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.
…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
Moshe Kai Cavalin (b. 1998) was born in Los Angeles, the son of a Taiwanese mother and an Israeli-Brazilian father. He started speaking at 4 months of age, and was reading and doing math by 3. At 6, he was rejected from elementary school because he “knew more than the teacher”, and had to be home-schooled. At 8, he became the youngest person in American history to take college classes. He got his first degree three years later, with a perfect 4.0 GPA. He then enrolled at UCLA – with a full scholarship – and earned a BS in mathematics. Meanwhile, Kai wrote two bestselling books (an inspirational autobiography, and a manual to deal with bullying). For fun, he scuba dives, plays piano, and chess, and avoids video games which, he says, are “not helping humanity in any way.” He is also an avid martial artist – thanks to his father, a former IDF special forces commando – and has won 26 gold medals. Incredibly, Kai got a pilot’s license, too. This led to a phone call from NASA in 2015. NASA needed a pilot who also knew math, physics, and computer programming to develop surveillance and anti-collision technology for drones and airplanes. Kai has been at NASA ever since, working hard to keep the skies safe. He is concurrently doing his Master’s in cybersecurity, and intends to later get a Master’s in business from MIT before opening his own cybersecurity company. Kai describes himself as a religious person and often credits God with giving him the insight to solve problems. One of his professors once said: “I think most people just think he’s a genius, they believe it just comes naturally… He actually worked harder than, I think, any other student I’ve ever had.”
Words of the Week
Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
– Albert Einstein
Kai at age 10 with his menorah; and more recently with his martial arts trophies
Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory (Credit: Carnegie Institution)
Vera Cooper (1928-2016) was born in Philadelphia. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe (who changed their last name from Kobchefski to Cooper). From the young age of just 10, Cooper was interested in astronomy, and was later the only woman studying the subject in her college. She intended to continue graduate studies at Princeton but was forbidden because of her gender. Cooper went to Cornell University instead and studied astrophysics and quantum physics. There she also met her husband, Robert Rubin, who was pursuing graduate studies in chemistry. The two had four children, all of whom became Ph.D scientists and mathematicians. Rubin completed her Master’s in 1951 and went to Georgetown University for her doctorate. Around this time, she discovered that whole galaxies are rotating around their centres – an idea so revolutionary that it was initially rejected. Her 1954 Ph.D thesis was similarly revolutionary, showing that galaxies must be clumped in clusters. No one paid attention to this work for another two decades, when it was confirmed to be true. In 1965, Rubin was the first woman allowed to use Caltech’s famous Palomar Observatory. She then became a Senior Fellow at Washington’s Carnegie Institution, where her research was focused on “galactic and extragalactic dynamics”, among other things. Rubin made critical calculations with regards to galactic rotation rates, and together with her friend Robert Ford, discovered what is now known as the Rubin-Ford effect. In her studies, she found that galaxies are spinning so fast that they should be flying apart. They do not fly apart because gravity keeps them together. But, there is not enough visible matter in galaxies to generate so much gravity! This led Rubin to confirm the existence of invisible dark matter. This was perhaps her biggest breakthrough, and completely transformed astrophysics. For her tremendous achievements, Rubin has won multiple awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Royal Astronomical Society’s prestigious Gold Medal. There is also an asteroid named after her. Sadly, Rubin passed away earlier this week. Despite being 88 years old, Rubin continued her scientific research (focusing on the motion of distant stars) until the last days of her life. She was a pioneer for women in science, and worked tirelessly to get more women elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Rubin was proud of her Jewish heritage, and often spoke of the beauty and value of science and religion when studied together. In addition to half a dozen important scientific publications, Rubin wrote a book, and was featured in two documentaries. She was once described as an American “national treasure”.
Words of the Week
The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you. – Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist