Category Archives: Science & Technology

Jews in the World of Science and Technology

Jew of the Week: Max Born

Germany’s Greatest Physicist

Max Born (1882-1970) was born in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) to a German-Jewish family. He first studied at the University of Breslau, then switched to the University of Gottingen where he met renowned mathematician (and former Jew of the Week) Hermann Minkowski, who became one of his mentors. After earning his Ph.D, Born continued his studies at Cambridge. He soon returned to Gottingen to work with Minkowski on unifying electrodynamics with Albert Einstein’s relativity. Over the next few years, Born published 27 important papers that made him a superstar in the world of physics and math. During this time, he met his wife and was pressured to convert to Lutheranism to marry her. He refused. However, in 1914 he received a letter from Max Planck inviting him to become a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin—and to accept this position he would have to become a Christian, since professorships were still barred to Jews. Born ended up “converting” nominally for this reason. With the outbreak of World War I, Born joined a military research unit. During the war, he became best friends with Albert Einstein (who once described Born as the greatest physicist in all of Germany), and also briefly worked with Fritz Haber in discovering the Born-Haber cycle. Born would return to Gottingen, where Werner Heisenberg was one of his main students. Together, they did important work in advancing quantum mechanics. In 1932, Heisenberg won a Nobel Prize for his discoveries in quantum physics, but he protested that Born didn’t receive the prize with him. Another two of Born’s students went on to win Nobel Prizes in physics before he did. (It was only in 1954, two years after retirement, that Born received a Nobel Prize of his own!) Another of his Ph.D students was J. Robert Oppenheimer, later the “father of the atomic bomb”. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Born was suspended from his job because he was a Jew. He moved to Cambridge temporarily and there wrote a bestselling physics book, as well as a textbook that became the standard for physics students for many decades to come. He then became professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Meanwhile, Born and his wife helped Jewish refugees escape Germany and settle in the UK. After retiring at the age of 70, Born returned to Germany and lived out the rest of his life there. One of his grandchildren is actress and singer Olivia Newton-John, who passed away last week.

Words of the Week

The difference between science and Torah is in the fundamental concept that science does not demand any behaviour. One can be the greatest scientist in the world and behave like the most degraded human, like the Nazis, who achieved the greatest scientific findings while manifesting the most degenerate behaviour…
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Emmy Noether

Greatest Mathematician of All Time

Amalie Emmy Noether (1882-1935) was born in Bavaria, Germany to a wealthy Jewish family, the eldest daughter of renowned mathematician Max Noether. She enjoyed learning languages and eventually passed a test allowing her to teach English and French. Instead, she decided to further her studies at the University of Erlangen. Female students were not allowed, but Noether was given permission to audit lectures along with one other woman. In 1903, restrictions were eased and Noether passed the graduation exam, after which she enrolled at the University of Gottingen to study astronomy and mathematics. She returned to Erlangen and taught math for seven years—without pay! During this time, she published several ground-breaking papers. In 1915, Noether was invited back to Gottingen, and when an uproar arose about how men could be subjected to learn “at the feet of a woman”, the university responded: “We are a university, not a bathhouse.” In 1918, Noether silenced critics by proving what is now called Noether’s Theorem, which was said to be “one of the most important mathematical theorems ever proved in guiding the development of modern physics, possibly on a par with the Pythagorean theorem”. The following year, she was granted tenure, and then a professorship. Among her many revolutionary achievements, Noether is most famous for mathematical rings, chain conditions, and abstract algebra—which some say is her greatest contribution to math and science. Thanks to Noether and the brilliant minds she attracted and taught, the University of Gottingen became the pre-eminent math institution in the world. She supervised the work of a dozen graduate students who became world-famous mathematicians in their own right. Noether was famous for living simply and modestly, not caring at all about her appearance, talking quickly, and teaching freely with no lesson plans. In 1932, she received the prestigious Ackermann–Teubner Memorial Award for math. The following year, the Nazis came to power and she was fired from her position. Undeterred, Noether continued to teach from her apartment. Soon, the Rockefeller Foundation arranged for her a position in the United States, and Noether went on to teach at Bryn Mawr College, as well as at Princeton (alongside fellow Jewish refugee Albert Einstein). Tragically, Noether passed away suddenly after surgery to remove an ovarian tumour. She was eulogized as “the greatest woman mathematician who has ever lived; and the greatest woman scientist of any sort…” There are numerous awards, concepts, streets and schools named after her around the world (including a math institute at Bar-Ilan University in Israel), as well as a satellite, a crater on the moon, and even a distant planet.

Words of the Week

A day will come in which the masses will be so tolerant, that the intelligent people will be forbidden to think in order not to threaten the stupid.
– Fyodor Dostoevsky

Jew of the Week: Eytan Stibbe

Second Israeli in Space

Eytan Meir Stibbe (b. 1958) was born in Haifa to Jewish parents who had made aliyah from the Netherlands. He grew up partly in the United States. Stibbe joined the Israeli Air Force and became an F-16 fighter pilot. He served under the command of Ilan Ramon, who would go on to become Israel’s first astronaut. Stibbe served with distinction, and once tied a record by shooting down four enemy aircraft in a single battle over Lebanon in 1982. In another mission, he downed a total of five Syrian aircraft! Stibbe was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, and went on to teach at the IAF Flight Academy. Altogether, he served with the Israeli Air Force for some 43 years. Meanwhile, in 1984 he joined Israel Aircraft Industries to help modify and improve Israel’s own Lavi fighter jet. The following year, he co-founded Elar, a new Israeli military tech developer. When he left the company in 2011 and sold all of his shares, he had become a millionaire. Stibbe then turned his attention to his new Vital Capital Fund, which invests specifically in projects designed to alleviate poverty and clean up the environment. The Fund has helped bring sanitation, electricity, and healthcare to millions of people around the world, and has won numerous awards for its philanthropic work. Stibbe has always dreamed of following his mentor Ilan Ramon to space. He purchased a $55 million ticket on board a SpaceX craft, in collaboration with Axiom Space, which took off on April 8th for a ten-day mission. This is the first ever privately-funded human mission to space, and Stibbe is now only the second Israeli ever to go to space. He is not only a passenger, but also doing important scientific work, carrying out a total of 35 experiments, including on space radiation, optics, and quantum communications. Because of several delays, the Rakia mission (from the Biblical Hebrew word for outer space) ended up overlapping with Passover. And so, Stibbe took with him a Pesach seder kit prepared by Chabad, with shmurah matzah and four mini-cartons of grape juice (wine is prohibited on the ISS!) The return trip has also been delayed due to poor weather, and is expected to finally return to Earth this Sunday.

Passover: Fighting for Freedom

Words of the Week

Moses spoke not about freedom but about education. He fixed his vision not on the immediate but on the distant future, and not on adults but children. In so doing he was making a fundamental point: It may be hard to escape from tyranny but it is harder still to build and sustain a free society. In the long run there is only one way of doing so – to defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilization you need education.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks