TORONTO – Just over 100 years ago, Albert Einstein pushed boundaries with his theory of special relativity. Now the university he co-founded is borrowing a page from his book with an ambitious set of initiatives to drive innovation.
“The idea was developed here [in Canada] by people like Rami Kleinmann [president and CEO of Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem],” said Menahem Ben-Sasson, president of the university. “It’s important from our point of view, because it follows the values of free thinking, education, morality and serving the community that Einstein championed.”
Ben-Sasson visited Toronto for the Canadian group’s second annual Einstein Gala on May 15 and spoke to The CJN between courses at the Carlu venue downtown. About 800 people attended the event, which raised $2 million for the university’s newly launched Albert Einstein Foundation. An additional $5 million was raised from Joseph Lebovic to fund a new Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Cancer Genomics and Immunity program.
Perennially cited as Israel’s university and among the world’s top 100, the school has in recent years upped its ties to Einstein, who bequeathed his estate to the university. On May 15, Aaron Friedland was announced as the third Next Einstein Competition winner. The $10,000 prize will seed his Walking School Bus venture, which raises funds for school buses and tackles illiteracy in developing countries.
The win echoed the evening’s overarching themes: innovation, curiosity and dismantling barriers to scientific discovery.
“How many kids are out there as we speak, toiling in fields, with the brains that with the right support could solve the problems of the future?” asked journalist Anderson Cooper, the evening’s special guest.
Einstein, he said, was notable not just for his scientific acumen. He was a rebel who bridled at the rote-based strictures of 1890s German schools.
“When I was in school, I didn’t think of [maths and sciences] as a creative discipline,” said Cooper, “but if you think about it, who was more creative than Albert Einstein?”
Cooper was one of several high-wattage personalities at the event. Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead played an hour-long set to close the evening and shared thoughts on creativity, the hallmark of his jam-band career.
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“Anyone who is into science, who is into art, is into discovery,” he said. “You make your discovery and then… you take it somewhere. If I find a new scale or juxtaposition, it percolates and then [I say], ‘this will work here – just like I thought.’”
The road to innovation, in music or science, requires hard work and humility.
“You have to understand that no matter how hard you work and no matter how much talent you have, you’re never going to get all the way there,” Weir said.
Innovation also dominated a panel discussion, moderated by Cooper, featuring four leaders. They also received the Jake Eberts Key of Knowledge award.
“I try to collect all the information that is relevant and think of all the possibilities, all the variants of the solution,” said Barry Sherman, chair of pharmaceutical firm Apotex. The “eureka moment” comes, he said, arrives through methodology, supported by the willingness to defy conventional wisdom.
The artist of the group, composer and television writer Shuki Levy, cofounder of Saban Entertainment, stressed the role of imagination and confidence in his success.
Bridging the gap was Jeff Martin, founder of mobile developer Tribal Planet and co-chair of the Einstein Legacy Project. “When Einstein hit a wall, he played the violin, a Stradivarius, and that notion, that the violin was a sounding board was very inspiring to me,” Martin said.
Whether they rely on methodology or muse, innovators all require a key ingredient, according to a veteran hands-on philanthropist.
“It’s choosing that life of action,” said Naomi Azrieli, chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation. “Successful and innovative people roll with that inevitability.”
The university’s leadership sees the Next Einstein competition as the first of a number of high-end measures for the foundation, which will direct projects through its Einstein Legacy Project. On May 16, the school was slated to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Smithsonian Science Education Center to collaborate on global STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.
Next fall, it will headline its “Dinner of the Century” in Washington, D.C., with the launch of the first three-dimensional printed book. It will also award the Einstein Prize to the top scientists under the age of 40.
And the school plans a bricks-and-mortar addition, the Einstein Museum, first announced at last year’s Toronto dinner.