Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

Jew of the Week: Richard Feynman

Revolutionary Physicist 

Richard Phillips Feynman (1918-1988) was born in Queens to Lithuanian Jewish immigrant parents. Before his birth, his father had decided that his son should be a scientist, and raised Feynman from an early age to question everything. Feynman did not speak his first word until he was three years old. In childhood, he loved to take things apart and even set up a lab in his home, hiring his little sister for 4 cents a week to be his assistant. (He would later inspire and encourage her to become a renowned astrophysicist in her own right.) At 15, he taught himself advanced algebra, calculus, and trigonometry. He applied to Columbia University but was rejected because the quota for Jewish students had been filled. Feynman went to MIT instead, first majoring in math, then electrical engineering, and finally physics. He published his first two papers as an undergrad, and his senior thesis (putting forth what would become the Hellmann-Feynman theorem) brought him a great deal of recognition in the scientific community. Feynman then applied to grad school at Princeton, and got an unprecedented perfect score on the physics exam. Again, he was initially brushed aside for being Jewish before the dean was convinced not to miss out on the young genius. (Feynman was admitted only on the condition that he wouldn’t get married!) At 23, he defended his Ph.D, and was already being compared to Einstein (he would win the Albert Einstein Award in 1954). Meanwhile, Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project, leading a team developing the isotron (to isolate uranium-235), then developing what’s now called the Bethe-Feynman formula for fission bomb yield. At Los Alamos, he was one of the “human computers”, and helped to develop better machinery for some of the world’s first digital computers. Towards the end, he spent time lecturing on the dangers of nuclear power, and put together a safety manual for uranium enrichment.

After the war, Feynman joined the faculty of Cornell University, and there developed his famous (and revolutionary) “Feynman diagrams” to solve and explain quantum problems more easily. After a sabbatical in Brazil, Feynman moved to Caltech, working on superconductivity, superfluidity, nuclear decay, and quantum gravity, among many other subjects. He is credited with being the first scientist to conceive of both nanotechnology and quantum computers. In the 1960s, he began writing books on physics, many of which went on to become bestsellers and university textbooks. In 1965, he won a Nobel Prize for his theory on quantum electrodynamics, and in 1979 won the National Medal of Science. Feynman became even more famous in 1986 when he lead the team that investigated the crash of the space shuttle Challenger. Feynman was voted by scientists as one of the 10 Greatest Physicists of All Time, and Bill Gates recently wrote an article (titled “The Best Teacher I Never Had”) about how it was Feynman that served as his greatest inspiration. Feynman was famous for his sense of humour and his rebellious nature. He rejected his religion (though at a later age encountered the Talmud and said it was “a wonderful book”), resisted his superiors (he was sought out by Niels Bohr because all the other physicists were too fearful to argue with the great Bohr), and even derided his Nobel Prize (saying the real prize was the scientific discovery). Feynman also loved biology and poetry, and was an avid painter and musician. Last Friday would have been his one hundredth birthday.

Words of the Week

As they set out from their place above, each soul is male and female as one. Only as they descend to this world do they part, each to its own side. And then it is the One Above who unites them again. This is His exclusive domain, for He alone knows which soul belongs to which and how they must reunite.

– Zohar (I, 85b)

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