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Prime Number

Shlomi Gil

He completed the Technion when he was still a teenager, but put his PhD on hold so he could finish his semichah. Just 32 years old, Dr. Nathan Keller is a world-class rising star on the horizon of mathematical investigation and cryptology, whose code-cracking research upended the cellular industry and made automobile manufacturers overhaul security. How does he relate to his intellectual gifts? “Ultimately,” he says, “my home is in the beis medrash.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

As a theoretical mathematician, Dr. Nathan Keller — the young star of Bar-Ilan University’s math faculty — was used to receiving unusual phone calls, but this time the accent was Sicilian. It was the Italian police, who wanted the young professor’s permission to use one of his cryptology algorithms to break into the cars of Sicilian Mafia bosses who were threatening the security of the country. Dr. Keller’s groundbreaking research on encryption safety and his discovery of the inherent weakness of the popular security codes of the automobile industry caught the attention of the Italians, who were captivated by the idea of being able to break into Mafia vehicles undetected. The bashful, 32-year-old Torah scholar and mathematical genius politely demurred, and asked the Italians to direct their request via the accepted channels in the Foreign Ministry. In the world of encryption and code-cracking, Nathan Keller — who looks like any of the other dozens of kollel yungeleit at Jerusalem’sMercazHarav yeshivah — is at the cutting edge of cryptology research. What started out as a sideline hobby has become a source of acclaim, asDr.Keller gained a name as one of the world’s top researchers of security in a digital universe of ATM cards, computer passwords, and e-commerce. For the Italians, the car-lock discovery was a major breakthrough, but forDr.Keller, it was just another station on a journey full of significant achievements in a very few years. This spring,NathanKeller was officially recognized as the youngest and most promising mathematician in Israel by winning the Krill Prize awarded by theWolfFoundation, considered the ultimate foreteller of Israeli Nobel Prize winners. WhenKeller stood on the podium at the Weizmann Institute in Rechovot to accept his award, he was excited on two counts: for winning the prize, and for his wife having just given birth that morning to their seventh daughter. “When I was informed that I’d been selected to receive the prize, the first thing I did was check the date of the ceremony,” he says as we sit in the dining room of his home in theKiryatMoshe section of Jerusalem. “I saw that it corresponded with my wife’s due date, so I told the committee that it depended on the baby.”

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