Category Archives: Science & Technology

Jews in the World of Science and Technology

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.

Archaeologists Discover Tablet with Earliest Mention of God’s Name

10 Facts You Should Know About Ruth

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

Jew of the Week: Abraham Zacuto

The Rabbi Who Saved Columbus

A page from Zacuto’s astronomical tables

Avraham ben Shmuel Zacut “Zacuto” (1452-1515) was born in Salamanca, in what is today Spain, to a religious Sephardic Jewish family. He studied both Jewish law and astronomy, becoming the rabbi of Salamanca and simultaneously an astronomy teacher. He invented a new type of astrolabe and a novel method for determining latitude at sea, which would become vital to navigators and sailors. In 1478, he published HaChibur haGadol, “The Great Book”, with detailed and easy-to-use astronomical tables. It was translated to Spanish in 1481, and Latin shortly after. This made Rabbi Zacuto world-famous and when the Jews of Spain were banished in 1492, he was immediately hired by King John II of Portugal to serve as his royal astronomer. Zacuto argued that a sea route to India was possible, and this convinced John II to finance Vasco da Gama’s famous voyage to discover the route to India, opening European sea trade with the Far East. Da Gama used Zacuto’s astrolabe and tables, and Zacuto personally trained and taught the sailors. Zacuto had also argued, based on the Zohar—the “textbook” of Jewish mysticism, dating back to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the 2nd century CE—that the Earth must be spherical, and it would be possible to journey west, not east. This information was instrumental in convincing Christopher Columbus to launch his own voyage. In fact, Columbus relied heavily on Zacuto’s astrolabe and astronomical charts. In a well-known story from his third voyage, Columbus was marooned on a Caribbean island and facing both hostile natives and his own rebellious sailors. The natives refused to provide food and resources to Columbus, so he came up with a ruse. Consulting Zacuto’s tables, Columbus saw that a lunar eclipse was imminent. He told the native chief that if he will not provide resources to the sailors, the moon would go dark and God would punish them! The eclipse came and the natives panicked, giving Columbus’ men all that they needed to survive. Back in Europe, the next king of Portugal, Manuel I, followed the Spanish in expelling his Jewish subjects. Zacuto was offered to stay in Portugal if only he converted to Christianity, even just nominally. Of course, he refused, and left with his people. He first settled in Tunis, where he wrote his monumental Sefer Yuhasin, a highly-acclaimed work describing the entire history of the Jewish people. He later fulfilled his dream of making it to the Holy Land and lived his last years in Jerusalem. Rabbi Zacuto is considered one of history’s greatest and most consequential astronomers. The Zagut Crater on the moon is named after him.

Happy Lag b’Omer!

The Hidden History of Lag b’Omer

Did the Talmud Predict Today’s Crisis in Israel?

Words of the Week

The blessing in life is when you find the torture you are comfortable with. That’s marriage, it’s kids, it’s work, it’s exercise. Find the torture you’re comfortable with and you’ll do well. You’ve mastered that, you’ve mastered life.
Jerry Seinfeld

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