Tag Archives: science

Jewish Nobel Prize Winners 2013

So I haven’t really been keeping this blog up to date. The little I have posted has just been random rants. But I thought for the Nobel Prizes, I’d go back on topic again.

This year’s Nobel prizes were awarded this past week. The laureattes were as follows:

Physiology or Medicine: James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof
Physics: François Englert and Peter Higgs
Chemistry: Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel
Literature: Alice Munro
Peace:  Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
Economic Sciences: Eugene F. Fama, Lars Peter Hansen, Robert J. Shiller

The Jewish laureates are in bold. Of the 12 individuals to win awards, 6 were Jewish. This should be a surprising figure if you consider that only 0.2% of the world’s population is Jewish, or that less than 2% of the American population is Jewish. But it’s something we’ve come to expect. This happens year in year out. What’s the explanation for it? I don’t know. If you look around this blog, you’ll see various attempts at explaining the phenomena. None of them really do it for me. The explanation would have to be a multitude of reasons combined together I think, but I don’t really know.

Two of the winners, Levitt and Warshel are Israeli, but they now live in the US. A pity they’re not teaching or doing research at Israeli universities.

Source for which winners are Jewish: jinfo.org.

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Understanding Genesis

Understanding Genesis Front Cover

A few days ago I posted about Bereishit and Science. A very good on the topic is Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna (1966). I highly recommend reading it.

You can read the first chapter of the book, which deals with the beginning of Bereishit till Noach, here.

Next week I hope to upload the chapter on Noach.

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Second Jewish Nobel Laureate of 2012

Well done to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka for winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry. They received the award “for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors”.

Robert Lefkowitz is Jewish according to JINFO.org. So far 2 of the 6 Nobel Prize winners this year are Jewish. Serge Haroche won the Nobel Prize for Physics yesterday – a French Jew of Moroccan descent.

 

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Jewish 2012 Nobel Prize Winner for Physics

Well done to Serge Haroche for winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics with David Wineland. They were awarded the prize “for groundbreaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems” according to the Nobel Prize website.

Haroche is a French Jew of Moroccan descent. Wineland definitely sounds like he could be Jewish, but I haven’t been able to clarify for certain whether he is Jewish or not. I assume he isn’t, but only because I haven’t found a source saying he is Jewish online yet and everyone has been writing about how Haroche is Jewish.

See here for a full list of this year’s Nobel Prize winners. So far only the Physics and Physiology/Medicine Nobel prizes have been awarded this year. The other Nobel prizes will be awarded in the next week.

Last year, there were five Jewish Nobel Prize winners. Overall, Jews have won approximately 20% of the Nobel Prizes awarded to date. An extremely impressive statistic considering Jews constitute only 0.2% of the world’s population.

 

And finally here’s an inspirational story that I read on Wikipedia today:

John Gurdon was awarded the Lasker Award in 2009 and this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. But this is what Wikipedia his past:

Gurdon attended Eton College, where he ranked last out of the 250 boys in his year group at biology, and was in the bottom set in every other science subject. A schoolmaster wrote a report stating “I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous.”

Quite impressive. Now he was obviously very bright, since he attended Oxford University, but that was to study Classics. He wasn’t a very good biologist at a young age. Just goes to show “Impossible is Nothing”.

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Bereishit and Science

It’s that time of year again. Tonight is Simchat Torah when we finish reading the Torah and restart again from Bereishit.

As a religious Jew, how does one reconcile the seeming contradictions between the Bereishit narrative and science?

A lot has been written on this and I am not going to be adding anything new to this discussion, but I hope this post will still be interesting for those that read it.

The first issue that needs to be addressed is the conflict between religion in general and science. In my opinion, there is no conflict between the two. Religion deals with God, how a person should act, with the ultimate purpose of life and living a meaningful life. Science deals with describing the physical world. Religion’s goal is not to explain the physical world and the goal of science  is not to tell us how to live a meaningful life. This is not an attack on science, this is merely the reality of the situation. The fact that mathematics doesn’t tell me how to live a meaningful life is not a problem with mathematics, it’s just not what mathematics is about. And the same is true about science in general.

Science can help us make decisions. It can help clarify the situation. Science produces medicine and it produces bombs. How we use those and whether we use them for good or for bad are not scientific questions. Good, bad, morality, meaning, God, etc. are not things science can address. This is not a flaw in science. It’s just the reality of the situation and it’s a mistake when people think that science can deal with these questions.

A person may come to the conclusion that life is pointless, that there is no ultimate meaning, that good and bad are an illusion or that God doesn’t exist, but none of these are scientific claims. Science may have played a hand in determining these beliefs and that is not at all unreasonable, but ultimately, these questions are not questions that science can address.

Lastly, if a religion goes and makes scientific claims, then of course there can be a conflict. Now religion has entered the scientific world and science can have something to say about the claim.

And this brings us onto the topic of Bereishit and science. I do believe that there is a conflict here. The Torah does make claims that definitely at first sight, do not fit with science. For example, a simple reading of the Torah would suggest the world is almost six thousand years old. Science claims that it is 13.7 billion years old. Here we have a contradiction. How old is the universe? Can the contradiction be resolved?

A number of different approaches have been taken. Some will claim science is wrong, but I don’t think this approach can be taken seriously. (Not that the science of today will be the same as the science of tomorrow. Things will definitely change. Science is not set in stone, but science will never reach the conclusion that the world is 6000 years old as opposed to many billions of years old, for example).

Another approach is to claim that science and Torah are saying the same thing and if you think there’s a contradiction, you just don’t know how to read the Torah properly. I don’t like this approach either. Not because it is fundamentally flawed, but because the reality is that Bereishit and Noach just don’t fit well with modern science without extremely forced readings. (Claiming that a day means a long period of time is not a stretch. Dealing with evolution in general isn’t a problem either. The Torah doesn’t talk about it and it doesn’t have to. But this approach still falls short of explaining away all the contradictions. When we get down to the details things really don’t fit so well, IMO. For example, the problem of the “rakiya”, the ordering of the six days – there were no plants before the Sun existed, but according to Bereishit there were).

Others will claim that Bereishit and Noach are supposed to be read allegorically. This may be true for parts of the creation narrative, but even using this approach, I don’t think this can be used to explain all the contradictions.

In my opinion, the best approach is to take a step back and ask what the purpose of the Torah is and to think about who it was given to. The Torah is a book that teaches man how to live a religious life, a Godly life, a moral life. Informing man of exactly how  the world came to be is not what the Torah’s primary aim. Some of the most important lessons we learn from Bereishit are that God created the world, there is one God and not a multitude of gods, God cares about the world, the world has a purpose, the world is good, that man has a purpose, man is created in the image of God, man is expected to do good, that man is rewarded and punished for his actions, what the day of Shabbat signifies, etc.

When compared to other Ancient Near Eastern literature of the time, some of these ideas are extremely novel and extremely important to teach the Israelites. For example, that God created the sun or the sea and that they have no power of their own is an idea that was a chiddush (novelty) in the Ancient Near East. Due to the success of the Torah, it is difficult to find polytheists nowadays (at least in the Western world). This, in large part, is due to the success of the Torah’s impact on mankind and it is something we often forget.

One of the major problems with the approach that the Torah is teaching us science in the first chapters of Bereishit is that if this is indeed so, nobody has understood Bereishit properly for the last three thousand or so years. And even more than that, now that we apparently do “understand” Bereishit properly, with the help of modern science, we don’t need Bereishit anymore, since we have modern science textbooks to teach us what Bereishit teaches us.

I understand that there are reasons that one might not like this approach, but I personally find it to be the best and most intellectually honest approach.

I think another issue that has to be thought about in relation to this topic is exactly what is meant by the word of God. At the very least, the word of God has reached us through the mouth or pen of man.

If you want to read more about this topic, I recommend the following books:

The Challenge Of Creation by Rabbi Natan Slifkin

Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna (you can read the first chapter which deals with the first chapters of Bereishit till Noach here).

Genesis And Jewish Thought by Chaim Navon (also available in book form)

This is also a good resource page with a YouTube video:

http://www.professorfink.com/RELIGION___SCIENCE.html

I might write a bit more about this topic in the next week.

Simchat Torah Sameach!

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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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