Jeffrey Alan Hoffman (b. 1944) was born in Brooklyn. He was always fascinated by outer space, and went to study astronomy at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Hoffman went on to get a PhD in astrophysics from Harvard, researching cosmic x-rays and gamma rays. He built one of the first aerial gamma ray telescopes. After this, he did postdoctoral work in the UK, eventually working as a project scientist for the European Space Agency. In 1975, Hoffman returned to the US to work at MIT. His main area of focus was x-ray bursts, and he authored over 20 papers on the subject, becoming the world expert on it. One time, he heard his wife reading a passage in a book saying that there will never be a Jewish astronaut. This inspired Hoffman to pursue just that, and he applied to NASA. In 1978, he was selected for NASA’s astronaut training program, together with Judith Resnik. The two became NASA’s first Jewish astronauts. Hoffman went on his first mission in 1985 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, during which the crew deployed two satellites and conducted numerous scientific experiments. At this point, Hoffman became just the second Jewish man in space (following Russian cosmonaut Boris Volynov). During his fourth trip to space, Hoffman was responsible for repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. Before that flight, his rabbi asked him if he would take some Judaica with him, and Hoffman happily agreed. He took a mezuzah—which he affixed to his cabin with Velcro—a tallit, as well as a dreidel and mobile menorah, since it was during Chanukah. (Click here to see Hoffman spin a dreidel in space!) On another flight, Hoffman took a Torah with him and made sure to read it while flying over Jerusalem. During his last mission in 1996, Hoffman set a new record, becoming the first astronaut to spend 1000 hours aboard space shuttles. All in all, he spent more than 50 days in space, and logged over 21 million space miles travelled. Since retiring as an astronaut, he has been teaching as a professor at MIT, and visiting professor at the University of Leicester. He has also written a book called An Astronaut’s Diary.
…Science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. – Albert Einstein
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
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) The world’s most famous biophysicist was born into a wealthy Jewish-British family, well-known for their roles in founding the Jewish state and helping Jews flee from the Nazis. Her great-uncle, Herbert Samuel, was the first observant Jew in history to serve in the British government, and carried the title “Viscount”. From an early age, Franklin was noted for her talent in scientific exploration. Combining her knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics, she was able to produce the highest quality images of DNA and RNA, evidence used by Watson and Crick to deduce DNA’s structure, a breakthrough moment for science. Additionally, she discovered DNA’s two forms (A and B), designed an ingenious method to separate them, and unraveled the mysteries of TM virus. Likely due to high doses of radiation, Franklin battled at least three different types of cancers. But this wouldn’t slow her down. She continued working, publishing 13 papers and serving on the team that developed the vaccine for polio. Unfortunately, she succumbed to her illnesses at a very early age, and was unable to claim her Nobel prize (which is not awarded posthumously). She would become an icon of feminism, breaking the barriers of the then male-dominated world of science. Franklin’s work has been described as “the most beautiful x-ray photographs of any substance ever taken”.
Words of the Week
A person is obligated to say: The entire world was created for me. – Talmud, Kiddushin 82b