Q&A: Salt-of-the-earth scientist and artist

Name: Revital Katznelson

Age: 66

City: Berkeley

Position: Water quality and pollution specialist
You’re a water-quality scientist and instructor whose photographs of microscopic salt and sugar crystals are on exhibit at Kehilla Community Synagogue. What inspired your pursuit of art?

Revital Katznelson: As a scientist who’s very interested in the environment, and as a naturalist, I always liked to take samples and check them out under the microscope. About two years ago, I participated in a little workshop at Lake Merritt where we were looking at zooplankton. I left the sample in the lab and kind of forgot about it, and it dried out. A couple of weeks later … there was a bed of salt crystals on the dish. I put it under the microscope and it was just magnificent. Of course, I took a picture. And then I wondered what other salts would look like. So I started making my own preparations and learned how to illuminate the crystals from different directions to get a semblance of 3D.

The stunning beauty, it is endless. Every new preparation brings crystals that I have never seen before. Nature is just an amazing, awesome artist.
How do you think growing up in Israel influenced you?

I had very good teachers and mentors who raised me into the scientist that I became. That could have happened in other parts of the world, but I think Israel was a very good nest to grow up in.

During my schooling in the early ’70s, one of the classes was tracking how the sewage was treated in [the stream] Nahal Sorek … That made it clear to me that nature will take care of itself if we help it, but not if we overload it. One of the things that got me into water research was [observing] the water recycling systems in Israel, all the reservoirs and treatment plants that were taking the water so we could use it for agriculture.

Revital Katznelson

What was it like being raised on a kibbutz?

My parents were both born in Israel and went to agricultural schools before they became kibbutz members. They were kind of salt-of-the-earth in a generation of young Israelis that started kibbutzim and went back to the land, so I was born into a very idealistic society.

I grew up as a totally secular Israeli … but I think what I felt really proud of is the humanitarian tradition within Jewish thought, the rules and regulations about how people should treat each other, not so much about God or how you need to be afraid of God. As a very young person I already knew that nature rules. There is a beauty and order in nature and there is something in nature that became my goddess. I think my values are basically ancient Jewish values that are based on respect. That applies to the way I move in the world, to the way I treat other people and the way I’m trying to protect nature.

When you got your master’s degree in marine ecology and your Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1984, was environmental protection an up-and-coming field in Israel?

Israel was already quite awake to the environmental problems we had … There was a lot of awareness that we can mess it up and, because we [live in] such a small place, we really need to do something about it.
Do you have an environmental hero?

Rachel Carson was a biologist who wrote the [1962] book “Silent Spring” that made it clear to the world that the pesticides we’ve been using are going to kill everything. She said [DDT] kills all of the natural bugs, it kills birds, it kills everything, and it doesn’t go away, because it’s very stable. She was attacked by the chemical industries that were manufacturing these compounds. They tried to discredit her. They tried to say she was just a delusional, old hag. She fought it very bravely. [Her work] led to an awareness that was never there before.

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Sara Weissman
Sara Weissman

Sara Weissman is the editor in chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine, and a former J. intern who graduated from U.C. Berkeley. She can be reached at [email protected].