Jew of the Week: Arno Penzias

Arno Allan Penzias (b. 1933) was born in Munich. As a six year old, he was evacuated from Nazi Germany through the British Kindertransport rescue operation which saved 10,000 Jewish children. He was later reunited with his parents, who brought the family to New York. Penzias grew up in Brooklyn and went on to study physics. He graduated among the top of his class, then served two years in the US Army as a radar officer. From there, he got a research position at Columbia University’s Radiation Lab, where he helped to develop the maser (a “microwave laser”). After earning a Ph.D in physics from Columbia, Penzias got a job at Bell Labs to do astronomy research with microwave receivers. He was soon joined by Robert Wilson. The two noticed their antenna picking up an inexplicable signal. After ruling out all forms of interference, and carefully cleaning the antenna, the weak signal persisted. The two collaborated with another physicist, Robert Dicke, to show that this signal was the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, the remnants of the universe’s birth, as predicted by the Big Bang Theory. The existence of CMB confirmed that the universe had a beginning, with a burst of radiation, and simultaneously confirmed ancient Jewish teachings about the universe’s origins. The Zohar, a famous mystical commentary on the Torah that was first published some 700 years ago, explains that the universe began with a nikuda hada d’zohar, a singular point of radiance, from which all things were formed. The Zohar explains that this ever-expanding radiance continues to fill the universe, based on the words in the Biblical Book of Daniel (12:3) which describes the “radiance of the firmament”. In fact, this is how the book got its name, Zohar meaning “radiance”. Penzias’ and Wilson’s monumental discovery brought about a beautiful harmony between Torah and science, at once confirming both the modern Big Bang Theory and the holy words of the ancient Jewish Sages. The two physicists won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics. Penzias continued his work at Bell Labs for a total of 37 years, rising to the position of Vice President of Research. He was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences. Penzias later moved to Silicon Valley to advise venture capitalists and tech start-ups. Despite being in his 80s, he is still a venture partner at New Enterprise Associates, and says he has “no plants to retire”.

Words of the Week

Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.
– Arno Penzias

Penzias and Wilson at the antenna where they made their famous discovery

Jew of the Week: Sol Price

Sol Price (1916-2009) was born in New York City to Jewish-Russian immigrants from Belarus. He grew up in San Diego, where he earned a philosophy degree at San Diego State University before getting a law degree from the University of Southern California. Price was admitted to the bar in 1938. After over a dozen years as a business lawyer, Price had an idea to open a new kind of department store, offering wholesale prices on quality goods sold in bulk. Price opened his first store, called FedMart, in an old airport hangar in 1954. He charged a small membership fee ($2 per family) and kept prices even lower by avoiding advertising, major credit cards, and expensive real estate, and maintaining a small inventory. The model was a great success, and Price expanded rapidly. He pioneered many innovations in retail, including being the first to sell gasoline at wholesale prices, and being the first to have an in-store pharmacy and opticianry. By 1974, FedMart had 45 stores and over $300 million in sales. The following year, FedMart was bought out by a German retailer, and Price was soon kicked out of the company. He then started a new chain, Price Club, in an old factory once owned by Howard Hughes. Price Club expanded quickly, too, and went public in 1980. A few years later, one of Price Club’s employees teamed up with a wealthy lawyer (whose own Jewish family was successful in retail) to start a competing wholesaler, called Costco. In 1993. Price Club merged with Costco to form PriceCostco, together having 206 locations and $16 billion in sales. By 1997, Costco became the official company name, and today, Costco has over 700 locations around the world, with 85 million members, and 174,000 employees. It is the second largest retailer, and the 18th richest company in the world, with $120 billion in revenue. Costco is second only to Wal-Mart. Ironically, Sam Walton wrote in his book that he “borrowed” most of his ideas from Sol Price, and called his store “Wal-Mart” because he liked Sol Price’s FedMart! Not surprisingly, Price is often called the “father of the wholesale retail industry”. He was also a generous philanthropist, having donated tens of millions to various causes, especially in his hometown of San Diego.

Passover Starts Monday Evening!

Words of the Week

On his birthday, a person should meditate, recall and contemplate his past, and correct and repent that which requires correction and repentance.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe