Tag Archives: Ph.D

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: Ada Yonath

The Woman Who Revolutionized Biochemistry

Yonath at the Weizmann Institute (Credit: Miki Koren)

Yonath at the Weizmann Institute (Credit: Miki Koren)

Ada Yonath (b. 1939) was born in Jerusalem, the daughter of Polish Zionists that immigrated to Israel in 1933. Growing up in poverty, she found solace in books, and was inspired by the Polish-French scientist Marie Curie. Yonath studied chemistry at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and earned a Ph.D from the Weizmann Institute in 1968. Her focus was on x-ray crystallography, a technique for visualizing biochemical structures. After postdoc studies at Carnegie Mellon and MIT, Yonath returned to Israel to establish the country’s only protein crystallography lab. In the 1980s, she started developing a new crystallography technique that was initially met with a lot of resistance from the scientific community. Yonath silenced her critics with amazing results, and discovered some of the key mechanisms in the body’s production of proteins. By 2001, she unraveled the mysteries of the ribosome, the structure responsible for producing protein from the body’s genetic code. In addition to this, she discovered how dozens of antibiotics impact the ribosome, contributing tremendously to our understanding of antibiotics and drug resistance. The technique she invented, cryo bio-crystallography, is now standard in top biochemistry labs around the world. In 2009, Yonath was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. That made her the first Israeli woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first Middle Eastern woman to win a Nobel Prize in science, and the first woman to win the Prize in Chemistry in 45 years (and only the fourth overall). Yonath has won a handful of other awards, including the Harvey Prize, the Rothschild Prize, the Wolf Prize, the Albert Einstein World Award of Science, and the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science. Despite being in her 70s, Yonath is still doing very important research in her lab at the Weizmann Institute. Some say she may even be up for a second Nobel Prize! She also hopes to write a novel as soon as she has some extra time. (Click here to see an incredible video of a ribosome working in the body, based on Dr. Yonath’s research.)

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Words of the Week

Family is not punishment! When I sit with young people and they say, “You’re a mother and you took care of the kids”, I say: “It’s a privilege.”
– Ada Yonath