Category Archives: Science & Technology

Jews in the World of Science and Technology

Jew of the Week: Victor Goldschmidt

Father of Geochemistry

Victor Moritz Goldschmidt (1888-1947) was born in Switzerland, the son of a Jewish-Austrian chemist. The family moved to Norway in 1901 and Goldschmidt went on to study chemistry and geology at what would become the University of Oslo. He got his Ph.D at just 23 years of age, and won a prestigious award for his dissertation. That same year he became an associate professor. In 1929, Goldschmidt became the chair of minerology at the University of Göttingen, but resigned six years later to protest anti-Semitism, returning to Oslo. One of his key discoveries was the mineralogical phase rule, followed by a longer list of the Geochemical Laws of the Distribution of Elements. For this ground-breaking work (and for literally writing the first textbook on geochemistry), he has been called the “Father of Geochemistry”. By 1942, the Nazis had occupied Norway and arrested Goldschmidt. He was taken to the Berg concentration camp where he fell severely ill. He was about to be deported to Auschwitz when a group of colleagues intervened and convinced the Nazis that his scientific knowledge would be useful to them. Goldschmidt was eventually able to escape to Sweden, and from there he was smuggled to England by a British intelligence unit. He assisted the British war effort, was elected to the Royal Society, and continued his work at the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research. He would return to Norway following the war, but died soon after. Goldschmidt received many awards, including being knighted by the king of Norway. The region of Goldschmidtfjella in Norway is named after him, as is the mineral goldschmidtite (KNbO3).

Words of the Week

The fact that the universe had a beginning, that it obeys orderly laws that can be expressed precisely with mathematics, and the existence of a remarkable series of “coincidences” that allow the laws of nature to support life – do not tell us much about what kind of God must be behind it all, but they do point toward an intelligent mind that could lie behind such precise and elegant principles.
– Renowned biologist Francis CollinsThe Language of God

Jews of the Week: The Minkowskis

Three Renowned Scientists

Hermann Minkowski

Hermann Minkowski (1864-1909) was born in what is now Lithuania, then part of Russia, and previously a part of Poland, to a wealthy Jewish family. His father was a merchant who paid for the construction of the famous Kovno Synagogue. In 1872, the Minkowskis fled the persecutions of the Russian Empire and settled in Germany. Hermann Minkowski went on to study mathematics and physics. In 1883 he won the Mathematics Prize of the French Academy of Sciences. He got his PhD two years later and taught at the Universities of Bonn, Konigsberg, Gottingen, and Zurich (where he was Albert Einstein’s teacher). Minkowski solved a number of big math problems, and actually improved upon Einstein’s theory of relativity, coming up with what is now called “Minkowski space-time”. He gave the mathematical proof for unifying space and time into a singular space-time continuum. Sadly, Minkowski met an untimely death at a young age from sudden appendicitis.

Oskar Minkowksi

His older brother was Oskar Minkowski (1858-1931), who studied biology and medicine. He went on to become a professor at the University of Breslau. (Since Jews were barred from holding such positions at the time, Minkowski had to nominally convert to Christianity.) In 1889, Minkowski did a number of operations on dogs and showed the link between the pancreas and diabetes. Together with Josef von Mering, Minkowski discovered how the pancreas controlled blood sugar levels, which later led to the discovery of insulin. Today, the Minkowski Prize is awarded each year for breakthroughs in diabetes research. His son was Rudolph Minkowski (1895-1976), who studied astronomy. He did important work dealing with supernovae, and later became the head of the famed Palomar Observatory, where he discovered a number of asteroids and nebulae. He also made important contributions in astrophysics, and won the Bruce Medal in 1961 for outstanding lifetime achievement in the field. The Minkowski Crater on the moon is named after him.

Can Jewish Homes Have Christmas Trees?

Words of the Week

In God there is no time or beginning to start, for He always existed and is
everlasting and in Him there is no beginning or end at all.
Rabbi Chaim VitalEtz Chaim

Jew of the Week: Claudia Sheinbaum

Mayor of Mexico City

Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo (b. 1962) was born in Mexico City to a family of Jewish immigrants. Her father is an Ashkenazi Jew of Lithuanian heritage, while her mother is a Sephardic Jew from Bulgaria. Both of her parents were respected scientists, and Sheinbaum followed in their footsteps. She studied physics and went on to earn a Ph.D in energy engineering. She did research at a US Department of Energy lab in California. In 1995, Sheinbaum became a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. A few years later, she won the prize for “young researcher in engineering and technological innovation”. Sheinbaum soon became a leading expert on climate change and the environment. She has published over 100 scientific papers and two books. In 2000, she was appointed Mexico City’s Secretary of the Environment, and served in the role for the next six years. Following this, she joined the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and did important work for the organization that helped it win the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2015, Sheinbaum became the mayor of Tlalpan, one of Mexico City’s 16 boroughs. Soon after, she was nominated for mayor of all of Mexico City, and won a six-year term in 2018, easily beating out six other candidates in a landslide. Sheinbaum became the city’s first-ever Jewish mayor, and its first elected female mayor, too. Since then, she has been praised for her work in managing North America’s largest city. She has made significant strides in cleaning it up and reducing waste, fighting corruption, modernizing the transportation system, and upgrading sanitation. She has also been commended for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this year, she was nominated for the World Mayor prize, awarded biennially to the best city leaders on the globe. Some are already predicting her to be a strong candidate for the 2024 Mexican presidential election. Sheinbaum was included in the BBC’s 100 Women, and was recently ranked among the world’s 50 Most Influential Jews.

Words of the Week

When I find the road narrow, and can see no other way of teaching a well-established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing ten thousand fools, I prefer to address myself to the one man, and to take no notice of the condemnation of the multitude.
– Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204), “Maimonides”, Guide for the Perplexed