Category Archives: Science & Technology

Jews in the World of Science and Technology

Jew of the Week: Daniel Kahneman

In Memory of a Nobel Prize-Winning Researcher

Daniel Kahneman (1934-2024) was born in Tel-Aviv to Lithuanian Jews who made aliyah from France. His uncle, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, was the head of the famed Ponevezh Yeshiva. Kahneman spent much of his youth in Paris—including during the Holocaust years under the Vichy regime—before returning to Israel in 1948. He studied psychology and mathematics at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, and later became a psychologist for the IDF, where he developed the standard recruitment interview. Kahneman then moved to the United States to study at UC Berkeley, and earned a Ph.D in psychology in 1961. He returned to Jerusalem to teach at Hebrew University, and was also a visiting professor at the University of Michigan and at Harvard. He researched a variety of fascinating subjects in cognitive psychology, including attention, judgement, memory, biases, happiness, and decision-making. His key conclusion was that people are actually not rational decision-makers, and tend to make counterproductive choices based on biases and preconceived notions. His classic 1998 paper on the “focusing illusion” demonstrates how people tend to overestimate a single factor when predicting happiness. For instance, although studies showed that people across America had relatively the same levels of happiness, people would believe Californians are happier because they overestimated the effects of nice weather. Kahneman is perhaps most famous for his work in integrating psychology with economics, or “behavioural economics”, earning him the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. Over the course of his career, Kahneman also taught at Princeton, UC Berkeley, and the University of British Columbia. He wrote several bestselling books and was awarded numerous prizes and honorary degrees. Sadly, Kahneman passed away last week. He has been hailed as one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century.

Words of the Week

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.
– Marie Curie


From the Archives: In Memory of Joe Liberman

Jew of the Week: Isaac Judaeus

The Caliph’s Doctor and the Father of Kabbalah

A 13th-century illustration of Isaac Israeli from a Latin translation of his “Book of Fevers”

Itzhak ben Shlomo (c. 832-932) was born to a religious Jewish family in Egypt. He became renowned as the greatest physician in the country, and in 904 was hired by Prince Ziyadat Allah III. Several years later, he became court physician to Caliph Al-Mahdi Billah of the Fatimid Dynasty, based in Kairouan, Tunisia. Recognizing his immense wisdom, the Caliph made Itzhak (known in Arabic as “Abu Yaqub Ishaq ibn Suleiman al-Israili”, and in Europe as “Isaac Judaeus”) his leading advisor and tutor. Itzhak wrote numerous medical, astronomical, and mathematical treatises which transformed the scientific knowledge of the day. For instance, he is the first person in history to mention performing a tracheostomy. His works were widely distributed for centuries afterwards, and made up much of the medical curriculum of the Middle Ages. Itzhak was also a great philosopher, kabbalist, and mystic. He fused together Greek Neoplatonism with traditional Jewish mysticism, paving the way for the forthcoming explosion of Kabbalistic texts and Jewish mystical circles. His main disciple, Dunash ibn Tamim, wrote a profound commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the most ancient of Kabbalistic texts. In addition to inspiring many rabbis, he was studied and quoted by great non-Jewish scholars like Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon. Among his many other writings is a deeply philosophical commentary on Genesis. In his day, Isaac Judaeus was the world’s leading sage, doctor, and scientist, and Arabic texts of the time refer to him as “master of the seven sciences” and “more valuable than gems”.

Why Did Muslims Rule the Holy Land for 1300 Years?

Words of the Week

We do not have to accept theories as certainties, no matter how widely accepted, for they are like blossoms that fade. Very soon science will be developed further and all of today’s new theories will be derided and scorned and the well-respected wisdom of our day will seem small-minded.
– Rav KookFirst Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel

Jew of the Week: Abraham Maslow

Founder of Positive Psychology

Abraham Harold Maslow (1908-1970) was born in Brooklyn to Jewish-Russian immigrant parents from Kiev. Maslow grew up in poverty and faced a great deal of antisemitism. He wasn’t happy at home either, and spent most of his time at the library reading. In high school, he was the editor of the school’s Latin and physics magazines. Maslow went on to study at City College of New York, and then took up psychology at the University of Wisconsin, where he did experiments and studies on primate behaviour. He moved on to Columbia University, where he worked with Alfred Adler, then taught at Brooklyn College and later at Brandeis University. After World War II, distraught by the Holocaust and the ravages of war, he switched his focus to mental health and human potential, founding a new branch of psychology called humanistic psychology, or positive psychology. The core idea behind humanistic psychology is that every person has the innate ability to grow, heal, and attain happiness and self-actualization. The job of the therapist is only to remove the obstacles that are holding a person back from achieving those goals. As Maslow described it: “Freud supplied us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.” This inspired other psychologists and researchers like Carl Rogers, who pioneered client-centered therapy, and Martin Seligman, who coined “learned helplessness” and proposed Well-Being Theory. The most famous result of Maslow’s work was the Hierarchy of Needs, a pyramid that shows the five major necessities of a human being. At the bottom are the basic physiological needs which are most pressing, but provide the least happiness and satisfaction in the long term. At the top is self-actualization, living a harmonious life of purpose and meaning, which is the most difficult to attain but provides the highest degree of happiness and lasting satisfaction. In 1961, Maslow cofounded the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. His most popular book was The Psychology of Science, where he coined the well-known saying that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Maslow was voted Humanist of the Year in 1967, and has been ranked among the top 10 greatest and most-cited psychologists of all time.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Words of the Week

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
– CS Lewis