Category Archives: Academics

Israeli team brings home the gold for debating

For the past three years Israel has won the World University Debating Championships for English as a second language. You can read more about it at JPost: http://www.jpost.com/NationalNews/Article.aspx?id=252217.

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Paul Bach-y-Rita

I just started reading a fascinating book called The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. So far I’ve read the first chapter which is about a Jewish scientist called Paul Bach-y-Rita (born to Anne Hyman) who changed the way we think about the brain. Scientists used to believe that different parts of the brain perform different functions and each part can only perform one function. Paul showed this isn’t true and the brain is a lot more adaptable than first thought. The brain can rewire itself, so that for example, the part of the brain that is initially used by someone for hearing can be used for sight. This is part of the reason why a person that has lost a certain sense, usually has other senses that are a lot more sensitive than average.

What this means is that people with disabilities caused by brain damage can learn to use another part of their brain to perform the function that the damaged part used to carry out. Paul helped many people and with his inventions and research. There are people that have been born with only half a brain and survive and live long and fairly normal lives. Read the book for more. It’s very interesting.

One of the major lessons we can take from this is just because people assume something to be true, even if it’s very clever people, experts in a field, that doesn’t necessarily make it true. You often hear people attributing the success of the Israelis to their chutzpah. They’re not afraid to question the “facts” and this leads to new breakthroughs. People often assume we know nearly everything their is to know about everything. That we’re just working out the final details. That there will be no more major scientific breakthroughs or paradigm shifts. I think this is unlikely. Nobody knows where the breakthroughs will occur and there are certainly scientific “facts” that seem highly unlikely to change in the future, but there will certainly be major changes in the future.

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Discoverer Of Impossible Crystals Gets Last Laugh

Israeli Daniel Shechtman won this year’s nobel prize in chemistry for his discovery of “quasi-crystals”. You can read about it here.

When he made his discovery people thought he was mad. When he finally told colleagues about his discovery, he was met with dismissal and ridicule. His claims caused such embarrassment that his boss asked him to leave the research group.

His discovery was thought to be mathematically impossible.

But who’s having the last laugh? Daniel Shechtman – this year’s nobel laureatte.

What do we learn from this?

Don’t put total faith in science. Don’t be so certain that everything you know to be true is true. Don’t be scared to push boundaries.

This brings a quote from Warren Buffett to mind:

Beware of geeks bearing formulas.

I’m studying maths at university, but I agree. I have little faith in mathematicians when it comes to the real world. Not that mathematics is useless; only a fool would think that, but all too often people come up with mathematical models that are supposed to be complete models of the real world. They tell you what is “supposed to be”. They make “certain” predictions, but when it comes to reality their models fail. “Oh, I forgot to take account of that one small detail”. Read The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nicolas Taleb if you’re interested in this. Sometimes mathematicians get ahead of themselves. Sometimes scientists speak with more confidence than they should. Some might call it arrogance.

As Laurence J. Peter says:

An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today.

Another pertinent quote from George Bernard Shaw:

You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’

This is who Avraham was. The Torah calls him “Avraham ha-Ivri” (Abraham the Hebrew). The source of the word ‘ivri’ is ‘ever, ‘meaning ‘over’ or ‘on the other side’. The Midrash interpret his name as “Avraham who stands opposite” – “the whole world stood on one side and he stood on the other.” The world goes their way – and he goes his.

And to complete today’s random quotations with one more, from the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, that will inspire you to new reach heights:

Christopher Gardner (Will Smith): Hey. Don’t ever let somebody tell you… You can’t do something. Not even me. All right?
Christopher (Will’s son): All right.
Christopher Gardner: You got a dream… You gotta protect it. People can’t do somethin’ themselves, they wanna tell you you can’t do it. If you want somethin’, go get it. Period.

Or as Adidas say:

Impossible is nothing.

Post-script: The more science books I read the more it seems like every scientific discovery starts with everyone saying the new discovery is ridiculous until eventually there’s enough evidence that the discovery is accepted as true. It’s seems to often that people aren’t willing to accept change. I’ve been reading The Brain That Changes Itself recently and this talks about how scientists were unwilling to accept the idea of plasticity – the idea that the brain can change itself. Discoverers of new ideas always seem to be ridiculed until eventually their ideas are accepted as true. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn is an entire book about this concept. Kuhn coined the phrase “paradigm shift” to describe this phenomenon.

Also, I would just like to point out that although I believe in a healthy skepticism of accepted “facts”, I do in general have faith in the scientific enterprise. I believe the theory of evolution to be true despite some questions about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if some details of the theory are completely revamped in the next century but the general idea seems to be true. It seems to be an elegant way for the Creator to have designed us.

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5 out of the 7 2011 Nobel Prize Winners are Jewish so far

So far this year’s prizes have been awarded for Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine.

Physics winners: Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt, Adam G. Riess

Chemistry winners: Daniel Shechtman

Physiology or Medicine winners: Bruce A. Beutler, Jules A. Hoffmann, Ralph M. Steinman

Out of the 7 names above, at least 5 are Jewish. Brian P. Schmidt is not Jewish and Jules A. Hoffman seems to least have had a Jewish father (see here). The prize for Literature, Peace and Economic Sciences will be awarded later this week.

Daniel Shechtman and family

Daniel Shechtman and family

Daniel Shechtman is an Israeli and is a professor at the Technion in Haifa. This is Israel’s tenth Nobel Prize in it’s 63 year history. Israel, a country with a population of only 7.5 million and a country that has constantly been under attack since it’s founding, by enemies on all sides.

As for total Jewish Nobel Prize winners, here are the stats from jinfo.org:

Chemistry (31 prize winners, 20% of world total, 27% of US total)

Economics (28 prize winners, 42% of world total, 55% of US total)

Literature (13 prize winners, 12% of world total, 27% of US total)

Peace (9 prize winners, 9% of world total, 10% of US total)

Physics (47 prize winners, 25% of world total, 36% of US total)

Physiology or Medicine (53 prize winners, 27% of world total, 40% of US total)

Just to point out that there are only 13.3 million Jews on the planet and about 6.7 billion people in the world. The Jew constitutes less than 0.2% of the world’s population. That’s 1 in 500! Yet the Jews have won about 1/5 of all the Nobel Prizes ever awarded.

“And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples, as dew from the Lord, as showers upon the grass…” Michah 5:6

See here for the list of the 2011 Nobel Prize winners.

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Israeli Universities

Firstly, here’s a quote from JPost:

A total of 59 out of the 129 companies traded on NASDAQ were established or are run by Technion graduates.

Wow! And the Technion is just one of many world class universities in Israel.

In the World Rankings of Universities conducted by shanghairanking.com, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem was ranked the 57th best university in the world. The Technion, the Weizmann Institute of Science and Tel Aviv University were all ranked as the 102nd (joint) best universities in the world.

For Mathematics:

Hebrew U came 22nd.

Tel Aviv came 32nd.

Technion came joint 57th.

For Computer Science:

Weizmann Institute of Science came 11th!

Technion came 15th.

Hebrew U came 26th.

Tel Aviv University came 28th.

Israeli universities did well at other subjects too. Visit: shanghairanking.com to find out more.

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