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.
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.
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
Selman Abraham Waksman (1888-1973) was born near Kiev to Jewish-Russian parents. At 22, he immigrated to the U.S. and began his studies at Rutgers University, where he got a Masters in Science before getting his Ph.D. in biology at UC Berkeley. He then headed back to Rutgers to take over the soil microbiology lab, focusing on the study of soil organisms and decomposition. Building on the work of previous scientists, Waksman soon found that bacterial substances could be used to fight bacterial infections. He shifted his lab’s focus towards finding “antibiotics” – a term which he coined. Over the next couple of decades, his lab discovered a dozen antibiotic compounds.
Most important of these was streptomycin, discovered by Waksman’s student Albert Israel Schatz (1920-2005). Schatz also came from Jewish-Russian lineage and originally wanted to be a farmer. He studied soil microbiology, and after serving in a military hospital during World War II, decided to research treatments for tuberculosis. Working in Waksman’s lab, Schatz discovered and named “streptomycin”, which would become one of the most important antibiotics in history, and is still found on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. Schatz made no profit from his discovery, giving up his rights to the drug so that it could be distributed as widely and cheaply to as many people as possible. Unfortunately, he was never given the credit he deserved, with the Nobel prize going only to Waksman in 1952. Both biologists continued their contributions to science, and were decorated with many awards. Waksman also developed microbe-resistant paint for ships, enzyme-enhanced detergents, and a compound to prevent fungal infections of vineyards. He wrote over 400 papers and published 28 books. Meanwhile, Schatz campaigned against the fluoridation of water, proposed new theories for tooth decay and the extinction of dinosaurs, and published over 700 papers and 3 textbooks. Both were ultimately credited for streptomycin, which The New York Times ranked among the Top 10 discoveries of the 20th century.
Words of the Week
“Let there be light” means that all the world – even darkness – should become a source of light and wisdom. It is our job to reveal the hidden light – especially the light that you yourself hold.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson,the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Born in South Africa to poor immigrants from Russia, Tikvah Alper (1909-1995) showed a talent for maths and sciences at an early age. At age 20, she traveled to Berlin to work on her doctorate with former Jew of the WeekLise Meitner, where she published an award-winning paper on delta rays. Alper had a son who was born deaf, so she moved to the U.S. to study diligently from the best experts in the field, herself becoming a teacher for the deaf. Returning to South Africa, Alper was a professor at Witwatersrand University, where she became famous for championing black people’s rights, causing her to draw the ire of the government. For opposing apartheid, she lost her position at the National Physics Laboratory, and nearly lost her passport, too. Alper fled to Britain, where she worked for the remainder of her life in a radiobiology lab. It was there that she researched various brain-eating disorders and proposed a new mechanism of disease: an infectious protein. At the time, the idea was laughable, but it has since been proven and confirmed (now called a “prion”), especially after the mad cow disease scare. Alper’s book Cellular Radiobiology became the bible for radiobiologists. All of these things, as well as her iconic feminism, made her a heroic figure for many around the world, and her London home became a meeting place for the best and brightest in the field of radiobiology. Alper enjoyed sailing, and continued to travel the world well into her 80s.
A person’s main vitality lies in his intellect. One who is not using his intellect to its full potential is considered asleep. Many people who seem to be alive are in fact sleeping their lives away… – Rebbe Nachman of Breslov