Tag Archives: Physics

Jew of the Week: Hermann Schapira

Founder of the Jewish National Fund

Zvi Hermann Hirsch Schapira (1840-1898) was born to a religious Russian-Jewish family in a small Lithuanian village. He studied to become a rabbi and at age 24 was appointed to his first post. However, he soon decided to pursue his passion for the sciences and ended up studying at a Berlin academy. Three years later, he settled in Odessa and worked for several years as a merchant. In 1878, Schapira moved to Heidelburg and spent another four years studying math and physics, during which time he earned his doctorate. He became a math professor at the University of Heidelburg, and published several important papers. Throughout this time, he continued studying Jewish literature, and contributed to three Hebrew periodicals. By 1884, Shapira was a vocal Zionist, and suggested the establishment of a Jewish National Fund which would buy land in Israel and help settle Jews there. He formally proposed the idea to the First Zionist Congress in 1897, where he also suggested the establishment of a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Tragically, Schapira died the following year from pneumonia. The Jewish National Fund would finally be launched three years later, and it would take another two decades before the Hebrew University would open its doors. The JNF would go on to become one of the most important organizations in Israel’s history, and instrumental in the nascent state’s success. It purchased over 50% of Israel’s landmass, developed over 250,000 acres of its land, planted some 260 million trees, built nearly 200 dams and reservoirs, and established over 1000 parks. The JNF also played a key role in the founding of Tel Aviv in 1909, and in running Israel’s first postal service. It still owns about 13% of Israel’s land, and in the past decade alone, helped Israel expand its water capacity by 7%. The JNF is perhaps most famous for its Tu b’Shevat tree-planting drive, which over a million Jews participate in every year.

Tu b’Shevat is this Saturday. Chag sameach!

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Words of the Week

When God created the first man, He showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
– Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13

Jew of the Week: Vera Rubin

Astrophysics Pioneer

Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory (Credit: Carnegie Institution)

Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory (Credit: Carnegie Institution)

Vera Cooper (1928-2016) was born in Philadelphia. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe (who changed their last name from Kobchefski to Cooper). Since she was 10 years old, Cooper was interested in astronomy, and was the only woman studying the subject in her college. She intended to continue graduate studies at Princeton but was forbidden because of her gender. Cooper went to Cornell University instead and studied astrophysics and quantum physics. There she also met her husband, Robert Rubin, who was pursuing graduate studies in chemistry. The two had four children, all of whom became Ph.D scientists and mathematicians. Rubin completed her Master’s in 1951 and went to Georgetown University for her doctorate. Around this time, she discovered that whole galaxies are rotating around their centres – an idea so revolutionary that it was initially rejected. Her 1954 Ph.D thesis was similarly revolutionary, showing that galaxies must be clumped in clusters. No one paid attention to this work for another two decades, when it was confirmed to be true. In 1965, Rubin was the first woman allowed to use Caltech’s famous Palomar Observatory. She then became a Senior Fellow at Washington’s Carnegie Institution, where her research was focused on “galactic and extragalactic dynamics”, among other things. Rubin made critical calculations with regards to galactic rotation rates, and together with her friend Robert Ford, discovered what is now known as the Rubin-Ford effect. In her studies, she found that galaxies are spinning so fast that they should be flying apart. They do not fly apart because gravity keeps them together. But, there is not enough visible matter in galaxies to generate so much gravity! This led Rubin to confirm the existence of invisible dark matter. This was perhaps her biggest breakthrough, and completely transformed astrophysics. For her tremendous achievements, Rubin has won multiple awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Royal Astronomical Society’s prestigious Gold Medal. There is also an asteroid named after her. Sadly, Rubin passed away earlier this week. Despite being 88 years old, Rubin continued her scientific research (focusing on the motion of distant stars) until the last days of her life. She was a pioneer for women in science, and worked tirelessly to get more women elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Rubin was proud of her Jewish heritage, and often spoke of the beauty and value of science and religion when studied together. In addition to half a dozen important scientific publications, Rubin wrote a book, and was featured in two documentaries. She was once described as an American “national treasure”.

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Words of the Week

The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.
– Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist