Israeli Scientist to Pick Up Nobel Prize Alongside Obama Today

STOCKHOLM - One day in 1955, when Ada Yonath was 15, she returned from school with a downcast face, her sister Nurit recalled yesterday.

"Ada told me sadly that Albert Einstein had died," said Nurit. "I asked her if he was someone she knew personally. Ada said that she didn't, but that humanity had lost one of its most brilliant minds."

Today, Yonath herself will join the circle of brilliant minds that included Einstein - Nobel Prize winners - when she ascends the stage at the Stockholm concert hall to receive the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

She will join 11 other Nobel laureates in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine, economics and literature. U.S. President Barack Obama will be receiving his Nobel Prize for peace in the Norwegian capital, Oslo.

Yonath visited the home of Israel's ambassador to Sweden, Benny Dagan, for a reception in her honor. Cameras documented her every step. The crowd not only sought to meet her, some of those present asked for her autograph. It's the overnight movie-star status that the Nobel Prize confers on scientists.

"Suddenly you get huge coverage and people love [it]. They love big jumps in status," Yonath told Haaretz during the reception.

A day before, in a lecture for Swedish scientists, Yonath said with a smile that the major difference between her life now and her life two months ago was the huge outpouring of love - and flowers - that she received after the prize was announced.

The embassy reception and the lecture were just a small part of "Nobel Week," intense days when the laureates cycle through news conferences, receptions, concerts and dinner parties throughout the Swedish capital.

Yonath went to Sweden with her daughter Hagit and her granddaughter Noa, and two nights ago, her sister joined them. In addition to family members, former and current students as well as representatives of the Weizmann Institute - where Yonath and two colleagues, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz, discovered the structure of ribosomes that earned her the Nobel Prize - were also in Stockholm.

"It's a very busy week, but it is also very exciting and nice," said Hagit.

The high point of the week is the elaborate ceremony, which begins today at 5:30 P.M. Israel time, in the presence of the Swedish royal family, followed by an even more lavish dinner at Stockholm city hall. Yonath, who was chosen to speak on behalf of the three chemistry laureates, will apparently sit next to Swedish King Carl Gustaf at the dinner.

"At my Nobel lecture, I must admit that I was a little more excited than usual," Yonath said, adding, "We'll wait and see how I feel."

The Nobel Prize is without a doubt Swedish inventor and industrialist Alfred Nobel's most successful invention, even more so than dynamite. The prize highlights science and gives scientists public prestige, helping attract young people to scientific research. It also encourages competition among scientists.

"No prize is essential to science," Yonath said, "but without any prize, the anonymity [of science] will simply grow.

"If there is no public recognition, nothing will reach the wider public and the number of good people who want to work in science would not increase and could even decline. A large part of the essence of the prize is not its personal influence on me, but how much the public gets a little taste of science. And every time this happens near you, let's say to Israeli scientists, it contributes something to the future of science."

Some of the aura around the events is connected to the formal dress - coattails for men, and evening dresses for women.

Yonath, who is known for her direct style of speaking, has already suggested improvements to the Nobel committee: "For men, it's very easy. They tell them what to wear and they have no choice. For women, it's a different story," she said, adding, "So I complained to them, telling several committee members, 'Why do the women have to choose which dress to wear and men have it easy?'"

Yonath will be the first Israeli woman to receive the Nobel Prize.