APS News

2016 Sakharov Prize Winner: Zafra Lerman

By Sophia Chen

Zafra Margolin Lerman

Zafra Lerman

APS April Meeting 2016 — Zafra Lerman knows far too well how the invisible hand of geopolitics can jerk scientists around. The Israeli-born chemist, who was awarded the APS Andrei Sakharov Prize this year for her work in human rights, organizes conferences that bring together scientists from opposing Middle East regimes — in an effort to establish peace.

“It was shocking to me when the Iraqis came with tears in their eyes,” Lerman said in her presentation. They said, "All our life we studied, we learned, we heard about these monsters called Israelis, and suddenly they are human beings who are so nice. We would like to work with them. ... Once you see a person, this person is not your enemy.”

Lerman organizes these conferences as president of the Malta Conferences Foundation. The Malta Conferences, which began in 2003, take place every two years, and have drawn well known attendees who range from Nobel Laureates such as physicist Claude Cohen-Tannoudji to Prince Hassan of Jordan. The most recent conference took place last November in Morocco.

Every other year, APS awards the Sakharov Prize to recognize a scientist’s leadership and achievements in upholding human rights.

At the moment, Lerman is putting together the next conference, to be held in 2017. The location has yet to be set. In addition to fundraising, one of her biggest challenges is finding a willing host country and jumping through all its bureaucratic hoops. “It’s very difficult to find a country willing to give visas to scientists from Syria [and] Libya,” she said.

Lerman’s human rights career spans decades. Sébastien Francoeur, a physicist at the École Polytechnique de Montréal who chaired the prize committee, cites her long career as a reason why they chose her for the prize. The prize is “a recognition and also an encouragement to continue,” he says.

During the final years of the USSR, Lerman would meet Soviet dissident scientists in dark alleys after midnight.

“I would collect their CVs to bring back to the U.S. on their behalf,” she said. On her trips to the USSR, she held seminars in attics; she distributed scientific magazines. She even took a crash course in Russian to avoid needing a translator.

Incidentally, Lerman also knew Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident nuclear physicist for whom the prize is named.

“We need a critical mass of scientists to start a chain reaction for peace,” Lerman says.

Sophia Chen is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona.

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