Tag Archives: National Academy of Sciences

Jew of the Week: Lynn Margulis

The Rebel Evolutionist

Lynn Petra Alexander (1938-2011) was born in Chicago to a prominent Jewish (and passionately-Zionist) family. She got accepted to the University of Chicago when she was just 15 years old, and graduated with a BA four years later. That same year, she married (former Jew of the Week) Carl Sagan, then on his way to becoming a world-renowned scientist himself. She then went to the University of Wisconsin and earned her Master’s in genetics and zoology, followed by a PhD from UC Berkeley. Around that time, she divorced Carl Sagan and later married another scientist, Thomas Margulis. Although she divorced him as well, she kept the last name and is best known today as Lynn Margulis. In 1966, she became a biology professor at the University of Boston and remained there until 1988, when she became Distinguished Professor of Biology and Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts. Her 1967 paper “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells” was initially rejected by fifteen journals and stirred a great deal of controversy before being confirmed experimentally in 1978. Much of her research (and the opposition to it) was based on demonstrating major flaws within Darwin’s evolutionary theory. She would say that “Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create.” Margulis offered one hypothesis of her own, endosymbiosis, now a widely-accepted theory in biology and a key mechanism of evolution. Margulis also co-authored the first paper on the now-famous Gaia hypothesis regarding the intricate interactions between living things and the planet. Margulis worked tirelessly to the last days of her life. She co-authored another big (and controversial) paper in 2009—at the age of 71! Margulis has been called a “scientific rebel” and won countless awards, including a National Medal of Science from President Bill Clinton and a NASA Public Service Award for Astrobiology. She also has 15 honourary doctorates and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 2002, she was ranked among the 50 most important women in science.

Words of the Week

We never judge a statement by its author, but only on its own merit.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746), Derekh Tevunot 

Jew of the Week: Yuval Ne’eman

Quantum Physicist and IDF Commander

Yuval Ne’eman

Yuval Ne’eman (1925-2006) was born in Tel-Aviv. His grandfather Aba Ne’eman had made aliyah to Yaffo from Lithuania as an eighteen year old, and was later among the first 66 families which settled and co-founded the city of Tel-Aviv. His grandfather also set up the city’s first electrical generator, and built some of its first factories. This may be what inspired Yuval to study mechanical engineering. He enrolled at Technion at age 15. At the same time, he joined the Haganah, and would fight valiantly in Israel’s Independence War, rising to the rank of commander of the Givati Brigade. Having spent several years living in Egypt with his parents as a child, Ne’eman spoke Arabic fluently and served as a liaison to Israel’s Mizrachi Jews, helping to settle them in the new country. In the mid-1950s, Ne’eman played a key role in the IDF’s operational command, developed its reverse mobilization system, and wrote Israel’s first defense doctrine. Meanwhile, he joined Israel’s Nuclear Energy Commission and oversaw the development of Israel’s nuclear capabilities. While serving as IDF attaché in London, he earned his PhD in physics. The following year he published his classification system for hadrons, laying the foundation for the quark model of quantum physics (proposed by recent Jews of the Week Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig). Ne’eman returned to Israel in 1961 to direct the Soreq Nuclear Research Centre, one of the most important R&D facilities in Israel. He retired from the IDF with the rank of colonel, and founded Tel Aviv University’s School of Physics and Astronomy in 1965. Ne’eman directed it for the next seven years, then became president of he whole university. After this, he directed its Sackler Institute of Advanced Studies for nearly two decades. Ne’eman also co-directed the Center for Particle Theory at the University of Texas in Austin. A big believer in space exploration, he founded the Israel Space Agency in 1983 and chaired it until his death. He was chief scientist of Israel’s Defense Ministry in the 1970s, which opened the door for him to enter politics. Ne’eman founded the right-wing Tehiya party in response to Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. He was elected to the Knesset in 1981 and became the country’s first Minister of Science and Technology. He continued to serve in the Knesset for over a decade. Among his many awards are the Israel Prize, the Wigner Medal, and the Albert Einstein Prize. He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Ne’eman wrote a layman’s book on quantum physics called The Particle Hunters, which has been described as “the best guide to quantum physics at present available.”

Words of the Week

… Most of my people think as I do, but they’re afraid to say so… we suffer because of our Arab brothers, but we are also dependent on them. It’s a bizarre situation because the Arab countries don’t really care what happens to the Palestinian people. The only assistance that we have ever received from any country was from the ‘Zionist enemy.’
Muhammad Zahrab, Palestinian Arab scholar 

Jew of the Week: Arno Penzias

Arno Allan Penzias (b. 1933) was born in Munich. As a six year old, he was evacuated from Nazi Germany through the British Kindertransport rescue operation which saved 10,000 Jewish children. He was later reunited with his parents, who brought the family to New York. Penzias grew up in Brooklyn and went on to study physics. He graduated among the top of his class, then served two years in the US Army as a radar officer. From there, he got a research position at Columbia University’s Radiation Lab, where he helped to develop the maser (a “microwave laser”). After earning a Ph.D in physics from Columbia, Penzias got a job at Bell Labs to do astronomy research with microwave receivers. He was soon joined by Robert Wilson. The two noticed their antenna picking up an inexplicable signal. After ruling out all forms of interference, and carefully cleaning the antenna, the weak signal persisted. The two collaborated with another physicist, Robert Dicke, to show that this signal was the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, the remnants of the universe’s birth, as predicted by the Big Bang Theory. The existence of CMB confirmed that the universe had a beginning, with a burst of radiation, and simultaneously confirmed ancient Jewish teachings about the universe’s origins. The Zohar, a famous mystical commentary on the Torah that was first published some 700 years ago, explains that the universe began with a nikuda hada d’zohar, a singular point of radiance, from which all things were formed. The Zohar explains that this ever-expanding radiance continues to fill the universe, based on the words in the Biblical Book of Daniel (12:3) which describes the “radiance of the firmament”. In fact, this is how the book got its name, Zohar meaning “radiance”. Penzias’ and Wilson’s monumental discovery brought about a beautiful harmony between Torah and science, at once confirming both the modern Big Bang Theory and the holy words of the ancient Jewish Sages. The two physicists won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics. Penzias continued his work at Bell Labs for a total of 37 years, rising to the position of Vice President of Research. He was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences. Penzias later moved to Silicon Valley to advise venture capitalists and tech start-ups. Despite being in his 80s, he is still a venture partner at New Enterprise Associates, and says he has “no plants to retire”.

Words of the Week

Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.
– Arno Penzias

Penzias and Wilson at the antenna where they made their famous discovery