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Obituary for Dan Tawfik

Obituary for Dan Tawfik by Sarel Fleishman

I first met Danny a decade ago as I was completing my postdoctoral training in Seattle and he was visiting a shared friend. Within minutes of meeting Danny, I already felt an intimacy with him. This is unusual for me, but I’ve learned that this is the same sort of personal intimacy that Danny has forged with dozens, if not hundreds of people around the world. Danny asked me what research directions I wanted to pursue as an independent investigator, and on hearing my answer, he said, with his typical self-confidence, that our department would be the best place for me and went on to sing the praises of the Weizmann Institute. Danny was right in all, but he failed to mention perhaps the most critical point for me that joining our department would mean that I could talk and work with him at any time.


I never asked his permission — though I think he realized what was going on — but immediately on my return to Israel, I decided that Danny would be my informal mentor. At every critical junction, Danny was there for me, typically across the table over a plate of hummus in hanasich, Petra, or Halil — speaking of Halil, Danny was absolutely convinced that there would be no one more worthy of the Israel Prize than Halil, and it only remained to be decided in which scientific discipline. Back to our hummus plate, whenever I had a scientific or professional dilemma, I would ask his opinion. Danny was a wise man. He had an extremely profound and far-sighted scientific vision and a remarkable ability to see the “big picture” even in fields that were far from his many main interests. He was always quick to see through transient scientific fashions and focus sharply and solely on the fundamental questions that guide science: how does it work? Why does it work this way and not another? And especially important for Danny, how has it come to be this way? Once, he concluded one of these humus-saturated conversations by saying, see how remarkable it is that though our ideas and techniques change beyond recognition, the questions we ask — say on enzyme or antibody design — are the very same ones that have been asked for a century. And maybe this is indeed the true way of science, to pour old wine into new wine skins.


I should also remember Danny’s uncompromising love of science, his enthusiasm and his openness to all. Danny would always remind us that beyond the competitiveness of science and the pursuit of success, we should enjoy the pure fun and wonder of the daily scientific process, working alongside our bright and eager students on the problems that we are passionate about.


We should also remember his unique sense of humor. This was not humor born of a cynicism that offends or belittles but rather humor that shakes off the dust of our habitual concerns about the daily grind. When I was struggling writing one of my first research proposals, he told me with a smile, I’ve reviewed enough proposals and have figured out the winning template, and I’ll write it out for you now: “It has been demonstrated that blowing trumpets and circling a walled city seven times collapses its walls. While this phenomenon has been demonstrated beyond a doubt, certain mechanistic and theoretical aspects of this phenomenon have remained elusive, etc”. 


Danny loved the Weizmann Institute, telling me once, “it’s not paradise, but it’s close enough”. Of course, he loved science, and he loved life. Despite my grief, I remember that life loved him too and I am grateful for the time I shared with my true friend and collaborator, Danny Tawfik.