Judaeans Discuss the Contributions of Jews to Science
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Judaeans Discuss the Contributions of Jews to Science

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The Jew and the part he has played in the development of science was described in tow papers presented on Sunday evening by Professor Morris R. Cohen, Professor of Philosophy at the College of the City of New York, and Professor Benjamin Harrow, noted chemist.

The occasion was a meeting of “The Judacans, at the Hotel Pennsylvania, attended by some two hundred professional and intellectual leaders in New York City. Hon. Samson Lachman president of the group, presided. Professor Cohen discussed at length the approach necessary to scientific research, explaining how the Jew came to play the role he does in science and tracing his history up until the present day. Professor Harrow concerned himself with a discussion of the Jews who have been awarded the Nobel Prize established in 1901 by the discoverer of dynamite.

While the Jews form 2.4 percent of the total population in Europe and America, Professor Harrow said, they have received 11.4 percent of the Nobel prizes in Chemistry, Physics and Mathematies. Of the seventy nine awards made in these three subjects, nine were received by Jews.

Despite this large proportion of prizes winners, however, in the opinion of Professor Cohen, “contributions to science are not a characteristic of the Jewish race, when I reflect upon Jewish historic analogies. It does not seem to me that race as such can play a part in scientific distinction,” was the preface to his remarks. Returning to the Jewish analogy, he said: “We don’t find in the Biblical history that Jews made any contributions to science. The Jews made no notable contribution to science before the Saracen culture.

“We must remember, of course, that Saracen culture was not the culture of the Arab. It was the culture of all the peoples of Asia, Northern Africa and Spain and Southern France. All the histories of science that are worh anything pay respect to the Jews in making the scientific achievements of it so available to Europe. But from the point of view of original contributions, they are in the main in the field of philosophy rather than of science, although some of their contributions in the fields of astronomy and mathematics are worthy of note.

“The decline of Sephardic Judaism as the result of the expulsion of Jews from Spain, the impoverishment of Northern Africa led to the decline of the contributions of Jews in the line of science. And it is only at the end of the 18th century that opportunities for Jews to take part in the life of western civilization and to make contributions to science became possible,” he declared.

There are four elements necessary to make the approach to science possible, he said. First, the need of materials and resources. Materials include not merely books, but scientific tradition. Then, there is the zest of the game of science itself. Science, pure science, may best be viewed as a game. The important thing about a game is that it shall be played according to the rules. The result is not of great importance, or at any rate, not as important as the fact that the rules are kept. The fourth essential is the zest of adventure. Science is the exploration of the unknown, he pointed out.

How is the Jew situated with respect to these four elements? he asked. Up until the 18th century, the Jews had no opportunity to pursue science inasmuch as the Universities were closed to them, since the majority of the Universities were clerical institutions. In addition, they had not the means required for research. Nowadays, he pointed, when they have the means, they have counter attractions.

The Jews have, however, the zest and spirit of adventure necessary to the pursuit of science, he stated. The 18th century expansion of Europe broke down the walls of the ghetto with the result that the Jews are in a state of flux or transition. ” Being in a state of transition, they are fresher and have the zest and the same spirit of adventure which generated modern science,” he declared.

Respect for scholarship is a powerful motive which has induced Jews to go into the field of science, he said. ” Science,” he believes, ” has been easier for Jews than other occupations. It is rather curious that it should have been so. In American universities, for instance, you find that in some branches, like mathmetics or physics, it is easier for a Jew to get a position than it is in sociology or ethics or philosophy. And for obvious reasons. These social questions, or matters relating to morals or philosophy, are parts of Christian civilization. The Jew, after all is more or less of a foreigner, from the point of view of one who regards the Christian element itself as the central civilization of America. And from that point of view, mathematies and physies are harmless subjects and therefore there is no harm in having a Jew teach those subjects.

” I think that you will also find that the laboratories which are opening up in connection with industry are more liberal than the universities would be because these laboratories are run ultimately for profit.

“In the fields therefore of applied science the Jews have been doing greatwork in this country. In the field of pure science it is a little more difficult because laboratories do not as yet offer so many places for research in pure science. Certainly we have not done as well in mathematics as in other fields.”

A plea that the opportunity be created for scientific students to continue their research work, through scholarship funds, instead of having to go into teaching, was made by Professor Cohen at the conclusion of his address. ” If we believe in letting science prosper naturally, then it seems to me that the way to promote it is not necessarily to endow buildings and laboratories, and give large endowments to universities for that purpose, but to look at the actual elements involved and find out that after all, the pressing things which make for scientific research are the things which are more or less subjective and the things which therefore generally assert themselves more in youth. The kind of a thing that the Guggenheim fellowship is doing in the way of giving young men a chance to do research work without having to do teaching, without having any obligations except the obligation to do research work is the sort of thing which ultimately makes scientific progress possible.”

Professor Harrow devoted his address to the prize winners in chemistry, physics and medicine. In physices three Jews won the award–Professor Michelson of the Chicago University in 1907: Professor Lippman of the Sorbonne in 1908, and Albert Einstein in 1925, who curiously enough won the prize not for his theory of relativity but for some other work. In chemistry, the awards went to Professor Wallach of Gottingen in 1910, Professor Willstatter of Munich in 1915, and Fritz Haber of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1918.In medicine the following won the award: Ehrlich in 1908, Meyerhoff in 1922 and Metchnikoff, whose mother was a Jewess.

There are a number of Jewish scientists, both here and abroad, Professor Harrow declared, who are in line for the award.

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