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His Problem: Designing Faster Ballistic Missiles

October 2, 2008 By:
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BeneViste "Benny" Natan

Beneviste "Benny" Natan calls himself a "regular guy" who just happens to spend his days working on a particularly challenging problem: How to build a better weapon.

Natan runs the Missile Pro-pulsion Laboratory at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. On September 19, he told a Center City audience -- about 45 local donors to Israel's oldest institute of higher learning -- about how he's trying to design a more effective, faster and efficient means of deploying and controlling ballistic missiles.

His colleague, computer scientist Shaul Markovitch, also spoke at the event.

Natan didn't mention the threat to Israel posed by Iranian weapons, nuclear or conventional, to help underscore the importance of his research. But the scientist, a child of Holocaust survivors who was born in Greece, did note that he's developing a method that would allow missiles to travel hundreds of miles in 20 to 30 minutes, which could allow the Israel Defense Force to act on intelligence in close to real time.

The Union League program was one of about a half-dozen that will feature some of Natan's colleague at the Technion.

Celebrating the 60th
According to Linda Richman, associate regional director of the American Technion Society, the American fundraising arm for the Technion, the recent program wasn't scheduled to raise money but instead was part of a yearlong celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary. She said the luncheon was meant to educate major donors and prospective donors about the variety and scope of technological research taking place at Israel's premier science institute.

The Technion is known as "Israel's MIT" and was founded in 1924 in Haifa. Classes there were initially going to be taught in German, the first language of many of its instructors, before an uproar forced the institute to switch to Hebrew. Today, according to the Technion Web site, 70 percent of the founders of Israeli high- tech firms are graduates of the school.

Natan explained that his work is focused on the substance contained within a missile that's ignited, and thereby produces enough thrust for the weapon to reach its target. He is working on replacing a solid or liquid material with a gel substance, partly because its more efficient and behaves more predictably.

A Child of Survivors
As the child of Holocaust survivors, Natan noted that he was initially conflicted when he was asked by the German government to share some of the particulars of his research. After receiving permission from the Israel Defense Force, he went ahead with it and recalled feeling a sense of wonder that he was possibly teaching the children of the Nazi generation.

Computer scientist Marko-vitch, who has been on the faculty of the Technion since 1990, touched upon his research in the area of artificial intelligence. Specifically, he said he devised a way to provide computers with encyclopedic knowledge of the world to help them "think" and be able to make connections.

He's hoping to give a computer the ability to sift through thousands of e-mails and other documents to filter spam and perform Web searches in a far more sophisticated manner. He also hinted that this ability might help uncover terrorist plots or security threats. While a computer can search for key words, it needs real world "knowledge" to actually make distinctions, identify patterns and react to different scenarios.

His goal? To build "the most knowledgeable computer ever built." 

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