Daniel Zajfman

Daniel Zajfman

President of the Weizmann Institute of Science

Prof. Zajfman's research focuses on the reaction dynamics of small molecules and how they influence the composition of the interstellar medium. His academic career in atomic physics started at the Technion in Haifa, then moved to the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, and finally at the Weizmann Institute and the Max Planck Institute of Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany, where he became director in 2005, convinced of the power of science as a means of overcoming political tensions among Israelis and Germans. Elected as the youngest president in Weizmann’s 60-year history, Prof. Zajfman invests much time and effort in community outreach, to the public in general and youth in particular. One of his goals is to broaden interest in and knowledge of the advances taking place on the scientific front.

Breaking the Wall between Science and Society


Thank you very much for this introduction, and thank you for the invitation. We have, during the day, listened to several very, very impressive lectures that show you that science can definitely change the world. But if you think about that, the change that is happening in the world for the last thousands of years, in fact, is the result of the same process that we have heard today: discoveries, curiosity, and our need to understand nature so that we can shape it in a way that helps us. The major changes that happen in the world were really the result of what we call today’s ‘scientific discoveries’ or ‘scientific research’. It might not have been called like this a thousand years ago, but it was the same process of trying to understand what nature is all about.

Clearly for the last 50 or 75 years, the speed at which these scientific discoveries have been made is increasing dramatically. Just one simple example, remember or remind yourself, that about hundred years ago the average life expectancy of human beings on this planet was 42 years. Today, life expectancy in Western countries is 82. In a hundred years, we doubled life expectancies. By the way, you see that this has made major influences on the social network of our society. That tells you that science is not only about making technical or scientific discoveries, but it deeply influences the way we live. Then, of course, if you look at even shorter time, you will see that everything you use every single day for transportation, communications, health, energy—whatever you do today—is actually connected one way or another to a scientific discovery that was made many, many years ago.

If you look at the speed in which these things are moving, and you just do a very simple extrapolation—not for a long time, you will realise that the speed at which these discoveries will be made, and the change that will happen to us, will simply increase. Now this is a major problem, because we human beings live for about 100 years, and we used to live in a way that—for a whole life time—society was rather static; there were no major changes in the 15th century, lets say, in your environment. Things were pretty much the same. You were using holes, and you were looking for water, and you were using some candles to light yourself. And for the whole life this was the same environment. Now we live in a society where every 25 years, maybe every 15 years, dramatic changes are happening, and we have to adapt ourselves to these changes.

Now I claim that this sets up a very new challenge about science, because it is one thing to make major scientific discoveries. It is one thing to find new drugs, but it is a totally different thing to create a society that can use these discoveries. The major advances in science were always made when a society knew how to use scientific discoveries. Because the speed is not going much faster, we are starting to face a problem. Those who know something, for example, in genetics, know very well that in 10 to 15 years from now, we will start to ask ourselves questions that we have never asked before. We will have to take decisions we never took before. In order to take these decisions, we will have to understand. When I say “we”, by the way, I don’t mean the people sitting here who are either scientists or understand science or love science; but I am basically talking about all the citizens of this planet.

So, the major problem that we are going to face, and we are facing it today, is, in fact, scientific illiteracy. Because, as I said, it is one thing to do the discovery, it is another thing to be able to use that. Now everyone understands that science is important, yet when you open any newspaper in any country in the world, the first thing that people who have nothing in science and are saying nothing about it see, of course, the part on astrology. Now they think that is science, because it says ‘astra’, which is a star. But if you look now into these pages you will not find every single day something on astrophysics, or on genetics, or on anything. So, we are getting a problem, and we can blame it on the newspapers that they do not report the scientific discoveries. But, I believe that we as scientists are also responsible for that problem. I truly believe that we must invest—we scientists, not teachers in the school, we the scientists doing these discoveries in the laboratory—must invest our time, our energy, explaining to the public the value of science. (Applause)

Now, scientific education, by the way, is not only for the public to understand something about science. It has an additional advantage. Those who went through a scientific education have learned that one thing they teach you, is that it is a process, a thinking process, of what we like to call ‘rationalism’ or ‘rational thinking’. We scientists know that to explain something we must do an experiment. We have to analyse data. We have to explain it, and we have to make conclusion on the basis of the data. But if you look at what is happening in this world of today, you will find that it is exactly the opposite, which is happening, especially the political level. Data is created to fit actually the conclusion.

When you teach science, you really get into this process, and you teach the kids with that type of thinking you are going to create a society, which also can think in a rational way, which I believe is a very important thing to do. So, it is way above and beyond understanding science, understanding what electrons are, or even understanding what spins and quantum computers are, as we have heard this morning. It is really a type of thinking we would like to include more deeply in the mind of our children.
The second thing, of course, is, as I said, because science is everywhere, and you wouldn’t think of any even, I would say, offices in a government that doesn’t need a scientist close by; think about transportation, energy, health, communications: all of these need a scientist behind that. We are going to live in a world where, if you want to make a decision, you better know what you are talking about. I know we are living a world that you don’t need to know something to have an opinion, but still I believe that the level of democracy is very important that we really know the details of what we are talking about. Take for example this country, where a decision was made about a year ago to close nuclear power plants. It was a pure political decision without any scientific involvement in it. I find this very strange. I am not saying that I am for nuclear power or against nuclear power. I am just saying what is really the discussion about. Of course, there is a fear factor, which is behind nuclear power, which is an issue as well. But that fear factor comes again only out of ignorance.

So the question is: how do we teach the public science? What is the process by which we can go and try to teach really the very wide public what we do and how we work. So, we can go back to the classroom and try to convince kids to get more physics, mathematics, and chemistry, of course. But, we have tried that for so many years, and it doesn’t seem to work. Actually, in most of the countries this is gone. I believe there is a good reason for that. The reason is: the world we are living in today is not anymore a world of concept, a world of what we do, but who we are. When you go back home, if it is early enough, and you still have small children, ask them: what would you like to do when you are a grown-up? Just ask that question. You will see the answer. The answer will be: I want to be a lawyer; I want to be a judge; I want to be a doctor; I want to be a businessman. And if you listen to the answer, you will find that they are not answering your question. They are not answering: what would you like to do when you are a grown up? They are answering: who they would like to be when they will be a grown-up. All kids answer always the question by ‘who’ and not by ‘what’. The reason is, because in their mind, their decision is shaped on the images they see every single day in a society. We are living in a society of images. That is how they are being influenced. Now once you have finished to ask this question to your kids, I recommend you to go to Google. You go to ‘images’ and you write, “scientist”. Look at the image of the scientist. It doesn’t look like anyone of you—not even me. (Applause)

By the way, do the same thing with ‘lawyer’; it looks exactly like a lawyer. So, the question is now: how do we do this? So, I will give you an experiment we did in Israel about two years ago, and we have been running it for the last two years now, which, in my opinion, has been, I would say, even more successful than I what I thought it would be. This is how we have started to teach science. We decided to take on a certain day of the week, a Thursday it was actually, about 40 bars—yes bars—in the city of Tel Aviv, which is, you know, a vibrant city with lots of bars. It is not like Berlin, but it is not bad. We asked the bar owner to host eight-o-clock in the evening a scientist, a professor, from the Weizmann Institute. Now I don’t have to tell you the look of the bar owner when they say, “You mean, a physicist will come to my bar and explain quantum mechanics to the people who are drinking beer here?” I say, “Yes”. It took us many months to convince about 40 bar owners that scientists can come and can talk about science.

So, we did it, and on that specific day, on that Thursday, there was a huge crowd of people—not enough rooms in the bar. Everybody came; they wanted to know from the source, from the scientist themselves—just out of curiosity: what are you doing in your lab? The mission, of course, for the scientists was not to talk about some science, but to talk about their own science: what I do in my lab. It was a tremendous success. (Applause) It shows two things: first, people are not stupid; they want to know. Second thing, there is a power in the context. If we keep teaching in a classroom with a PowerPoint or a board, and we have a captive audience, this is not anymore what we should do. This is not going to work anymore for the young kids. But, if we take them in the place, which is fun, by definition, and teach something serious, you will get an amazing amount of attention, and you can break the wall. You can break the wall of attention and get them really, really attracted by science.

Since then, we have done that several times, and I want to tell you right now: the bar owners are coming to me to sign a contract so that a professor of the Weizmann Institute would go to the bars. (Laughter). What I am trying to tell you is the following. I really believe it is our responsibility—I am not saying that the way we do it is the only way we can do it; there are many ways to do that. But, I really believe that we as scientists, it is our responsibility—not only the school system—to go to the public and explain what it is that we are doing. Because if we don’t do it—or the value of what we are discovering in our laboratory—we simply go down, because it is not going to be used by the people who would not be able to understand what we are talking about. So, it is a critical process that we have to do. If we don’t do this critical process, we will find ourselves in the future in a very strange situation, a situation where, as you have seen today, which seems to be developing what I would call the power of Gods: we are able to really make huge changes in nature to really transform to engineer or environment in a way that it is amazingly good for us. This is really what I call ‘the power of Gods’, but then we will have to ask questions ourselves: if once we have the power of Gods, we will have the wisdom of King Solomon. Thank you very much.