Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

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: 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