Category Archives: Science & Technology

Jews in the World of Science and Technology

Jews of the Week: Mildred Cohn and Gerty Cori

Great Women in Biochemistry 

Mildred Cohn (1913-2009) was born in New York to Jewish-Russian immigrants. Her father was a rabbi and Cohn grew up in a religious, Yiddish-speaking home, though one which also prioritized secular education and the arts. Cohn graduated high school by the age of 14 and got her Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at 18, followed by her Master’s from Columbia University. Unable to afford any further schooling, Cohn got a job researching for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later become NASA. She was the only woman among seventy men, and was told she shouldn’t expect any promotions. Two years later, she had enough money to return to school, pursuing her PhD at Columbia under recent Nobel Prize-winner Harold Urey. Cohn focused her work on carbon and oxygen isotopes. From there, she moved on to Washington University to do research on metabolism using sulfur isotopes. Later, she switched to using nuclear magnetic resonance and made a huge breakthrough in 1958 when she was able to visualize ATP, the central energy molecule that powers human cells and essentially all living things. Cohn discovered much of what we know about ATP and how it works. All in all, she wrote 160 scientific papers and won numerous awards, including the National Medal of Science (awarded to her by President Reagan). She was the first female editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the first female president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In 2009 she was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Cohn was married to renowned Jewish physicist Henry Primakoff. Many of her ATP discoveries came while she was working at the lab of another great Jewish scientist, Gerty Cori.

Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori (1896-1957) was born in Prague. Her father was a chemist who had invented a new way of refining sugar. At 16, Cori decided to become a doctor, but found that she was missing nearly all the prerequisites. So, in one year she took eighteen years-worth of courses in Latin, science, and math. Cori passed her entrance exam and was among the first women ever to be admitted to Prague’s medical school. After graduating, she worked at a children’s hospital and also did research on blood disorders, the thyroid gland, and the body’s ability to regular temperature. Due to persistent food shortages and rising anti-Semitism after World War I, Cori and her husband (also a doctor and scientist) left Prague and moved to New York. The couple did research together at what is now the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, focusing on glucose metabolism. Cori published 11 papers of her own, and another 50 together with her husband. By 1929, the Coris had figured out how the body metabolized glucose in the absence of oxygen, a process now known as the Cori Cycle. For this, they won a Nobel Prize in 1947. This made Cori the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize (and only the third woman overall), as well as the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine. In 1931, the couple took over a lab at Washington University (with Cori being paid one-tenth her husband’s salary). Here they made many more vital scientific discoveries, and mentored a new generation of scientists—six of which went on to win Nobel Prizes of their own. For this reason, their lab was deemed a National Historic Landmark in 2004. Like Mildred Cohn, Gerty Cori won countless awards and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. There are craters on the Moon and on Venus named after her, as well as a commemorative US stamp. After battling the disease for a decade, Cori succumbed to bone cancer, likely caused by her extensive work with X-rays.

Words of the Week

In the next world, they will not ask me: “Why were you not Moses?” They will ask me: “Why were you not Zusha?”
– Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli (1718-1800)

Jew of the Week: Steven Weinberg

Architect of the Standard Model of Physics

Steven Weinberg

Steven Weinberg (b. 1933) was born in New York to Jewish parents of Romanian and German heritage. He studied at the Bronx High School of Science, then did his undergraduate studies in physics at Cornell. After a brief stint at the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark, he earned his PhD at Princeton in 1957. Weinberg first did research at Columbia University, then became a professor at UC Berkeley. While there, he started writing one of his most famous books, The Quantum Theory of Fields, as well as the popular textbook Gravitation and Cosmology. In 1966, Weinberg moved back east to teach at Harvard. The following year, as a visiting professor at MIT, he published his new model unifying electromagnetism and the nuclear forces. Part of this was proposing the existence of the Higgs boson (which was finally discovered in 2012). Weinberg’s model built on the work of his former high school classmate and fellow Jewish physicist, Sheldon Glashow. The two shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work (together with Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam). Over the years, Weinberg did research on—and greatly furthered our understanding of—gravity and cosmology, quantum physics and string theory, pions, leptons, and supersymmetry. His work has expanded nearly every aspect of modern physics and is among the most renowned scientists in the world. Weinberg has testified before Congress as an expert witness, and has written many popular articles and science books, among them The First Three Minutes and To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. He has been awarded 11 honourary degrees together with a long list of awards including the National Medal of Science. Weinberg is also a staunch supporter of Israel and has refused to speak at universities that boycott the Jewish State. Today, as he nears his 87th birthday, he continues to write and teach physics at the University of Texas at Austin.

Words of the Week

Given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicates a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than antisemitism.
– Steven Weinberg

Jew of the Week: Émile Durkheim

The Father of Sociology

Émile Durkheim

David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was born in the French region of Lorraine to Orthodox Jewish parents. His father and grandfather were both rabbis, and Durkheim spent his early years in yeshiva intent on becoming a rabbi as well. Eventually, he decided to switch his career path and break out on his own. He went off to study psychology and philosophy. At 21, on his third application attempt, he was accepted to ENS, the most prestigious graduate school in Paris. Durkheim wanted to apply what he learned to explain society and social behaviour. At the time, however, there were no sociology studies anywhere in France. In 1885 he moved to Germany to work alongside some of the first sociologists. Two years later, Durkheim’s papers had become famous across Europe, and he was invited back to France to teach sociology at the University of Bourdeaux. Durkheim taught the first social science course in French history, and was also asked to reform France’s school curriculum. Over the next few years, Durkheim published a series of manifestos outlining exactly what social science is, and why it is important. He showed how the scientific method could be rigorously applied to this new field, and how it was distinct from related subjects. In 1895, he established the first university social science department, and in 1898 founded the first sociology academic journal. For these reasons, Durkheim is often called the “father of sociology”. His work is also credited with pioneering the field of criminology, and influencing psychology and philosophy as well. In 1902, Durkheim was appointed Chair of Education at the world-famous Sorbonne, and later became the only professor whose courses were mandatory for all students. Meanwhile, he served as advisor to France’s Minister of Education. Unfortunately, World War I had a devastating effect on Durkheim. Right-wing nationalists attacked him for not being “patriotic” enough, for being too liberal, and for being Jewish. Worse, many of his students were conscripted and died in the trenches. The final tragedy was the death of his own son. Durkheim fell terribly ill, and ultimately died from a stroke. Despite abandoning formal religion in his youth, he argued that religion is the most important social institution, and the key to a well-functioning “organic” society. He worried greatly about the rising trend of science and the “cult of the individual” taking the place of religion. Durkheim coined the popular term “collective consciousness” (among many others), and was the founder of the school of structural functionalism. Durkheim’s work has influenced countless thinkers, and still serves as the foundation of sociology today.

Words of the Week

Religion gave birth to all that is essential in the society.
– Émile Durkheim