Tag Archives: National Medal of Science

Jew of the Week: Erwin Chargaff

Discovering DNA Structure

Erwin Chargaff (1905-2002) was born in what is now Chernivtsi, Ukraine (then part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire). His family was of the little-known Bukovinian Jewish community that blended elements of Ottoman, Romanian, Austrian, and Ukrainian culture and had a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardi heritage and practice. During World War I, the family moved to Vienna, where Chargaff went on to study chemistry. In 1925, he took a job as professor of organic chemistry at Yale University. He moved to the University of Berlin in 1930 to head the chemistry lab for the bacteriology and public health department. During this time, he made some important findings about bacterial membranes and lipids. When the Nazis came to power, Chargaff was forced to resign and fled to Paris. After spending a couple of years doing research at the Pasteur Institute, Chargaff returned to the States to become a professor at Columbia University for the next four decades. This is where he did some of his most famous work, including on the mechanism of blood clotting. His main focus, however, was on the chemistry of mysterious DNA. He soon discovered that DNA always contained equal amounts of the nitrogen bases adenine and thymine, and equal amounts of cytosine and guanine, suggesting that the two sets pair up. (This would become known as the first of “Chargaff’s Rules”.) His 1950 paper was instrumental in allowing Watson and Crick to solve the puzzle of DNA structure just a few years later. In fact, it was a conversation that Chargaff had with Watson and Crick in 1952 which led them to deduce DNA’s double-helix structure. Not surprisingly, Chargaff protested when Watson and Crick won a Nobel Prize while he was excluded. Chargaff did win many other prizes, including the Pasteur Medal, the Heineken Prize, and the National Medal of Science. After retiring from Columbia, he continued to do research at the Roosevelt Hospital until the age of 87! Chargaff was highly critical of genetic engineering and biotechnology, saying that it would inevitably be abused and lead to a “molecular Auschwitz”. (Many today would say he was right!) Chargaff is often considered one of the fathers of biochemistry, and “Chargaff’s Rules” are still a fundamental concept taught in biology classes today.

Lag b’Omer Begins Saturday Night!

The Hidden History of Lag b’Omer

Reincarnation in Judaism (Video)

Words of the Week

There are two nuclei that man should never have touched: the atomic nucleus and the cell nucleus. The technology of genetic engineering poses a greater threat to the world than the advent of nuclear technology.
– Erwin Chargaff

Jew of the Week: Milton Friedman

The Great Liberator

Milton Friedman (1912-2006) was born in Brooklyn to poor Jewish immigrants from what is today Ukraine (then part of Hungary). He graduated high school at just 15 and earned a big scholarship to Rutgers University. Initially wishing to be a mathematician, the Great Depression inspired Friedman to become an economist instead. After post-graduate studies at the University of Chicago, and a fellowship at Columbia University, Friedman headed to Washington to work as an economist for the government. To help pay for World War II, it was Friedman who introduced the payroll withholding tax system (“pay-as-you-earn”), where income taxes are deducted automatically from an employee’s paycheck. (Friedman later regretted it very much and said he wished it hadn’t been necessary.) He also spent much of the war working on weapons design and military statistics. He finally earned his Ph.D from Columbia after the war, following which he took a professorship at the University of Chicago, where he taught for the next 30 years. He wrote a popular weekly column for Newsweek, for which he won a prestigious award. His 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom was an international bestseller and made Friedman world-famous, while his A Monetary History of the United States became the standard textbook for understanding the Great Depression and the effects of monetary policy. Friedman argued passionately for a free-market economy and for the government to stay out of business. He proposed such important concepts as the permanent income hypothesis, the quantity theory of money, floating exchange rates, sequential sampling, and the natural rate of unemployment. He also argued for abolishing the Federal Reserve, whom he blamed for many economic ills. He was opposed to minimum wages and foresaw that they would actually lead to increases in unemployment. He is also credited with bringing an end to America’s military draft, transitioning the US military into an all-volunteer paid army. He believed conscription was unethical and prevented young men from choosing their own life path. Friedman later said abolishing the draft was his greatest and proudest accomplishment. Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976. After retiring from the University of Chicago the following year, he continued to do research in San Francisco, and also worked on a popular ten-part TV show called Free to Choose (the companion text of which was the bestselling nonfiction book of 1980). Friedman was an economic advisor to Ronald Reagan, and was called the “guru” of the Reagan administration. In 1988, he won a National Medal of Science and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Friedman stayed busy until his final days, and his last article for The Wall Street Journal was published a day after his death! He has been called “the Great Liberator” and has been compared to Adam Smith. The Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty is named after him. He is widely considered one of history’s most significant economists. Today was his yahrzeit.

The End of World War I and the Beginning of the Jewish State

Words of the Week

A society that aims for equality before liberty will end up with neither equality nor liberty.
Milton Friedman

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