Moving With the Times

Prof. Israel Dostrovsky. Former president
Prof. Israel Dostrovsky

As Israel marks its 50th year, Institute Prof. Israel Dostrovsky will be celebrating his 80th birthday. His multifaceted career, which earned him the 1995 Israel Prize, in many ways parallels the history of the nation and of the Weizmann Institute. Along the way, he has chalked up a lifetime of achievements, contributing to the creation of Israel's scientific infrastructure and national growth, while addressing some of the country's most
urgent needs.

Dostrovsky represents a generation of pioneering Weizmann Institute scientists who put Israeli science on the world map. These pathfinders took the lead, serving the budding State's goals and keeping Israel at the forefront of academic research.

"The complete freedom we were afforded set the tone for the Institute's development: that readiness to accept and take risks, to get involved in things that were new, were what I think typified the Institute during its formative years," Dostrovsky recalls.

"Everything was open then, we were young, this was a pioneering country, and we were challenged to use to the fullest whatever gifts we had."

The Founding Generation

Among those who took up the challenge were Chaim Pekeris, who headed the team that created Israel's first computer -- one of the first anywhere -- in the early 1950s; Ephraim Katzir, who founded the Biophysics Department and served as Israel's fourth President; his brother, Aharon, a world renowned biophysicist who was gunned down by terrorists at the national airport in 1972; Isaac Berenblum, who established Israel's first cancer research department; Gerhard Schmidt, who brought Israel the most up-to-date capabilities in X-ray crystallography; Joseph Jaffe, who introduced the latest techniques in spectroscopy and created a market for spectrographic instruments that formed the basis for Israel's first hi-tech industries; and Joseph Gillis, a mathematician and cryptologist who had helped Britain break the Enigma code during World War II and aided Israel in the War of Independence.

"The mere fact that people worked here on relevant problems put us on the scientific map abroad and contributed to the State," Dostrovsky says. "We made a swift transition from an insignificant new country to a developed state."
A Helpful Familiarity
Dostrovsky's involvement with the fate of the nation started early. As a 13-year-old upstart science whiz, he volunteered as a signaler for the Haganah, the corps that was later to become the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), clambering up mountains to send military messages across the country with light-reflecting mirrors (a harbinger of his later interest in solar mirrors). Soon he and a group of fellow high-school students from the Jerusalem Gymnasia engineered a home-made wireless transmitter network that he ran out of his Jerusalem home.

"That's how we first got to know all those who later became leaders of the IDF and of the country," says Dostrovsky, who thus met David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Ezer Weizman, Shimon Peres, and many other figures prominent in Israel's development. That familiarity was helpful after the establishment of the new State.

"You could pick up a telephone and call the Prime Minister to discuss problems," he says. "It was all on a first-name basis. They would call us too and say: "We have a problem. Can you do something about it? "

From Kibbutznik to Scientist

Dostrovsky also belonged to a pioneering youth movement which prepared and trained its members for life in a kibbutz. His particular group was assigned to establish Kibbutz Maoz Haim in the Beit Shean valley. "However, it was obvious to my friends that I was really a scientist and would be more useful to the country as such, so they said, "It's better for all of us if you go to study, " he recalls.

So the would-be kibbutznik went off to study in London, where he earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at University College, and then lectured in chemistry in North Wales. In April, 1948, he returned to Israel, to Rehovot, to found the Isotope Research Department on campus, and was immediately called up to put his abilities to use as an officer in the army's Science Corps.

Dostrovsky was put in command of a collection of scientists from various disciplines and a supporting staff suitable for both field and laboratory work. Their mission was to determine the mineral potential of the Negev, at that time a rather unknown territory, particularly with respect to strategic materials. The field operations consisted mainly of mapping, physical sampling, and on-site measurements. Sometimes it was necessary to set up exploration bases for many months in the desert. All this was backed up by extensive laboratory work at the Weizmann Institute, including various experiments aimed at determining the feasibility of extracting the materials of interest from the different ores. Among their discoveries were the substantial phosphate deposits which today are the basis of one of Israel's largest industries.

Isotope Experts

Meanwhile, under Dostrovsky's direction, scientists in the fledgling Isotope Research Department were applying their talents to studying methods for separating isotopes, varieties of an element that differ from it only in the weight of their atoms. Separated isotopes are of interest as markers to trace the paths of reactions in medicine, industry and research. The researchers soon developed techniques for the separation of isotopes of hydrogen and of oxygen.

In the late '40s, a plant was established on campus for isotope separation, and the Department's oxygen-17 and oxygen-18 enriched isotopes became export items which earned the Weizmann Institute several million dollars and supplied a large portion of world demand for many years. In fact, the Yeda Research and Development Co. Ltd. was established at the Institute in 1959 to market these unique products, and later went on to deal with the commercialization of numerous other Weizmann Institute projects.

Under Dostrovsky, the Isotope Research Department became a world leader in its field. Several of his students from that period followed in his pioneering footsteps, establishing new research areas at the Institute. Brain research, energy and environmental research, magnetic resonance imaging and scientific archeology are indirect outgrowths of Dostrovsky's initial work with isotopes.

The Hopes For Nuclear Energy

Isotope separation is also of major importance in the field of nuclear energy. The Isotope Research Department's expertise in this area earned it an international reputation and gained Israel entry into the nuclear energy community. When the Israel Atomic Energy Commission was established in 1953, the Department?s experience and results were put at its disposal, and Dostrovsky became a member of this body and its first director of research.

In the late '50s, high hopes were pinned on nuclear power as a prime source of energy, and as the main alternative to fossil fuels when they run out. Many international conferences were held in this field, some under the title "Atoms for Peace," and Dostrovsky participated in all of them as a representative of Israel. He closely followed developments in nuclear energy through his position as Director General of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (1963-1971) and through his membership in the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Israel Atomic Energy Association (1973-1981).

Parallel to his wide-ranging scientific interests, Dostrovsky also served in a different sphere. In 1971 he was appointed Vice President of the Weizmann Institute, and shortly after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he was named President.

Providing Desalination Know-How

With national needs ever paramount, Dostrovsky now turned his attention to the subject of water, crucial to Israel and the region. Technologies for desalinating sea water were being successfully developed in Israel and other countries. The key to their economic viability was a cheap source of energy. Naturally, therefore, nuclear energy was considered early on for this application. A special committee was established to study and guide research and development in desalination and Dostrovsky was appointed its chairman.

"Perhaps the most ambitious plan we had in the '60s was a joint project with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to establish a dual-purpose (i.e. electricity plus desalination) plant of some 300-megawatt capacity in Israel," he recalls. "We were to provide the desalination know-how and the Americans the nuclear part."

This cooperative project proceeded well and a demonstration desalination unit powered by a conventional energy source was built at the Ashdod power station. But in the meantime the retreat from nuclear energy had begun, and so in the early 1970s the project was scrapped.

Turning to Solar Energy

The global disillusionment with nuclear energy spurred Dostrovsky on to new avenues of endeavor. "Until then it was assumed that the widespread introduction of nuclear energy to replace fossil sources was just a matter of economic and administrative decisions," he explains. "After much thought and study I came to the conclusion that on the time scale relevant to Israel, solar energy is almost the only 'immediately' available alternative. Certainly for us here, but under certain conditions also on a global scale."

Once again Dostrovsky took the lead, developing solar research capabilities at the Weizmann Institute and "preaching" solar energy's merits."

The Institute's research into the use of highly concentrated solar radiation dictated the establishment of facilities that enable us to advance in this particular area," he says.

In the 1980's he convinced the Weizmann Institute to invest in a multimillion dollar solar research installation, the Canadian Institute for the Energies and Applied Research, one of only three such facilities in the world.
These days Dostrovsky is promoting the creation of a 50-megawatt solar energy plant, which Weizmann researchers are developing in tandem with private industry.

Back to Basics

Through the years, Dostrovsky maintained his interest in some basic aspects of nuclear reactions, in particular those involved with the origin of the sun's energy and that of all other stars.
Israel dostrovsky. A portrait
"This is a very basic problem. Classify it as knowledge for knowledge's sake," he comments. In 1976, he joined first an American team, and then an international one, dedicated to testing one of the basic hypotheses of stellar energy production by nuclear fusion.

The experiment, named GALLEX, involves a very difficult measurement of the flux of neutrinos, fundamental particles of all matter that reach the earth from the core of the sun. The actual detector is located underground in a special laboratory in Italy's Gran Sasso region. The GALLEX cooperation involves Germany, France, Italy, the United States and Israel, represented by Dostrovsky and his team.

As he enters his ninth decade, Dostrovsky's irrepressible curiosity has spurred him to explore yet another avenue for providing safe, renewable energy. He has enlisted the experience and talents of a veteran colleague to delve into new ways of unleashing hydrogen as an energy source, using the Weizmann Institute's solar collectors.

"Specialization isn't good," he concludes, looking back at a lifetime of accomplishments. "The rate of change in science is so great that you have to be educated and have the nature to move with the times."

Prof. Dostrovsky holds the Agnes Spencer Chair of Physical Chemistry.