Category Archives: Science & Technology

Jews in the World of Science and Technology

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

Jew of the Week: Yuval Ne’eman

Quantum Physicist and IDF Commander

Yuval Ne’eman

Yuval Ne’eman (1925-2006) was born in Tel-Aviv. His grandfather Aba Ne’eman had made aliyah to Yaffo from Lithuania as an eighteen year old, and was later among the first 66 families which settled and co-founded the city of Tel-Aviv. His grandfather also set up the city’s first electrical generator, and built some of its first factories. This may be what inspired Yuval to study mechanical engineering. He enrolled at Technion at age 15. At the same time, he joined the Haganah, and would fight valiantly in Israel’s Independence War, rising to the rank of commander of the Givati Brigade. Having spent several years living in Egypt with his parents as a child, Ne’eman spoke Arabic fluently and served as a liaison to Israel’s Mizrachi Jews, helping to settle them in the new country. In the mid-1950s, Ne’eman played a key role in the IDF’s operational command, developed its reverse mobilization system, and wrote Israel’s first defense doctrine. Meanwhile, he joined Israel’s Nuclear Energy Commission and oversaw the development of Israel’s nuclear capabilities. While serving as IDF attaché in London, he earned his PhD in physics. The following year he published his classification system for hadrons, laying the foundation for the quark model of quantum physics (proposed by recent Jews of the Week Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig). Ne’eman returned to Israel in 1961 to direct the Soreq Nuclear Research Centre, one of the most important R&D facilities in Israel. He retired from the IDF with the rank of colonel, and founded Tel Aviv University’s School of Physics and Astronomy in 1965. Ne’eman directed it for the next seven years, then became president of he whole university. After this, he directed its Sackler Institute of Advanced Studies for nearly two decades. Ne’eman also co-directed the Center for Particle Theory at the University of Texas in Austin. A big believer in space exploration, he founded the Israel Space Agency in 1983 and chaired it until his death. He was chief scientist of Israel’s Defense Ministry in the 1970s, which opened the door for him to enter politics. Ne’eman founded the right-wing Tehiya party in response to Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. He was elected to the Knesset in 1981 and became the country’s first Minister of Science and Technology. He continued to serve in the Knesset for over a decade. Among his many awards are the Israel Prize, the Wigner Medal, and the Albert Einstein Prize. He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Ne’eman wrote a layman’s book on quantum physics called The Particle Hunters, which has been described as “the best guide to quantum physics at present available.”

The Red Cow: Quantum Physics in the Torah

Words of the Week

… Most of my people think as I do, but they’re afraid to say so… we suffer because of our Arab brothers, but we are also dependent on them. It’s a bizarre situation because the Arab countries don’t really care what happens to the Palestinian people. The only assistance that we have ever received from any country was from the ‘Zionist enemy.’
Muhammad Zahrab, Palestinian Arab scholar 

Jews of the Week: Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig

Discovering the Quark

Murray Gell-Mann

Murray Gell-Mann (1929-2019) was born in Manhattan to Austrian-Jewish immigrants from what is now Ukraine. Passionate about math and science from childhood, he graduated high school at the top of his class years ahead, and began studying at Yale when he was 14 on a full scholarship. He had his PhD from MIT by 22. He did research at multiple universities before moving to Caltech in 1955, where he became the youngest professor in the school’s history, and taught there until retirement. In 1958, together with Richard Feynman, he made a huge discovery with regards to the weak nuclear force (one of the four fundamental forces of nature). He went on to make many more important discoveries in the field of quantum physics. He is most famous for proposing the quark model – revolutionizing the world of sub-atomic particles – and for coining the term “quark”. Gell-Mann won a Nobel Prize in 1969 for his work. He is also credited with defending and popularizing string theory. In the 1960s, Gell-Mann was a co-founder of the Jason Division which advised the US military and helped to develop anti-ballistic missiles. He was a science adviser for presidents Nixon and Clinton, and was an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Later in life, he delved into “complexity science”, tackling some of the most challenging problems in nature (especially biology). He even co-founded the Santa Fe Institute for researching this kind of complex science. Gell-Mann wrote a best-selling science book called The Quark and the Jaguar, and inspired the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect (see below). Sadly, Gell-Mann passed away last month.

George Zweig

Gell-Mann was not alone in his proposal of the quark model. The same model was devised independently by George Zweig (b. 1937), who was born in Moscow to German-Jewish parents fleeing Nazi Germany. The family moved to the US in 1938 and settled in Detroit. Zweig earned a bachelor’s in math in 1959, and a PhD from Caltech in 1964 (a graduate student of Richard Feynman). He then went to work at the world-famous CERN, where he developed the quark model. (He called quarks “aces”, but Gell-Mann’s name stuck.) Zweig continued to do important work in quantum physics for some time before switching to neurobiology. He helped uncover how the cochlea in the ear transduces sounds into nerve impulses, and how the brain maps sounds, and made other key discoveries with regards to the amazing complexity of the ear. He also invented a device called a signiscope. Zweig was a professor at Caltech for over three decades. Nominated for a Nobel Prize, he has yet to win one, though he has won multiple other prestigious science prizes.

A Jewish Take on the Classic Moral Problem of the Trolley

Words of the Week

The Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows: You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well… You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues… you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read.
– Michael Crichton