of antibiotics and drug resistance. The technique she invented, cryo bio-crystallography, is now standard in top biochemistry labs around the world. In 2009, Yonath was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. That made her the first Israeli woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first Middle Eastern woman to win a Nobel Prize in science, and the first woman to win the Prize in Chemistry in 45 years (and only the fourth overall). Yonath has won a handful of other awards, including the Harvey Prize, the Rothschild Prize, the Wolf Prize, the Albert Einstein World Award of Science, and the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science. Despite being in her 70s, Yonath is still doing very important research in her lab at the Weizmann Institute. Some say she may even be up for a second Nobel Prize! She also hopes to write a novel as soon as she has some extra time. (Click here to see an incredible video of a ribosome working in the body, based on Dr. Yonath’s research.)

Words of the Week

Family is not punishment! When I sit with young people and they say, “You’re a mother and you took care of the kids”, I say: “It’s a privilege.”
– Ada Yonath

Jew of the Week: Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber (1868-1934) was born to a traditional Jewish-German family in what is today Poland. He studied chemistry in Berlin, receiving his doctorate in 1891 and then going to apply his expertise in his father’s successful dyes and pharmaceuticals business. The two didn’t work well together, though, and Haber returned to academia. (In order to obtain a higher position at a time when Jews were barred from such posts, Haber nominally converted to Christianity.) His research in organic chemistry, electrochemistry, dye technology, gasses, and textiles brought him a great deal of recognition. In 1898 he was made an associate professor, and by 1906 a full professor at Karlsruhe University, among the most prestigious schools in Germany. It was there that Haber made his biggest breakthrough. Together with Carl Bosch, he invented a process that would quickly and cheaply produce ammonia (the key component of fertilizer) from abundant atmospheric nitrogen. Until then, ammonia had to be mined from very limited reserves. Today, over 100 million tons of ammonia is made annually using the “Haber Process”, helping to feed half of the world’s population. Haber won the 1918 Nobel Prize for this work. Unfortunately, Haber also applied his know-how to less honourable endeavours. Aside from the fact that ammonia is a central ingredient of explosives, too, and the Haber Process helped to arm the German military, Haber headed the Ministry of War’s Chemistry Section during World War I, developing gasses for chemical warfare (as well as the gas masks to protect from them). To be fair, many of the world’s top chemists during this time period worked on chemical warfare to assist in their nation’s war effort. As Haber himself said, “During peace time a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country.” His wife did not agree, and committed suicide after failing to convince him to abandon his project. After the war, Haber started a company that produced pesticides. Incredibly, their most famous product was Zyklon B, later used in the gas chambers of the Holocaust. Haber fled Germany when the Nazis came to power. He accepted a position in what would later be the Weizmann Institute in Israel, but passed away on the journey there. Few people have at once been able to cause both so much harm and so much good. While half of the world’s food production today depends on the Haber process, so do much of its explosives, and Haber is often called “the father of chemical warfare”. Haber’s work simultaneously brought death to millions of people, and life to millions more.

Words of the Week

When God desired to create man, Truth said: “He should not be created, for he is full of lies.” Kindness said: “He should be created, for he is full of kindness.”
– Midrash Rabbah, Bereshit 8:5