Tag Archives: Philadelphia

Jew of the Week: Dan Bricklin

“Father of the Spreadsheet”

Daniel Singer Bricklin (b. 1951) was born in Philadelphia and studied at its Akiba Hebrew Academy. He graduated from MIT in 1973 with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. His first job was working at a tech company called DEC, replacing typewriters with computers for newspaper companies. He then became DEC’s project leader on its development of the first word-processing software. After a few years, Bricklin moved on to work at FasFax, designing some of the first electronic cash registers for fast food companies. In 1979, he got an MBA from the Harvard Business School. During his studies there, fed up with repetitive and tedious calculations, Bricklin came up with an idea for an electronic spreadsheet. Teaming up with his friend, the two put together a new program called VisiCalc for the Apple II computer. This was the first spreadsheet software ever made, and the foundation for future spreadsheet programs like Excel. In fact, it was VisiCalc that transformed the computer from a mysterious device reserved for techies to a practical tool used by mainstream businesses and consumers. VisiCalc skyrocketed sales of the Apple II, leading Steve Jobs to admit that it “propelled the success of Apple… more than any other single event… If VisiCalc had been written for some other computer, you’d be interviewing somebody else right now.” A New York Times article at the time wrote humorously, but accurately: “All Hail VisiCalc.” For this, Bricklin was awarded the prestigious Grace Murray Hopper Award, among many others. Since then, Bricklin has started a number of other successful tech and software companies, and is currently the president of Software Garden, and the CTO of Alpha Software. He has also published a book, and has been featured in two documentaries. Watch Bricklin’s short and fascinating TED talk here.

Words of the Week

In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence… Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors.
– Isaac Newton

Jew of the Week: Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory (Credit: Carnegie Institution)

Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory (Credit: Carnegie Institution)

Vera Cooper (1928-2016) was born in Philadelphia. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe (who changed their last name from Kobchefski to Cooper). From the young age of just 10, Cooper was interested in astronomy, and was later the only woman studying the subject in her college. She intended to continue graduate studies at Princeton but was forbidden because of her gender. Cooper went to Cornell University instead and studied astrophysics and quantum physics. There she also met her husband, Robert Rubin, who was pursuing graduate studies in chemistry. The two had four children, all of whom became Ph.D scientists and mathematicians. Rubin completed her Master’s in 1951 and went to Georgetown University for her doctorate. Around this time, she discovered that whole galaxies are rotating around their centres – an idea so revolutionary that it was initially rejected. Her 1954 Ph.D thesis was similarly revolutionary, showing that galaxies must be clumped in clusters. No one paid attention to this work for another two decades, when it was confirmed to be true. In 1965, Rubin was the first woman allowed to use Caltech’s famous Palomar Observatory. She then became a Senior Fellow at Washington’s Carnegie Institution, where her research was focused on “galactic and extragalactic dynamics”, among other things. Rubin made critical calculations with regards to galactic rotation rates, and together with her friend Robert Ford, discovered what is now known as the Rubin-Ford effect. In her studies, she found that galaxies are spinning so fast that they should be flying apart. They do not fly apart because gravity keeps them together. But, there is not enough visible matter in galaxies to generate so much gravity! This led Rubin to confirm the existence of invisible dark matter. This was perhaps her biggest breakthrough, and completely transformed astrophysics. For her tremendous achievements, Rubin has won multiple awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Royal Astronomical Society’s prestigious Gold Medal. There is also an asteroid named after her. Sadly, Rubin passed away earlier this week. Despite being 88 years old, Rubin continued her scientific research (focusing on the motion of distant stars) until the last days of her life. She was a pioneer for women in science, and worked tirelessly to get more women elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Rubin was proud of her Jewish heritage, and often spoke of the beauty and value of science and religion when studied together. In addition to half a dozen important scientific publications, Rubin wrote a book, and was featured in two documentaries. She was once described as an American “national treasure”.

Words of the Week

The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.
– Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist

Jew of the Week: Jonas Phillips

Revolutionary War Hero

phillipsJonas Phillips (1736-1803) was born in Germany to an observant, Yiddish-speaking family. When he was 21, Jonah set forth for the New World. He first made his way to London, anglicizing his father’s name “Phaibush” to “Phillips”. There, he sold himself into indentured servitude in order to pay for his passage to America. After working several years on an indigo plantation, Phillips earned his freedom and moved to New York to work as a merchant. He became a wealthy man and married a prominent Sephardic Jewish woman, with whom he would have 21 children. Unfortunately, Phillips lost much of his wealth because of British restrictions on commerce. Not surprisingly, Phillips became a strong supporter of the American Revolutionary War, and joined the Philadelphia Militia. He fought valiantly, and earned a reputation as an American war hero. In 1787, he took part in the Constitutional Convention that drafted the United States Constitution. He played a key role in ensuring that the Constitution would protect people’s religious freedoms, and give equal civil rights to all citizens. Meanwhile, Phillips was a founding father of one of America’s oldest synagogues, Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel. One of his grandsons became the Chief Justice of South Carolina’s Supreme Court, while another was America’s first Jewish commodore in the US Navy, and also a famous war hero. His great-grandson was a governor of South Carolina.

Words of the Week

Brothers, half of the Palestinians are Egyptians and the other half are Saudis. Who are the Palestinians? Egyptian! They may be from Alexandria, from Cairo, from Dumietta, from the North, from Aswan, from Upper Egypt. We are Egyptians. We are Arabs.
— Hamas Minister Fathi Hammad on Al-Hekma TV (Egypt), March 23, 2012 (Click here to watch)