March 4, 2022

Israel Prize for Physics and Chemistry Research

Prof. Joshua Zak of the Technion Awarded Israel Prize for Physics and Chemistry Research

Professor Emeritus Joshua Zak

Israeli Minister of Education Dr. Yifat Shasha-Biton announced that Professor Emeritus Joshua Zak of the Department of Physics at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology has been awarded the 2022 Israel Prize for Physics and Chemistry Research. According to the Israel Prize Committee, headed by Professor Halina Abramowicz and including members Professor Assa Auerbach, Professor Itamar Willner, and Professor Yifat Miller, Prof. Zak was awarded the prize for “the development of mathematical tools such as the ‘Zak Transform’ and the ‘Zak Phase’ for the study of quantum phenomena in crystalline solids. These tools allow for the prediction of materials with unique properties to build electronic devices.” The Committee further emphasized that “…his scientific contributions serve, and will continue to serve, in gaining an understanding of the chemistry and physics of material.”

Technion President Professor Uri Sivan commented: “We are honored and exceptionally proud to congratulate Prof. Joshua Zak on being awarded the Israel Prize, and of this important recognition of his contribution to science. Prof. Zak’s research has led to breakthroughs in an understanding of fundamental phenomena that are presented at the forefront of research into quantum mechanics, while contributing greatly to practical engineering applications. Prof. Zak is a member of the generation of giants that founded the Department of Physics at the Technion, laying the foundations for theoretical physics in Israel. This is the second Israel Prize awarded to Technion researchers within a week, and we are literally bursting with pride.”

Joshua Zak, 93, was born in Vilna in 1929. At the age of 12, he and his family were sent to the ghetto, and later, he was deported to forced labor camps and a concentration camp, during which time he lost both parents. As an adolescent, Zak was forced to join the Death March to the west and was released by and immediately recruited to the Red Army – all before he had reached the age of 16. Following his discharge in 1948 he returned to Vilna and began to attend high school, graduating with honors despite having missed many years of schooling due to the war and his military service. When the Korean War broke out, he was again recruited to the Red Army, but was immediately discharged thanks to his brother, Ben-Zion, who persuaded the authorities to permit Joshua to attend university.

He completed his studies in Physics with distinction at Vilnius University in 1955, while simultaneously earning the title of Lithuanian kayak champion. In the same year, he was accepted to further studies in Leningrad and began studying there, but in 1957 was presented with the opportunity to immigrate to Israel, an opportunity he refused to pass up. Within a short time, he was accepted by the Technion, where he completed his doctoral studies under the supervision of Technion Professor Nathan Rosen, who was Albert Einstein’s student and assistant, and Professor Yoel Racah of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1960, Zak received his D.Sc., spent some time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and then returned to the Technion, where he began studying in the Department of Physics. Ten years later, he founded, and headed, the Solid State Institute at the Technion.

Professor Emeritus Joseph Avron, staff member at the Technion’s Department of Physics, who studied for his doctorate under Prof. Zak, said, “Prof. Zak’s story is one of the meteoric rise of a boy who was almost completely unschooled, and it was only thanks to his phenomenal talent that in just a couple of years he succeeded in catching up, completing the entire curriculum imparted to children by the educational system over a 12-year period”.

Prof. Zak has many achievements in physics to his credit, two of which are named after him: the Zak Transform, which is presently used in signal processing, and the Zak Phase – a unique 1D crystal phase, which he described in an article in Physical Review Letters in 1989. This prediction has been verified in numerous recent experiments and is widely cited.

As mentioned, this is the second Israel Prize awarded to Technion researchers within a week. Last week, the Committee announced that the 2022 Israel Prize for Entrepreneurship and Technological Innovation had been awarded to Novocure founder Professor Emeritus Yoram Palti of the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine at the Technion. Novocure has developed an innovative technology for the treatment of cancer, which is currently applied in some 250 medical centers worldwide.