New airport exhibit recognizes Israel’s remarkable scientists

A year-long exhibition at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel features Israeli scientists and tells the story of their remarkable innovations.
A year-long exhibition at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel features Israeli scientists and tells the story of their remarkable innovations. Kobi Gideon

If you are planning to visit Israel in the near future, take an extra 30 minutes for a remarkable exhibition. On the wall of the corridor leading to departures hall at Ben Gurion Airport, you will find large pictures of Israeli scientists and their inventions. Arriving last week as always at the last moment, I almost missed my flight because of it.

Flying many years in the Israeli Air Force made me different from the other travelers who were watching the exhibition with me: Unlike most of them, I knew how air traffic worked. When they made it to their seats inside the plane, they just relaxed, while I — unconsciously — asked myself if all the aircraft systems will perform smoothly, if the radar monitoring the heavy air traffic will not fail, and more such annoying thoughts.

Watching the exhibition, I was belatedly relieved to find out that an Israeli scientist had already taken care of it 40 years ago. The late Prof. Amir Pnueli from the Weizmann Institute was one of the pioneers in tackling the risks of malfunctioning by complex computerized systems — not only in air traffic, but also in medicine and in car systems. In a groundbreaking essay in 1976, he suggested ways and means to address this challenge. For this he received the Turing Award, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in computer science.

No one can tell how many lives were saved by this genius, or by other brilliant Israeli scientists portrayed at the exhibition, like Prof. Amnon Shashua and Ziv Aviram from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who had invented Mobileye — a gadget that alerts drivers before they run over a pedestrian or crash into another car.

Talking about saving lives, then Prof. Yechezkel Barenholz and Prof. Alberto Gabizon, also from the Hebrew University, developed the first nano-medicine against cancer. If I understood the text correctly, they then invented a tiny ball, 100 nanometers in diameter (one ten thousandth of a millimeter), containing an anti-cancer drug. This ball, or liposome, carries the drug into the cancer-infected areas and fights the cancer while ensuring the drug doesn’t harm healthy areas.

But why introduce something alien into the body when through a genetic engineering of the immune system you can entice certain healthy cells to attack cancer cells and destroy them? This is the contribution of Prof. Zelig Eshhar from Weizmann Institute, another Israeli who gave hope to so many in the world.

Next to him in the exhibition is Dr. Gabriel Idan of Given Imaging/Medtronic. If you swallow the capsule he invented, it will travel in your bowels and its microscopic camera will send 50 thousand pictures to your doctor. And how about the Sniffphone, invented by Prof. Hossam Haick of the Technion? Just breathe into a mobile phone and nano-sensors will send the signals for interpretation and analysis in the lab. No stressful or painful procedures needed anymore.

It is estimated that one out of every nine people over 65 in America has Alzheimers. Exelon, developed by Prof. Marta Weinstock-Rosin, Prof. Michael Chorev and Dr. Zeev Ta-Shma from the Hebrew University, slows down the progression of dementia. Another comfort for people who were less lucky in life is Rewalk, a device developed by Dr. Amit Goffer of Rewalk Robotics, which enables paraplegics to get up from their wheelchair and walk again.

I could go on and on, and mention the Israeli Nobel Laureates, the people who managed to grow great vegetables and fruits in arid areas, and the inventors of “simple” things like Waze, where drivers share real-time traffic updates, or firewall for computer security, or USB Flash Drive, considered to be one of the 101 gadgets that changed the world (it’s number 14, after the Teflon pan).

Had I not been a party spoiler that I am, I would have stopped here. Except that on the eve of school year, data was published showing that, not surprisingly, significant gaps exist in the level of education between big and rich cities in the center of Israel and poorer areas in the periphery. I bet that most, if not all of the protagonists of the scientific exhibition come from the former, not from the latter.

Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennet is leading an effort to change this by diverting resources and good teachers to the periphery. He is aided by Minister of Finance, Moshe Kahlon, a self-made man, who grew up in a bad neighborhood and eventually studied in Harvard. I’ll watch their efforts with great empathy, and maybe in few years we will see the results, when at Ben Gurion Airport an exhibition will portray heroes who have made it from bottom to the top.