Tag Archives: University of Berlin

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

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Rabbi Who Marched With Martin Luther King Jr.

Rabbi Heschel

Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1907-1972) was born in Poland to a long line of Hasidic rabbis from both his father’s and mother’s side. He was named after his ancestor, the Apter (or Apatower) Rebbe. After receiving semicha (rabbinic ordination) himself, Rabbi Heschel decided to pursue secular studies at the University of Berlin. (There he briefly crossed paths with three other future great rabbis: Yitzchak Hutner, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.) While earning his Ph.D in philosophy, Heschel also studied at Berlin’s Reform seminary and received a liberal rabbinic ordination to go along with his Orthodox one. Meanwhile, he was part of a Yiddish poetry club and published his own book of Yiddish poems in 1933. Heschel was arrested by the Gestapo in 1938 and deported back to Poland. He moved to London just six weeks before Poland was invaded by the Nazis. (His mother and three sisters perished in the Holocaust.) Heschel eventually settled in New York. He first worked at the (Reform) Hebrew Union College for five years before switching over to the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary. There he spent the rest of his career as a rabbi and professor of Jewish ethics and Jewish mysticism. Despite working at these institutions, Heschel never identified himself with any particular Jewish denomination, and was himself strictly Torah-observant. His discourses often weaved together Biblical, Kabbalistic, and Hasidic teachings. He especially focused on the ancient Hebrew prophets, and sought to revive their message in healing today’s world. Because of this, he was an active civil rights and peace activist. Heschel famously marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. Later that year, he presented King with the ‘Judaism and World Peace Award’. The two formed a very close friendship. Heschel also wrote numerous books, including five bestsellers. These books have been credited both with bringing countless Jews back to traditional observance, as well as opening up the study of Judaism to the wider world. Heschel worked hard to build bridges between Jews and gentiles. He represented the Jewish world at the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965, successfully getting the Catholics to formally abandon the belief that Jews were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion—and therefore that all Jews are “accursed”—and to remove all prayers derogatory to Jews. Heschel is considered one of the most influential Jews of the 20th century, and remains among the most widely read and studied Jewish philosophers and theologians. Today, the 18th of Tevet, is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.
– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) with Martin Luther King Jr. marching on Selma in 1965.

Jews of the Week: Edmund Landau and Lev Landau

Two Math Wizards

Edmund Landau

Edmund Georg Hermann Landau (1877-1938) was born in Berlin. As a young boy, he was recognized as a math prodigy, and earned his Ph.D from the University of Berlin by 22. He immediately received a teaching position at the university, where he taught for the next ten years. Meanwhile, Landau married the daughter of Nobel Prize winner (and past Jew of the WeekPaul Ehrlich. In 1812, Landau presented four complex math problems at the International Congress of Mathematicians. The problems remain unsolved to this day. After over a decade teaching at the University of Göttingen, Landau joined the new Hebrew University. He was a co-founder of its math department, and played a key role in the construction of its Mathematics Institute. He taught himself Hebrew so that he could present a novel math lecture at the University’s grand opening in 1925. Two years later, Landau and his family made aliyah. He taught at the Hebrew University for several years before returning to Göttingen. After being removed from his position by the Nazis, Landau settled back in Berlin and occasionally traveled outside Germany to teach. He died four years later. Landau is renowned for his work on distribution of prime numbers, and on what is now called Landau Prime Ideal Theorem. It was once said that “no one was ever more passionately devoted to mathematics than Landau.”

Lev Landau

Edmund Landau is not to be confused with another Jewish math prodigy, Lev Davidovich Landau (1908-1968). Born in Azerbaijan (then part of Russia), Lev Landau started university at 13, published his first paper at 18, and got his PhD in math by 26. He received a scholarship from the Soviet government as well as the Rockefeller Foundation to travel and study abroad. He was soon fluent in German, French, Danish, and English. Much of his time was spent working in the lab of Nobel Prize winner (and past Jew of the WeekNiels Bohr. After returning to the Soviet Union, Landau was put at the head of the physics department at Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology. He taught at the University of Kharkiv, and at the same time worked with his student Evgeny Lifshitz on a ten-volume textbook. The Course of Theoretical Physics is still one of the most popular graduate physics textbooks used today. In 1938, Landau was arrested for comparing Stalin to the Nazis. After the intervention of other physicists, he was freed. Ironically, he won the Stalin Prize in 1949 and again in 1953, for his work on building the first Soviet nuclear bomb. Landau is famous for, among many other things, his theory of superconductivity, theory of Fermi liquid, for plasma physics, quantum electrodynamics, and most of all for his theory of superfluidity, which won him a Nobel Prize in 1962. Unfortunately, he couldn’t personally collect the prize because he was in a severe car accident and spent two months in a coma. He ultimately died from his injuries in 1968. Several years before this, his students established the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics near Moscow. It is still one of the most prestigious physics labs in Russia. Landau was featured in the latest Google Doodle. There is a crater on the moon named after him.

The Torah: A Comprehensive Overview

Words of the Week

Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations… To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view.
– Max Planck

Google Doodle for January 22, 2019, the birthday of Lev Landau.