Tag Archives: Mathematics

Jew of the Week: Max Born

Germany’s Greatest Physicist

Max Born (1882-1970) was born in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) to a German-Jewish family. He first studied at the University of Breslau, then switched to the University of Gottingen where he met renowned mathematician (and former Jew of the Week) Hermann Minkowski, who became one of his mentors. After earning his Ph.D, Born continued his studies at Cambridge. He soon returned to Gottingen to work with Minkowski on unifying electrodynamics with Albert Einstein’s relativity. Over the next few years, Born published 27 important papers that made him a superstar in the world of physics and math. During this time, he met his wife and was pressured to convert to Lutheranism to marry her. He refused. However, in 1914 he received a letter from Max Planck inviting him to become a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin—and to accept this position he would have to become a Christian, since professorships were still barred to Jews. Born ended up “converting” nominally for this reason. With the outbreak of World War I, Born joined a military research unit. During the war, he became best friends with Albert Einstein (who once described Born as the greatest physicist in all of Germany), and also briefly worked with Fritz Haber in discovering the Born-Haber cycle. Born would return to Gottingen, where Werner Heisenberg was one of his main students. Together, they did important work in advancing quantum mechanics. In 1932, Heisenberg won a Nobel Prize for his discoveries in quantum physics, but he protested that Born didn’t receive the prize with him. Another two of Born’s students went on to win Nobel Prizes in physics before he did. (It was only in 1954, two years after retirement, that Born received a Nobel Prize of his own!) Another of his Ph.D students was J. Robert Oppenheimer, later the “father of the atomic bomb”. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Born was suspended from his job because he was a Jew. He moved to Cambridge temporarily and there wrote a bestselling physics book, as well as a textbook that became the standard for physics students for many decades to come. He then became professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Meanwhile, Born and his wife helped Jewish refugees escape Germany and settle in the UK. After retiring at the age of 70, Born returned to Germany and lived out the rest of his life there. One of his grandchildren is actress and singer Olivia Newton-John, who passed away last week.

Words of the Week

The difference between science and Torah is in the fundamental concept that science does not demand any behaviour. One can be the greatest scientist in the world and behave like the most degraded human, like the Nazis, who achieved the greatest scientific findings while manifesting the most degenerate behaviour…
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Emmy Noether

Greatest Mathematician of All Time

Amalie Emmy Noether (1882-1935) was born in Bavaria, Germany to a wealthy Jewish family, the eldest daughter of renowned mathematician Max Noether. She enjoyed learning languages and eventually passed a test allowing her to teach English and French. Instead, she decided to further her studies at the University of Erlangen. Female students were not allowed, but Noether was given permission to audit lectures along with one other woman. In 1903, restrictions were eased and Noether passed the graduation exam, after which she enrolled at the University of Gottingen to study astronomy and mathematics. She returned to Erlangen and taught math for seven years—without pay! During this time, she published several ground-breaking papers. In 1915, Noether was invited back to Gottingen, and when an uproar arose about how men could be subjected to learn “at the feet of a woman”, the university responded: “We are a university, not a bathhouse.” In 1918, Noether silenced critics by proving what is now called Noether’s Theorem, which was said to be “one of the most important mathematical theorems ever proved in guiding the development of modern physics, possibly on a par with the Pythagorean theorem”. The following year, she was granted tenure, and then a professorship. Among her many revolutionary achievements, Noether is most famous for mathematical rings, chain conditions, and abstract algebra—which some say is her greatest contribution to math and science. Thanks to Noether and the brilliant minds she attracted and taught, the University of Gottingen became the pre-eminent math institution in the world. She supervised the work of a dozen graduate students who became world-famous mathematicians in their own right. Noether was famous for living simply and modestly, not caring at all about her appearance, talking quickly, and teaching freely with no lesson plans. In 1932, she received the prestigious Ackermann–Teubner Memorial Award for math. The following year, the Nazis came to power and she was fired from her position. Undeterred, Noether continued to teach from her apartment. Soon, the Rockefeller Foundation arranged for her a position in the United States, and Noether went on to teach at Bryn Mawr College, as well as at Princeton (alongside fellow Jewish refugee Albert Einstein). Tragically, Noether passed away suddenly after surgery to remove an ovarian tumour. She was eulogized as “the greatest woman mathematician who has ever lived; and the greatest woman scientist of any sort…” There are numerous awards, concepts, streets and schools named after her around the world (including a math institute at Bar-Ilan University in Israel), as well as a satellite, a crater on the moon, and even a distant planet.

Words of the Week

A day will come in which the masses will be so tolerant, that the intelligent people will be forbidden to think in order not to threaten the stupid.
– Fyodor Dostoevsky

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