Rice mourns loss of physicist Eshel Ben-Jacob

Internationally renowned CTBP researcher dead at 63

Theoretical and experimental physicist Eshel Ben-Jacob, a senior investigator at Rice’s Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP) and a pioneer of the study of bacterial intelligence and social behavior, died unexpectedly at his home in Israel June 5. He was 63.

Eshel Ben-Jacob

Ben-Jacob was one of the world’s leading experts in biocomplexity, the theory of self-organization and pattern formation in open systems. His longstanding collaboration with CTBP co-director Herbert Levine began in the mid-1980s, at a time when each was working on a mathematical answer to the centuries-old question of why snowflakes have six sides and a unique crystalline pattern. After solving that problem, Ben-Jacob began researching bacterial self-organization, and over the past 25 years he developed and studied new pattern-forming bacteria species.

Ben-Jacob joined CTBP in 2005, shortly after the center was founded at the University of California, San Diego. The center moved to Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative in 2011 when CTBP founders Levine, José Onuchic and Peter Wolynes were recruited to the BRC to expand their groundbreaking biological studies into cancer research and treatment. At Rice, Ben-Jacob joined his CTBP colleagues in focusing on ways to exploit the social behavior and decision-making process of cancer cells to develop new treatments that outsmart the disease.

Ben-Jacob was the Maguy-Glass Chair in Physics of Complex Systems, professor of physics and astronomy and a member of the Sagol School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University.

His many honors and contributions to science included his election in 2014 to the American Philosophical Society, the United States oldest learned society, the 1986 Landau Research Prize, the 1996 Siegle Research Prize of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the 2013 Weizmann Prize in Exact Sciences. Ben-Jacob was former president of the Israel Physical Society and a former chair of the Israel Ministry of Education’s Advisory Council of High School Physics Education.

A funeral service is scheduled for June 8 at Even Yehuda Cemetery in Israel.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.