Adam Moscoe (Back row, second from right) with Nobel Laureates Daniel Kahneman, Eric Kandel, and Roald Hoffmann
During the recent World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in New York City, I, along with delegates from more than 90 countries, spent a riveting hour with three eminent Jewish Nobel Prize Laureates, individuals who – as the session title indicated – have never stopped unearthing “dimensions of learning and discovery.”
Daniel Kahneman (Economics), Eric Kandel (Medicine), and Roald Hoffmann (Chemistry) offered lucid insights on not only their areas of expertise, but the state of the world – and the Jewish world in particular – that left me inspired and refreshed. After two days of hefty deliberations on issues of international security and their implications for Israel and the Jewish people, I was elated to encounter these three individuals who view their groundbreaking research as just the beginning of their contributions to society. They advance ethical thought and action, and they translate knowledge in understandable terms to help improve policy and, ultimately, the state of the world.
Dr. Kahneman (83), certainly the most recognizable name in the trio, is the Israeli-born psychologist who exposed the fallibility of human decision-making under uncertainty. His bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, outlines the cognitive biases associated with two modes of thought, one that is instinctive and emotionally-driven, and another that is slower and more deliberative and logical. The effervescent Dr. Kandel (87), who was born in Vienna and emigrated to New York in 1939, is a pioneer in understanding the molecular mechanisms of memory storage and the development of long-term synaptic connections. Finally, Dr. Hoffmann (79), born in Poland, discovered that chemical transformations could be predicted from symmetries and asymmetries in the electron “orbitals” of complex molecules. He is also a published poet and playwright.
So what did these illustrious Laureates have to say? Here are some highlights:
● True collaboration occurs when a young person tells his more senior colleague something the latter did not already know, and the latter has the honesty and grace to acknowledge that he or she had not thought of it before.
● Arts and humanities are necessary and have an important tempering effect on science, reinforcing that there are many ways to perceive something, and straight-arrowed reason is not sufficient. Scientists today are less “rich” in their exposure to culture.
● There is no greater drug than thinking you are right and know the answer.
● Humility is everything: he noted that he had no idea that the research projects he was completing with his supervisor would yield such important findings on chemistry.
On Jewish communities and antisemitism:
● How terrible it is that in 2017 we are afraid to publicize the location of a Jewish conference – even in New York City?
● Of greatest concern is not resurgent antisemitism from the Right, but rather from the extreme political Left.
● As a young student in the aftermath of the Second World War, he wondered how individuals could one day listen to Haydn, and the next day go and kill Jews.
On Jews winnings 22% of Nobel Prizes
● Are Jews just smarter? Kandel: “I know a lot of dumb Jews!”
● A possible factor is Judaism’s tradition of scholarship, curiosity and learning, and its time-honoured commitment to ensuring all people, regardless of social class, have the opportunity to learn to read and write. This was in stark contrast to the Greeks and Romans, who educated only their elites.
● Hoffmann offered a controversial perspective, stating that “Jews did not become good scientists until they left their religion.” He was referring to a time when, for many Jewish scientists, Marxism, socialism, and science began, as he put it, to substitute for Judaism as religion.
Our current world:
● Today there is an absence of respect for reason itself, and even a glorification of acting on the basis of instinct rather than on evidence and reason.
● In stressful contexts — like the current global environment — people tend to turn away from the unfamiliar, especially strangers. This is biologically rooted and therefore cannot be completely overcome.