Hair Be Damned, Laureate-to-be Yonath Ready for Stockholm Awards Ceremony

The plane tickets to Sweden have not arrived yet but Prof. Ada Yonath is ready for the trip to receive her Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The plane tickets to Sweden have not arrived yet but Prof. Ada Yonath is ready for the trip to receive her Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She has been briefed on the events scheduled for the days preceding Thursday's awards ceremony.

"Waiting for me in Stockholm will be a personal assistant - Katrina from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs - as well the secretary of the Swedish Academy. They'll help us with our things and take us to our hotel. From the moment I arrive I'll always be together with the other two laureates," Yonath said earlier this week.

There is some history between Yonath, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz, the two scientists with whom she shares the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2009.

Over the years scientists connected to Yonath's research team have accused Steitz, an American, of taking credit for Yonath's work on ribosomes. In any event, according to Yonath, the wrinkles were smoothed out even before the prize was announced.

"The relationship between me and them is of normal scientists," she said. "There were periods with a little tension, that's totally normal among scientists engaged in the same field. It's like between two neighbors. But we get along. I've met one of them twice already in the United States and in Europe after the announcement, and the smiles went from ear to ear."

In the meantime, Yonath is busy fending off journalists' questions with her prickly Israeli humor, especially when they ask about her haircut.

"I'm always having to get rid of reporters. People are obsessed with my haircut, everyone wants to do something with my hair before the ceremony. Very senior figures tell me their hairstylist wants to do my hair, for free. It's surprising. People from television are interested almost exclusively in aspects of my hair and my hairdresser. It's really important to them. They ask me, 'Aren't you happy that ribosomes, and not only 'Big Brother,' are being shown on TV?' But I say, the fear is that you are bringing ribosomes down to the level of 'Big Brother.'

Despite her bemusement concerning the interest in her unruly mop, Yonath is pleased with the attention. "I'm truly glad I've managed to get the public interested in questions about basic research" that are not generally a major public draw. "I've been invited to retiree associations, to enrichment programs for children. Most of the time I barely manage even to respond to ask about dates. I had 3,000 e-mails sent in the first days [after the prize announcement] that disappeared, and I'm waiting for them to be restored. It warms my heart that on Friday instead of talking about the government or about murders, they talked about ribosomes."

A few days after the prize was announced, in early October, Yonath caused a scandal by saying, in an interview with Army Radio, "I don't understand why we are keeping the terrorists captive and don't release everyone we are holding in the first place, regardless of a deal for [abducted Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit's release."

The statement, which positioned Yonath in Israel's left wing, was denounced by scientists as well as politicians. Yonath has been silent on controversial issues since then, but has indicated that she is likely to end that silence after the Stockholm ceremony.

"I am not absenting myself from issues relating to Israel and society, and they continue to interest me, but until the party I prefer only to rejoice, to the extent that it's possible given the situation here."