Pursuing Polymers

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Prof. Jacob Klein: Developing molecular brushes


Though Prof. Jacob Klein was born in Tel Aviv less than three months before the dedication of the Weizmann Institute, the first hints that a bond would form between the two were long in coming.
Klein admits to having no scientific inclinations as a child. However, after skipping two grades, he decided to major in science in the English secondary school he attended. When his headmaster discovered that Klein had been invited to an admissions interview at Cambridge University, he urged the young man to read up on some interesting scientific research in preparation. "So I read an article about acoustic holography. At Cambridge, they asked me what field of science interested me. When I told them acoustic holography, their jaws dropped and that part of the interview ended abruptly," Klein recalls. "It was not what I had intended. But I was accepted."
After an intermission in his studies for Israeli military service, Klein returned to Cambridge University. A professor there sparked his interest in the physics of polymers -- the long, flexible molecular chains that form the basis of plastics as well as an essential part of living organisms.
In 1977, Klein joined the Weizmann Institute as a postdoctoral fellow. He worked with the Weizmann Institute's Prof. Alex Silberberg, who was involved in Klein's field of interest. Klein became a full professor in 1987 and the last Head of the Polymer Research Department (one of the five departments that made up the Institute when it was founded in 1949). He is now a member of the Materials and Interfaces Department and this year was appointed Chairman of the Institute's Scientific Council.
A materials physicist who focuses on the study of polymers, surfaces, and interfaces, Klein is especially interested in their behavior at the molecular level. He developed a new "lubricant" technique that uses molecular "brushes," which can dramatically reduce the friction between solids by a factor of up to a thousand or so. It is thought that this technique resembles the lubricating mechanism found in the joints of mammals, and may lead to improved artificial joint implants in humans.
Klein chose his research field because he wanted to be involved in something that related to real life. "The field in which I'm working relates to the physics of synthetic, everyday materials as well as to biological systems found in nature and in the human body." He adds: "It is exciting to realize that we can now understand these materials at their most basic level. This opens the prospect of controlling their properties from the level of the molecule up."