Tag Archives: CERN

Jews of the Week: Lederman and Ashkin

Two 96-Year Old Nobel Prize Winners

Leon Lederman in 1988

Leon Max Lederman (1922-2018) was born in New York to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants. After serving in World War II, he returned to work on a PhD in physics at Columbia University. He would become a distinguished physics professor there before taking a leave to join the world-renowned CERN in Switzerland. There, he discovered the muon neutrino in 1962. For this, as well as developing the “neutrino beam method”, he would later win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Lederman also discovered the bottom quark. In 1979, Lederman became the director of the prestigious Fermilab, running the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. After retiring in 1989, he was an occasional teacher at the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology. He was also president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1993 he published his bestselling book, The God Particle (coining that now-famous term). Lederman won countless awards and inspired a generation of physicists. Sadly, he was diagnosed with dementia, and the illness took a toll on both his health and his finances. He was forced to sell his Nobel Prize gold medal in order to pay for his medical bills. He passed away last week, at age 96.

Arthur Ashkin

Another 96-year old Jewish scientist who made headlines last week is Arthur Ashkin (b. 1922). He won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of optical tweezers. Like Lederman, Ashkin was born in New York to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, and also attended Columbia University. During World War II, he was asked to stay in his lab to build magnetrons for US Army radars. After earning his PhD in nuclear physics at Cornell, Ashkin was hired by Bell Labs. He first worked on microwave technology, then moved on to lasers. After some two decades of work, Ashkin created a working optical tweezer, described as “an old dream of science fiction”. This allows tiny things like atoms, viruses, and cells to be grabbed, moved and manipulated. Today, it is an indispensable tool for countless research facilities around the world. Ashkin also co-discovered the photorefractive effect, and holds a whopping 47 patents. In addition to his many awards, he has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His Nobel at age 96 makes him the oldest person ever to win the prize.

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Words of the Week

An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that, in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle.
– Francis Crick, Nobel Prize-winning biologist

Jew of the Week: Niels Bohr

Niels Henrik David Bohr (1885-1962) was born in Copenhagen. His mother was from a prominent Jewish-Danish family, and he was partly named after his grandfather, David Baruch Adler, an influential banker and parliamentarian. Bohr’s father was a famous physiology professor, who rejected his Lutheran roots in favour of atheism. (Bohr himself would later renounce any association with the Church of Denmark.) At 20, Bohr won a gold medal from the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences for his work on water viscosity and surface tension. He went on to earn a Master’s in mathematics and a Ph.D in physics. Bohr combined Rutherford’s ideas on the atom with Planck’s quantum theories to produce a revolutionary new atomic model, known as the Bohr model. This model finally made sense of the mysterious properties of atoms, and solved a major hurdle that baffled scientists for over 30 years. The discovery would earn Bohr a Nobel Prize in Physics. By 1917, Bohr was the Chair of Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen, and sought to establish a new centre for physics research. Bohr got the government on board, and after receiving large donations from wealthy Danish Jews (together with the Carlsberg brewery), founded the Institute of Theoretical Physics – now known as the Niels Bohr Institute. There, his students discovered the 72nd element of the Periodic Table – whose existence Bohr had proposed – and named it Hafnium, the Latin name for Copenhagen. When the Nazis came to power, Bohr opened the doors of his institute to fleeing Jewish scientists. Denmark itself would soon be under Nazi control. In 1943, Bohr was informed that he would be arrested since, despite his mixed ancestry, he was considered a Jew according to the Nuremberg Laws. Bohr fled to Sweden, where he met with Swedish King Gustaf V to convince him to open Sweden’s doors to Jewish refugees. Bohr succeeded, and over 7000 Danish Jews were rescued and given asylum in Sweden. He then headed to England, where he assisted the war effort through the British “Tube Alloys” weapons project, before heading to the US to advise the Manhattan Project. Although he claimed his help was not needed to make the first nuclear bomb, others have admitted that he solved an important puzzle that made it happen. Bohr campaigned against the use of nuclear weapons for the rest of his life. It was his vision that resulted in the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors the use of nuclear power. Bohr went on to become the President of the Royal Danish Academy of Arts and Sciences. He chaired the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics, and played a central role in the founding of the world-famous CERN research organization. In addition to his monumental work in quantum physics, Bohr was a noted philosopher. Along with countless other awards, Bohr was bestowed the Order of the Elephant, the highest honour in Denmark (usually reserved only for royalty and heads of state), and is on the Danish 500-krone bill. He is one of just a handful of people who has an element on the Periodic Table named after him (bohrium).

Words of the Week

The institution of ‘retirement’, which pushes million of men and women to the sidelines of society each year, is a tragic waste of human life and resources.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, The Lubavitcher Rebbe

Bohr on the Danish 500 krone bill