Family Affair / The Bahcalls


(and sometimes Rehovot)

n The cast: Neta (60), John (68).

n Permanent residence: For 25 years - Princeton, New Jersey, in a wood-and-brick house, 10 rooms on a lot of about three dunams (three-quarters of an acre), bordering a forest.

n Princeton: A town that envelopes a prestigious university with about 7,000 students.

n Residence in Israel: At the guest house of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot (where we met), where they stayed for three weeks. The suite contains a living room, bedroom, kitchen, washroom and porch. The institute also offers guest rooms to individuals and a compact scientific library.

n Reason for the visit: An award and an honorary degree for John.

n The award: The Dan David Award, administered by Tel Aviv University ($1 million in each sphere of activity).

n The degree: An honorary doctorate awarded by Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

n Livelihood and occupations of the Bahcall family: John is a professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study (where Albert Einstein worked) at Princeton. Neta is a professor of astrophysics and a dean at the university, specializing in the study of the universe.

n Children: Three - Safi (34), who holds a doctorate in physics and is board chairman of a biotechnological firm in Boston; Dan (31), who holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and studies vision and the brain at Berkeley; and Orli (27), who is completing a doctorate in biology in London.

n History: John Bahcall, who is from a Jewish family, was born in Shreveport, Lousiana, in 1934. His paternal grandfather immigrated to the United States from Russia at the beginning of the 20th century; his mother's family came from Germany in the same period. The name "Bahcall" apparently derives from Russian and means a wine glass. John began his higher education at Louisiana State University ("I thought of becoming a Reform rabbi"), then went on to Berkeley to study physics and in 1971 began to teach and do research at Princeton University. Bahcall is known for his breakthrough work in the study of the sun ("why the sun shines"). He developed a detailed model that for the first time made it possible to estimate the stream of neutrino particles emitted by the sun.

n Neutrino: A fundamental particle in nature, with no electric charge (but, surprisingly, with mass!).

n John (cont.): During his scientific career he received the National Medal of Science ("the Israel Prize of America") from President Clinton and was the scientist who represented the program of the Hubble space telescope before the Congressional committees that approved the billions of dollars to fund it. Prof. Bahcall is currently involved in the project of the next space telescope, which will replace Hubble.

n Neta: Neta Assaf was born in Tel Aviv in 1942, to parents who observed Jewish religious traditions. Her father, originally from Vienna, came to Palestine in 1939 and had a law office on Herzl Street. Her mother, who would become a nurse at Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv, arrived in the country before him, at the beginning of the 1930s, from Russia. After high school (Ze'ev [Benny] Begin was a schoolmate), she completed a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics at the Hebrew University and a master's (in nuclear physics) at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and contemplated remaining there as a researcher. That didn't happen because she met John.

n The meeting: 1965. John, who was invited to Israel by Prof. Yuval Ne'eman to promote the subject of astrophysics, visited the Weizmann Institute, where he noticed, in the basement housing the particle accelerator, a student ("a beauty") whose smile captivated him. He asked her supervisor, Prof. Gabi Goldring, to introduce him. Contact was made but things moved ahead slowly ("Apparently I didn't make a serious impression on her"). John invited her out at least 10 times before she accepted ("He looked like a playboy to me"). She was then renting an apartment on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv and he tried to take her out for a good time ("She told me that if I wasted money on her in an expensive restaurant, she wouldn't go out with me").

n The proposal: 1966. A few months after John left the country, she opened a letter from America and found an open, two-way airline ticket inside ("For me it was like flying to the moon"). After some hesitation she flew to him in California, where he proposed to her. Her mother was in favor ("If you love him, go for it").

n The wedding: The same year, in the hall of Engineers House in Tel Aviv.

n The honeymoon: First they traveled along the Israeli coast - Herzliya, Caesaria, Haifa, Nahariya ("It was fashionable") - then to California via Paris and London.

n Neta's career: She did a post- doctorate at Cal Tech under the supervision of William Fowler, a Nobel Prize laureate, focusing on the structure of the universe. Today, as a professor of astrophysics at Princeton, she is responsible for the studies in this subject, runs the Council on Science and Technology at the university, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States - the highest recognition America grants to scientists. During her career she spent seven years as chief of the General Observer Support Branch of the Hubble telescope.

n Career and children: "We were lucky with them."

n Daily routine: John gets up between 6 and 7 A.M.; Neta at 9 ("I sleep fantastically well"). They both have a cup of juice (John likes his with cornflakes) and go to the university. They leave before 10, separately. She has a Toyota Camry and he has ... "I have no idea." They return home about 9 P.M. ("because there are no children in the house anymore"). During the day they have lunch ("something light" at the university or in town) with colleagues, and have their main meal at home. They are vegetarians; John likes tofu and kugel.

n Evening: Neta works, John reads books ("but only in Hebrew"). Until he met Neta, he says, he didn't know more than 10 words of the language. These days he doesn't go anywhere without a book in Hebrew (and a pocket dictionary). He loves the language and insists on speaking it. He likes the writer A.B. Yehoshua, with whom he has become friends ("I was critical of the end of `Late Divorce'"), has read some recent works by David Grossman ("Someone to Run With," "The Zig-Zag Kid"), and after taking a break in Amos Oz's "A Tale of Love and Darkness," is now reading ("I am ashamed to say") a book by best- selling novelist Ram Oren.

n Television: Only Neta watches (CNN, Jay Leno).

n The Matrix: John won't go to see the new film, he can't stand science fiction ("at most Jules Verne"). He thinks contemporary Israeli fiction is far more original and interesting.

n Intergalactic trip: "I haven't registered."

n Shopping: Neta, once a week, on the weekend. John refrains.

n Cleaning the house: A cleaning lady.

n Married life: They don't go to sleep without talking over any problem that may have come up.

n Career clashes: None. Most of the work offers they received over the years came in twos, apart from one, when John got an offer from the University of California at Santa Barbara and turned it down because Neta wouldn't have had a more attractive position than she had at Princeton.

n God: John - "We admire the beauty of the universe but aren't looking for anything beyond the laws of science." However, they attend a synagogue (Conservative stream) for reasons that can be described as sentimental-social.

n Thrills: Neta - measuring the weight of the universe ("We showed there was less mass than had been expected"). John - "My first discovery, in 1965" (referring to the lifespan of the calcium nucleus).

n Romance: An evening stroll in town, with frozen yogurt.

n Tense expectation: An answer to the question of "what the dark matter in the universe is and what the dark energy is."

n Concern: "Today some lunatic can blow up the planet."

n Dream: John - "It came true: Neta married me." Neta: "Peace."

The circumstances

n Dan David Prize: This is the third year that Tel Aviv University has awarded the $3-million prize (which it administers) to leading f igures in three "time dimensions - past, present and future." This year (on May 18) the prizes were awarded to the French paleo-anthropologist Prof. Michel Brunet (past), the press photographer James Nachtwey and the documentary film director Frederick Wiseman (present), and the astrophysicist Prof. John Bahcall.

n Dan David: A Bucharest-born (1929) Jewish businessman who invented and made a fortune from rapid-photography technology, and is the owner of an international company in that sphere. He founded the prize that bears his name.