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Posts Tagged ‘scientist’

Israeli Scientist Wins Nobel Prize

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Professor Dan Shechtman of Haifa’s Technion University received the Nobel Prize in Chamistry at an awards ceremony and gala ball in Stockholm on Saturday evening.  Sweden’s King Karl Gustav XVI awarded the honor.

Shechtman, who is Israel’s 10th Nobel Prize winner, was given the distinction because of his discovery of quasicrystals, non-repeating yet symmetric structures.

Dr. Sven Ledin of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm , who addressed Shechtman as he received the award, told him that his “discovery of quasicrystals has created a new branch of science.”  “This is in itself of great importance, Ledin said. “ It has also given us a reminder of how little we know and perhaps given us some humility. That is a truly great achievement.”

Shechtman discovered quasicrystals in 1982, while on sabbatical in the United States.  Because of their ability to be packed together in previously unknown ways, the discovery of quasicrystals has led to the development of exceptionally strong metals used in medicine and engineering, as well as protective coatings and metal alloys.  Quasicrystals do not rust and have almost no surface friction.

In his acceptance speech, Shechtman said that while he is “the vanguard of the science of quasicrystals,” the field would not be so advanced without the many scientists he said are “enthusiastic” and “dedicated” to its development.  He advised that “a humble scientist is a good scientist.”

“Science is the ultimate tool to reveal the laws of nature and the one word written on its banner is ‘Truth,” Shechtman said.  “The laws of nature are neither good nor bad. It is the way in which we apply them to our world that makes the difference.”

Shechtman received congratulations from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose spokesman conveyed his well-wishes and pride in Shechtman’s accomplishment.  During his weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Netanyahu reasserted his happiness with the achievement, telling advisors that such discoveries and prizes will come with continued national investment in higher education.

Shechtman, born in Tel Aviv, is married to Dr. Tzipora Shechtman, Head of the Department of Counseling and Human Devlopment at the University of Haifa.  Together they have four children, one of whom is a physicist, and three of whom are psychologists.  Shechtman will receive €1 million as part of his award.

Does Questioning Evolution Make One Anti-Science?

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman thinks Republicans are knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. In the not-too-distant future he sees a Republican half-wit winning the presidency and dragging America back to the Stone Age. 
 
One of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge,” Krugman recently wrote. “And, in a time of severe challenges – environmental, economic, and more – that’s a terrifying prospect.” 
 
Krugman’s ire was piqued by Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry’s comments that evolution is “just a theory” that has “some gaps in it,” and that global warming is not a proven fact.
 
While I cannot comment on climate-change science, I do have a great deal to say about evolution.
 
I am not a scientist. But beginning in about 1990 I started organizing an annual debate at Oxford University on science versus religion where the focus was almost always on evolution and which featured some of the world’s greatest evolutionists like Richard Dawkins, who appeared several times, and the late John Maynard-Smith of the University of Sussex, who at the time was regarded by many as the greatest living evolutionary theorist.
 
While I moderated the first few debates, I later participated in a debate against Dawkins at Oxford (which he later denied ever took place, forcing us to post the full video of the debate online where Dawkins is not only the principal proponent of the science side but actually loses the debate in a student vote at the end). I debated Dawkins again at the Idea City Convention at the University of Toronto, the video of which is likewise available online.
 
What I learned from these debates, as well as from reading extensively on evolution, is that evolutionists have a tough time defending the theory when challenged in open dialogue. Indeed, David Berlinski, author of The Devil’s Delusion, while an agnostic, was on the religion side of one of the debates against Dawkins and tore large holes in evolution that Dawkins and Maynard-Smith struggled to address.
 
This does not mean evolution is not true. But it’s a theory. Unlike, say, the laws of thermodynamics, it has never been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. Indeed, Dawkins and the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould fiercely debated basic presumptions about evolution. Gould was not a theist and did not believe in creation. But he argued that the large gaps in the fossil record make a mockery of a theory of gradual evolution, which is why Gould advocated “punctuated equilibrium,” a variation on Darwinism in which evolution takes place in dramatic periods of change followed by long eons of stasis.
 
Gould maintained this position precisely because, as Perry said, the theory of evolution has “some gaps in it,” in the case of the fossil record quite literally.
 
No scientist has ever witnessed evolution directly and science itself says this is impossible given the vast amount of time needed for species to evolve. Rather, evidence for evolution is brought primarily from the fossil record and natural selection from some famous contemporary observations, like the peppered moths (Biston betularia) thatproduce offspring that can be light or dark, much like the same family can have redheads, brunettes and blonds.
 
Before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of peppered moths were light in coloration, which helped them blend in against lichen and trees and avoid predation by birds. Dark-colored moths stood out against this background, and so were more often eaten and killed. However, with the rise in pollution, the lichens and trees against which the light-colored moths habitually hid from predators were darkened with soot. Suddenly, the light-colored moths were conspicuous to predatory birds, and the dark-colored moths were well camouflaged. The plights of the two populations were reversed – the dark moths survived, and the light moths were eaten and killed.
 
A similar proof for natural selection is brought from the Galapagos Finch, which Darwin theorized was originally a single species but over time each population of finch changed very slowly in response to the demands of the environment in which it found itself. The signal trait Darwin seized upon to distinguish one species of finch from another was the shape of its beak. For example, the large ground-finch had a big, powerful beak that seemed well suited to cracking open seeds while the vampire finch had a long, pointed beak that allowed it to puncture the flesh of other birds and drink their blood. In each case, Darwin reasoned, beak shape evolved over time to provide its possessor with an adaptive advantage.
 
The problem with both these observations is that they are manifestations of horizontal, rather than vertical, evolution, as they describe how members of a species may change within the range of characteristics they already possess. No new traits are generated. Rather, the traits that already exist are merely distributed differently. Vertical evolution, whereby natural selection can supposedly create entirely new structures, has yet to be directly observed and is thus a theory.
 
Other questions remain regarding evolutionary theory, most notably the anthropic principle that maintains that if the physical laws and constants governing our universe were even slightly different, we would not be here to notice it because the emergence of life could not have occurred.Our universe is a delicately interconnected network of laws that is balanced and tuned for the seemingly express purpose of supporting self-aware life.
 
The English cosmologist Sir Martin Rees argues in his book Just Six Numbers that the values of six numbers determine to a great degree many of the large- and small-scale properties of our universe. If any of these numbers were changed even slightly, the universe would exist in a radically different, and quite unfriendly, form – if it existed at all.
 

Let’s look at the second number, epsilon, which is roughly .007. Epsilon describes, roughly speaking, how durable matter is, because it tells us how much energy is required to separate an atom into its constituent particles. Clearly, this is a very important number. But the remarkable thing about it is how delicately balanced it is against the other five numbers. If epsilon were .006, the universe would consist entirely of hydrogen. No other elements would form, because the process of nuclear fusion could not occur. The universe would be bland and uninteresting. There would be no planets, very little light, no nebulae, no comets and certainly no life.

Many leading scientists, like Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and described by the Endocrine Society as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time,” therefore believe that while evolution may indeed be an accurate theory as to the rise of life and species, it still requires the guiding hand of a higher power in order to operate.
 
In the final analysis, the biblical account of creation easily accommodates an evolutionary ascent, seeing as the narrative expressly relates that God created first the mineral, then the vegetable, then the animal, and finally human life forms.
 
So before Paul Krugman attacks Republican politicians for simply questioning evolution, it would behoove him to recall that the very essence of science is to question – and that stifling doubt is a sin that religion was guilty of in the past and that science should refrain from repeating it in the present.
 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is in the midst of founding GIVE, the Global Institute for Values Education, and is the author of the forthcoming book “The Church of Evolution.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

Gemara In The Morning, Cancer Research In The Afternoon

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

 

Not too many rabbis spend their day trying to cure cancer. Fewer still own three dogs and a killer fish named Shalom on the side. But Rabbi Dr. Robert Shorr does and sees no inherent conflict or tension between his various activities.

 

The son of a well-regarded rocket scientist who once collaborated with former Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun, Shorr, 55, is the CEO of Cornerstone Pharmaceuticals, which is currently conducting clinical trials of CPI-613, a drug designed to kill cancer cells by starving them of the glucose they need to survive.

 

“It’s important to promise little and deliver much,” Shorr told The Jewish Press, but so far, he said, the trial results are encouraging.

 

             With his white beard and long black coat, Shorr doesn’t fit most people’s mental image of a 21st-century scientist. Indeed, Shorr said he often hears people argue that “you can’t be in the world and look like that.” His reply? “Well, obviously I am in the world, and I look how I look.”

 

             Shorr, however, did not always sport a rabbinic appearance. Brought up in a relatively secular Jewish home, Shorr moved toward ritual observance slowly, beginning his journey as a young boy of five.

 

“We were living in Sacramento, California at the time,” Shorr recalls, “and belonged to a Conservative Temple. One Shabbos my father walked me over to the aron hakodesh – the shul was empty at this time – took my hand and put it on the sefer Torah. I looked up and my father was crying, and he said to me, ‘Rob, when I’m gone, look for me here because this is the home of the Jewish people. And when you look here you will also find yourself.’ I’d never seen my father cry before.”

 

As Shorr grew older, he started reading the Bible during services. “I would read ‘Do this’ and ‘Don’t do that,’ and we didn’t do any of it. And I said to myself, ‘If I’m a Jew and this is my job, then I have to do my job honestly.’ ” By the time he was bar mitzvah, Shorr had resolved to become observant.

 

Although Shorr didn’t immediately carry out his resolution, he never forgot it. Many years later, in 1978, as a graduate student at the University of London – where he would later receive his doctorate in biochemistry – Shorr was returning home from eating a Friday night restaurant dinner with his wife when he saw Shabbos candles burning in a house in the distance. He was transfixed.

 

“Both of us saw this amazing glow,” Shorr recalled, “that seemed to be shooting through the roof of the house . We looked at each other and said, ‘You know, this is what we want to build.’ So we resolved that when we would return to the United States, we would learn what it meant to be Jews.”

 

A few years later, the Shorrs moved to Wayne, Pennsylvania where they encountered Project SEED, a Torah Umesorah project geared toward non-observant Jews. They subsequently came under the influence of Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia and Rabbi Abraham Levene of the Lower Merion Synagogue. Soon, Shorr was spending several hours every day studying Torah.

 

“I got so excited about learning,” Shorr said, “that I wanted to quit my job and go learn. So I asked Rabbi Levene and Rabbi Kamenetzky, but they both told me ‘no’ – that my job is to develop medicine and bring healing to the world.”

 

             Shorr believes his increased Torah knowledge has helped his medical research. “The most classic guide to healing,” Shorr said, “is the asher yatzar brachah. It states that if something [in the body] is closed that should be open or open that should be closed, there’s illness. How do you fix it? Open what should be open and close what should be closed. No matter how you think about it, at one level or another, that’s how every drug works.”

 

              His scientific knowledge has also aided his Torah study, he said. “I’ll never forget, we were learning a Gemara about whether or not a person can go out on Shabbos with a silver coin in his shoe for healing purposes. The guys in the shiur asked me at the time, ‘Rob, why would anyone want to put a silver coin in his shoe?’ Well, the answer is that silver when combined with sweat and in the atmosphere will form silver nitrate. Silver nitrates are among the most powerful antibiotics in existence.”

 

              Shorr tires of hearing about conflicts between Torah and science. “Anybody trying to position science against the Torah lacks understanding of both . People look to science as a substitute for religion, but science has never and will never be able to do that. They do different things.”

 

              Shorr continues pursuing both.  He recently received his semicha, and over the years has finished Shas several times. Concurrently, Shorr has also authored over 150 scientific articles and possesses over 200 issued or pending patents.

 

              His latest cancer-related research, however, may prove to be his most important. Shorr doesn’t want to promise anything, but he said CPI-613 could potentially help patients with pancreatic, lung, colon, or breast cancer. “Really everything is in the hand of heaven,” he said.

 

              Depending on what the clinical trials show, Shorr said, the drug could be on the market in as little as three years.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/interviews-and-profiles//2009/08/19/

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