Tag Archives: Nuclear Physics

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: Lise Meitner

The Mother of the Atomic Bomb

Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was born in Vienna, the daughter of the first Jewish lawyer in Austria. Meitner showed an early interest in nuclear physics, working alongside such greats as Max Planck and Neils Bohr. Following World War I (in which she served as an x-ray nurse), Meitner discovered the famous “Auger effect”, but all the recognition was taken from her and given to Pierre Auger, hence the name. Soon after, she became the first-ever female professor of physics in Germany, but it did not last. Meitner was forced to flee from the Nazis. Over the course of her career, she helped discover many new elements of the periodic table, but by far her greatest achievement was the discovery of nuclear fission. Meitner was the first to show a nuclear chain reaction can release tremendous amounts of energy, the basis for nuclear bombs (and power plants). This inspired celebrity genius Albert Einstein to write a letter to President Roosevelt, initiating the Manhattan Project. Meitner was asked to work on the Project, but she refused with the words: “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!” Nonetheless, she is often called the Mother of the Atomic Bomb. Unbelievably, she was slighted once again when the Nobel prize for nuclear fission was given to Otto Hahn. If it is any consolation, the element Meitnerium (Mt, number 109) is named after her. November 17 was her birthday.

Words of the Week

When something is broken below, repair it above. And know that it is never truly repaired above until it is in order below.
– The Chassidic Masters

 

Jew of the Week is One Year Old! See the Jew that started it all…