Category Archives: Science & Technology

Jews in the World of Science and Technology

Jew of the Week: Johann Kremenezky

The Man Who Powered Europe—and Zionism

Yonah Yosipovich Leibensohn Kremenezky (1850-1934) was born in Odessa, Ukraine to a Russian-Jewish family. He studied electrical engineering and worked on designing Russia’s first railways. In 1874, Kremenezky moved to Berlin to further his studies at the city’s Technical University. He then got a job working for Siemens, and was sent across Europe to build the continent’s first street lighting systems, starting in Paris and ending up in Vienna in 1878, where he settled permanently. Two years later, Kremenezky founded his own factory that produced lamps and batteries—the first of its kind in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1883, he had become very well-known as a scientist-industrialist (a European Edison), and Crown Prince Rudolf personally asked him to help “electrify” his empire. Kremenezky did just that, laying electrical cables and setting up lighting systems, as well as building the empire’s first power plant. Meanwhile, his lamp factory designed all sorts of new lights, including ornamental bulbs and what we now know as “Christmas lights”. Kremenezky lights were a huge hit, exported around the world, even to the United States. For playing a key role in rebuilding and repowering Vienna after World War I, Kremenezky was awarded with the Ehrenbürgerrecht, the city’s highest decoration for citizens (a street in Vienna was named after him, too). Meanwhile, back in 1896, Kremenezky had met Theodor Herzl and the two became best friends. Kremenezky became a passionate Zionist, gave countless funds in support of the movement, as well as essential electrical know-how to power the future State. In 1898, he set a 500-franc prize for anyone who would write a fitting hymn for the Zionist movement. This eventually led to the adoption of HaTikvah as Israel’s national anthem. Around the same time, Hermann Schapira proposed the establishment of a Jewish National Fund that would legally purchase land in Israel and help settle Jews there. Schapira didn’t live to realize his dream, but Kremenezky was convinced and established the Jewish National Fund a couple of years later, serving as its first chairman. It was he who came up with the JNF “blue box” to collect charity. The JNF went on to play a central role in the establishment of Israel, purchasing over 50% of Israel’s landmass, developing some 250,000 acres of its land, building nearly 200 dams and reservoirs, and establishing over 1000 parks. Perhaps most famously, the JNF has planted over 260 million trees in the Holy Land, partly thanks to its Tu b’Shevat tree-planting drive which still runs to this day. A true friend, Kremenezky was the only one by Herzl’s bedside when he passed away, and financially supported Herzl’s family afterwards. When Kremenezky himself passed away, he was eulogized as a “simple, modest Jew, who did a great for the Zionist movement.” He was awarded the prestigious Wilhelm Exner Medal for excellence in scientific research and innovation, and multiple institutions and streets in Israel are named after him.

Words of the Week

There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.
– Will Durant

Jew of the Week: Jeff Hoffman

NASA’s First Jewish Astronaut

Jeffrey Alan Hoffman (b. 1944) was born in Brooklyn. He was always fascinated by outer space, and went to study astronomy at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Hoffman went on to get a PhD in astrophysics from Harvard, researching cosmic x-rays and gamma rays. He built one of the first aerial gamma ray telescopes. After this, he did postdoctoral work in the UK, eventually working as a project scientist for the European Space Agency. In 1975, Hoffman returned to the US to work at MIT. His main area of focus was x-ray bursts, and he authored over 20 papers on the subject, becoming the world expert on it. One time, he heard his wife reading a passage in a book saying that there will never be a Jewish astronaut. This inspired Hoffman to pursue just that, and he applied to NASA. In 1978, he was selected for NASA’s astronaut training program, together with Judith Resnik. The two became NASA’s first Jewish astronauts. Hoffman went on his first mission in 1985 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, during which the crew deployed two satellites and conducted numerous scientific experiments. At this point, Hoffman became just the second Jewish man in space (following Russian cosmonaut Boris Volynov). During his fourth trip to space, Hoffman was responsible for repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. Before that flight, his rabbi asked him if he would take some Judaica with him, and Hoffman happily agreed. He took a mezuzah—which he affixed to his cabin with Velcro—a tallit, as well as a dreidel and mobile menorah, since it was during Chanukah. (Click here to see Hoffman spin a dreidel in space!) On another flight, Hoffman took a Torah with him and made sure to read it while flying over Jerusalem. During his last mission in 1996, Hoffman set a new record, becoming the first astronaut to spend 1000 hours aboard space shuttles. All in all, he spent more than 50 days in space, and logged over 21 million space miles travelled. Since retiring as an astronaut, he has been teaching as a professor at MIT, and visiting professor at the University of Leicester. He has also written a book called An Astronaut’s Diary.

When Jews and Greeks Were Brothers: The Untold Story of Chanukah

Words of the Week

…Science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion.
Albert Einstein

Jew of the Week: Avraham bar Chiya haNasi

The Rabbi Who Discovered the Quadratic Formula

Avraham bar Chiya (c. 1070-1145) was born in Barcelona to a Sephardic Jewish family. It appears that his family was persecuted by its Christian rulers, so they fled to the neighbouring Arab kingdom of Zaragoza. Bar Chiya came from a long line of rabbis, and was also extensively trained in science, math, and astronomy. Famed for his wisdom, he became the court astronomer of Al-Musta’in II. Eventually, he was appointed minister of police and given the title sahib al-shurtah, “city governor”. This is why he was known in the Jewish community as HaNasi, “the prince” or “the president”. Al-Musta’in II was unable to defend his domain from the Christians, who soon took over. Bar Chiya moved to southern France for a while and lived in Narbonne and Provence. There he composed some of the most important scientific texts of the Medieval era. He translated a number of Arabic works into Latin, opening their study for Europeans, and played a key role in introducing the Hindu numerals we use today (by way of Arabia) to Europe, and thus to the rest of the world. Bar Chiya also synthesized ancient Greek wisdom with contemporary Arabic knowledge, and published new discoveries in number theory, arithmetic, geometry, optics, astronomy, and music theory. His Treatise on Measurement and Calculation inspired later greats like Plato of Tivoli and the world-famous Fibonacci. Meanwhile, Bar Chiya also served as the chief rabbi of the Jewish communities he presided over, and composed two important Jewish commentaries and texts. He is credited with being the first person to write a scientific book in Hebrew, and played an instrumental role in the development of the Hebrew language. His disciples included both Jews and non-Jews, among them the great Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, and the Flemish astronomer Rudolf of Bruges. The first historical appearance of the quadratic equation (with a complete solution of x2 – ax + b = c) appears in one of Bar Chiya’s works! He is also referenced in many philosophical works as “Abraham Judaeus”. All in all, his impact on the development of science, mathematics, and human history is unparalleled.

Jew of the Week Turns 10 Years Old Today!

What I Learned from 10 Years of Writing Jew of the Week

Words of the Week

The mind of man plans his way, but God directs his steps.
King Solomon (Proverbs 16:9)