Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

Jew of the Week: Daniel Kahneman

In Memory of a Nobel Prize-Winning Researcher

Daniel Kahneman (1934-2024) was born in Tel-Aviv to Lithuanian Jews who made aliyah from France. His uncle, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, was the head of the famed Ponevezh Yeshiva. Kahneman spent much of his youth in Paris—including during the Holocaust years under the Vichy regime—before returning to Israel in 1948. He studied psychology and mathematics at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, and later became a psychologist for the IDF, where he developed the standard recruitment interview. Kahneman then moved to the United States to study at UC Berkeley, and earned a Ph.D in psychology in 1961. He returned to Jerusalem to teach at Hebrew University, and was also a visiting professor at the University of Michigan and at Harvard. He researched a variety of fascinating subjects in cognitive psychology, including attention, judgement, memory, biases, happiness, and decision-making. His key conclusion was that people are actually not rational decision-makers, and tend to make counterproductive choices based on biases and preconceived notions. His classic 1998 paper on the “focusing illusion” demonstrates how people tend to overestimate a single factor when predicting happiness. For instance, although studies showed that people across America had relatively the same levels of happiness, people would believe Californians are happier because they overestimated the effects of nice weather. Kahneman is perhaps most famous for his work in integrating psychology with economics, or “behavioural economics”, earning him the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. Over the course of his career, Kahneman also taught at Princeton, UC Berkeley, and the University of British Columbia. He wrote several bestselling books and was awarded numerous prizes and honorary degrees. Sadly, Kahneman passed away last week. He has been hailed as one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century.

Words of the Week

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.
– Marie Curie


From the Archives: In Memory of Joe Liberman

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: 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