American-Jewish Essayist and French Antiwar Philosopher Among Dan David Prize Winners for 2013

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The five winners of this year's Dan David Prize were announced Monday by the Dan David Foundation and Tel Aviv University. Among them are Leon Wieseltier, a prominent American Jew who serves as literary editor of The New Republic; Prof. Esther Duflo, a French economist who studies poverty in the Third World; and Michel Serres, a French scholar whose work on the atrocities  of war has helped seal his reputation as one of the greatest French philosophers living today.

The $3 million international prize, which has been awarded since 2002 for achievements having an outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social impact. It is divided among winners in three time dimensions: past, present and future. The winners then donate 10 percent of their prize money to graduate and post-graduate students in their own fields, both in Israel and abroad. This year's prize will be awarded at a ceremony in June at Tel Aviv University.

In the category of the future, the prize will be shared by economist Prof. Esther Duflo and epidemiologist Prof. Alfred Sommer.

Duflo, a French economist who works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researches ways to eliminate poverty in the Third World. She was  recently made a member of America's Global Development Council by U.S.  President Barack Obama.

Duflo has been involved in the battle against malaria in Africa, and found  that one of the most economically effective ways to prevent the disease is by  handing out free bed nets soaked in pesticide, which repels the mosquitoes that transmit the disease.

She also discovered that one prominent cause of death in the Third World,  responsible for about 4 percent of all cases of premature death or disability,  is indoor pollution caused by cooking with solid fuels (wood, dung, etc.)  under primitive conditions. But supplying ovens to poor populations doesn't  necessarily help, she found, because people quickly return to their old, medically problematic habits.

In another study, conducted in India from 2004-2007, Duflo showed that giving  economic incentives to people to get their children vaccinated, combined with  targeted educational initiatives, reduces the incidence of disease. The study  found that in villages where incentives were offered to people whose children  completed the full course of vaccinations five doses between the ages of 1  and 3 years the vaccination rate was 2.69 times higher than in villages where vaccinations were offered without incentives.

Sommer, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, conducted a study in the  1970s and 1980s which showed that Vitamin A supplements can save lives. The study, which was aimed at preventing childhood blindness in Indonesia, found  that children who received Vitamin A not only suffered fewer cases of blindness, but also had significantly lower mortality rates compared to children who received placebos. Follow-up studies conducted in Nepal and Africa showed that Vitamin A deficiency increases the risk of childhood mortality.

In an article published in the journal Lancet in 1986, Sommer showed that giving low-cost Vitamin A supplements just twice a year reduces the risk of childhood mortality by 34 percent.

In the category of the present, the prize will be shared by French philosopher Michel Serres and author and editor Leon Wieseltier.

Serres, a member of the French Academy who currently teaches at Stanford University, is considered one of the greatest living French philosophers. He has described man's relationship with nature through a series of studies in history, math, epistemology and moral philosophy. As someone who lived through the atrocities of World War II, Serres' articles often criticize war. He is also a sportsman and mountain climber who is interested in the powers of the human body and the ways in which humanity exploits the earth.

Unlike other post-war French philosophers, Serres isn't affiliated with any  particular school, such as structuralism. In recent years, he has spearheaded efforts to preserve the French philosophical tradition despite the invasion of analytic philosophy from Britain and the United States.

Wieseltier, a prominent American Jew who has served as literary editor of The New Republic magazine since 1983, has over the past 30 years written both fiction and nonfiction, the latter ranging from issues such as nuclear war to death and mourning in Jewish tradition. He has also written about the complex relationship between Israel and the United States. Wieseltier, who recently  urged the world to support the Syrian rebels, was also one of the first to call for foreign intervention to stop the Bosnian genocide in the 1990s.

In the category of the past, the prize will go to Prof. Sir Geoffrey Lloyd of Cambridge University, a historian of the philosophy of ancient Greece. His research has shown that the science and medicine that developed in ancient  Greece were a product of Greek society. Lloyd has also enriched the field of  the history of ideas with insights from the fields of sociology, anthropology  and general history. In recent years, he has been doing comparative research on Greek and Chinese science.

Past prize winners have included former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Al Gore (2008), former British Prime Minister Tony Blair  (2009), author Amos Oz (2008), cellist Yo-Yo Ma (2006), and filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen (2011).

Tel Aviv University.Credit: Aviad Bar Nes

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