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. . . unfortunately there are no data for the Very Beginning. . . . Only God knows what happened at the Very Beginning (and so far She hasn't let on).
-Leon Lederman

Archive for the ‘Physical Sciences’ Category

A Solar Eclipse Deserves A Blessing

Thursday, August 3, 2017 @ 09:08 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: USAF/Museum of Aviation

We are on a fantastic journey, over which we have precious little control. As our universe expands, we are pushed deeper and deeper into space. We travel along, like some pebble carried with the tide. Our own galaxy, like hundreds of millions of others, rotates, and it does so at about 168 miles per second. On one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, our solar system has its own rhythms. Within the solar system, our home planet goes around our local star, the Sun, and our moon orbits around our home planet, even as the Earth and the Moon spin too.

Once in a while, in the midst of all this motion, the Moon travels between the Earth and the Sun in such a way as to block the light of the Sun from reaching us. It casts a shadow on our planet. The blockage may be partial or complete. We call this event a solar eclipse. In a total eclipse, when the Moon obscures the entire solar disk, the fullest form of the Moon’s shadow, the umbra, lasts no more than a few minutes in any one spot, but the effects are stark as darkness literally covers the Earth and the temperature drops.

We will ooh and ah as the eclipse begins, but we know that this too shall pass. All that was will be again and soon. Normalcy will return. One might think that it would be an occasion for a blessing, a b’rakha. After all, Jews seemingly have blessings, or b’rakhot, for every event and circumstance, from the sublime to the mundane, and from the time they arise to the time they go to sleep. And there are well recognized blessings for similar occurrences. For instance, when one sees a comet or lightening, there is Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reyshit (Blessed is the Eternal One, Sovereign of the universe, maker of the works of creation). When one sees something beautiful like a tree or an animal, one might say Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, she’kakha lo b’olamo (Blessed is the Source of wonder, Ruler of the cosmos, that such things are in the world). There are blessings on reaching the ocean, on smelling fragrant grasses and spices, even on witnessing an earthquake. But traditionally, there is no blessing for an eclipse. Why? To answer that question, we need to understand some science and some Judaism. read more

When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 2)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 @ 01:10 PM
posted by Roger Price


That the age of robots is coming, and soon, seems indisputable.  For some, though, achievements to date in mobility, dexterity and intelligence (discussed in a prior post), may be as unsettling as they are amazing.  Surely future developments will be disruptive and challenging in a wide variety of circumstances, many of which cannot even be anticipated.

How will the Jewish community react when an artificial entity is created that not only looks human, but is thoroughly versed in all things Jewish? Will the Jewdroid’s presence be too much to bear or is Judaism’s tent big enough to hold him too? Shall we reject the Jewdroid whose existence is unprecedented or shall we welcome the stranger? What assumptions and values shall inform us? Let’s look at some objections to a proposed Jewdroid.

The first, and most trivial argument, is that based on appearance: the droid does not “look Jewish.” A similar objection was raised against the Bulbas at William Tenn’s imagined interstellar Neo-Zionist convention. Whether coming from Jews or non-Jews, that line assumes that there is such a thing as a Jewish “look.” Whether there ever was a “look” is doubtful, but today any argument based on a presumed Jewish look involving a distinctive set of physical traits shared by all Jews is not only obnoxious, it is contrary to the evidence of the varieties of contemporary Jewry. In the world in which we live, Jews come in many shades, shapes and sizes, each with a wide range of physical features. Why, there are even Ginger Jews! Looks alone cannot compel a conclusion that our Jewdroid either can or cannot be Jewish. Our droid could come in any hue and be a Jew.  read more

When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 1)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 @ 10:09 AM
posted by Roger Price




Credit: Jewish Museum Berlin

In a short story written expressly for inclusion in a groundbreaking anthology of Jewish science fiction and fantasy, Wandering Stars (Jewish Lights, 1974), the British writer William Tenn imagined a future galaxy populated with Jews who, consistent with their ancestors’ history, traveled far and wide in search of a better life. Among these Jews, or at least creatures who claimed to be Jews, was a certain group of small, brown pillow shaped beings covered with grey spots out of which protruded tentacles. Residents of the fourth planet in the Rigel star system (Rigel being a star in the Orion constellation as seen from Earth), they claimed to be Jewish by descent from a community of Orthodox Jews who lived in and around Paramus, New Jersey. Their non-human appearance was the result, they said, of natural relationships, over time, with the native inhabitants of their new planet. In Tenn’s tale, the Bulbas, as they were known, traveled to Venus in the year 2859 C.E. in order to participate in the First Interstellar Neo-Zionist Convention which was convened for the purpose of discussing a renewed claim to Israel, an area on Earth then free of all Jews. The question presented was whether the Bulbas could be accredited as Jews.

While set some eight centuries in the future, Tenn’s story asked age old questions about the nature of Jewishness. And if the context of the story seems far ahead of our times, the reality is that the pace of discovery regarding potential life on other planets continues to accelerate. After all, the existence of the first exoplanet, that is, a planet that is outside of our solar system and orbits its own host star, was not confirmed until 1995. Today we have identified over 3,300 such planets. The first exoplanet in a habitable zone was not found until 2010. Today we know of at least 49 such planets.  In 2014, the first Earth sized exoplanet in a habitable zone was discovered.  Within the past couple of months, we have found a potentially habitable exoplanet in the star system closest to Earth, that of Proxima Centauri.

At a distance of just over 4.2 light years from Earth, though, Proxima Centauri is still almost 25 trillion miles away. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, traveling over 36,000 miles per hour, would still need over 78,000 years to reach it. Obviously Earth bound readers of this essay will not be alive when the first probe to Proxima Centauri reports its findings. But dramatic advances in technology are raising the issue of Jewishness in yet another context. If the claim of the geographically distant Bulbas, who did not resemble our species in the slightest, was challenging, how will we consider the Jewishness of an android, a robot designed to look like us, and programmed with considerable intelligence, artificial though it may be?  read more

In the Beginning and In the End

Thursday, October 15, 2015 @ 02:10 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

When the cosmos was about to be created — the fundamental forces of nature being unified in an exceedingly hot, dense point and galaxies, stars, planets, even stable matter itself yet unformed — there was no recognizable space, no measurable time. There was no darkness over the surface of the deep because there was no deep, no surface, no over and no under. No wind hovered over any water, as there was not yet any hydrogen or oxygen, much less any combination of them in the form of water. And there was no wind, either. What there was — all that there was — was chaotic, pulsating Potential.

At some moment, for reasons yet unclear, what was began to change into what is. Gravity separated first from the combined strong nuclear and electroweak forces. Then the strong force emerged and the electroweak force devolved into the electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force. The nascent universe, still small and unbelievably hot and turbulent, was an ever changing soup of energy and sub-atomic particles. It was all good, and about to become better.

Within one second from the mystery of beginning, our mini-universe inflated, and then started to expand. Its temperature dropped from an unfathomably hot state of 100 nonillion degrees Kelvin to only one trillion degrees, but that relative cooling was sufficient for sub-atomic particles to become protons and neutrons and other heavier particles. At the three minute mark, with the temperature now down to a cool billion degrees, particles fused into atomic nuclei, mostly hydrogen nuclei, some helium nuclei and other kinds as well. This, too, was good. read more

Faith in Religion, Confidence in Science

Monday, June 22, 2015 @ 11:06 AM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: Yale

In response to a theoretical physicist’s article regarding developments in cosmology and the then current debate about whether the universe had a finite age or was in a steady state without beginning or end, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, initiated a brief but revealing correspondence. The correspondence was prompted by Schneerson’s deep concern over what he considered to be widespread misconceptions about science and his perceived urgent need to correct those misunderstandings. In this correspondence, Schneerson demonstrated an expected devotion to the text of the Torah and traditions relating to it, but also a certain and perhaps unexpected awareness of technical issues, for instance whether light was an electro-magnetic wave or “corpuscular” or both. More importantly, in the course of the correspondence, he articulated his approach to faith and science and what some asserted was a conflict between them.

Schneerson thought the purported conflict was the result of a misconception of the nature of science. The “sciences,” he said, “are at bottom nothing more than assumptions, work hypotheses and theories which are only ‘probable’ . . . .”  By contrast, he viewed “religious truths” as “definitive and categorical.” Consequently, science could not challenge religion because “science can never speak in terms of absolute truth.”  read more

Sagan, Stars and Grains of Sand

Monday, February 23, 2015 @ 02:02 PM
posted by Roger Price

Pandora’s Cluster

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Who could look at the stars and yawn? Certainly not astronomer Carl Sagan.  Sagan, a serious scientist, popularized a journey though the universe just over a third of a century ago with his award winning TV series, Cosmos. To impress upon his viewers how many stars existed, Sagan would enthusiastically assert that there were “billions and billions” of them, stressing and drawing out the first syllable each time.

As he acknowledged at the outset, however, the “size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding.” So, to try to make such an enormous quantity understandable, he said that “the total number of stars in the universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.” (Watch here; see also, Sagan, Cosmos (Random House 1980) at 4, 196.) It was a wonderful reference.

We may sense that there are a lot of stars in the sky, but with the naked eye it is hard to pinpoint and count them, even or maybe especially on a clear night. Sand is somewhat different. We can take a fistful of it at a beach, survey the area, think about the coast lines of the various continents, and then factor in countless interior beaches. Sagan says that our hand will hold about 10,000 grains of sand. (Cosmos, at 196.) Without help, we may not be able to do the math or know the result of the equation, but we can understand that the beaches hold an enormous number of grains of sand.

What Sagan did not say is that his two subjects, stars and sand, were invoked long ago in the Hebrew Bible as metaphors for abundance. They appear first in the book of Genesis, each separately and once together. read more

The Intriguing, Seductive and Ultimately Unsatisfying Anthropic Principle

Friday, May 30, 2014 @ 11:05 AM
posted by Roger Price

Magnetic Milky Way

Credit: ESA and the Plank Collaboration

Some believers in a traditional deity deny, or at least are skeptical about, certain claims of science. The issue may be the origin of the universe in a Big Bang, the age of the universe, the nature of the evolution of life on Earth or some other proposition.  In these instances, the believers see science as inconsistent with, even in opposition to, a sacred truth revealed in some literature such as the Torah, the Christian Bible or the Qur’an, and therefore should be rejected.

On other occasions, though, believers will embrace science. They will hear that the initial conditions of the universe, certain laws of nature or the location and chemistry of our planet are set within a limited range that allows for human existence — a proposition sometimes called the Anthropic Principle (i.e., relating to humankind) — and take those conditions and characteristics as proof of a personal god. They will understand a “fine-tuned” universe as demonstrating, or at least strongly implying, the existence of a Fine-Tuner, a Devine Designer. read more

An Earth-like Exoplanet, Extraterrestrial Life and the Messianic Age

Sunday, April 27, 2014 @ 11:04 AM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

The most Earth-like planet yet discovered has been found right in our neighborhood according to a report in an April 18, 2014 issue of the L.A. Times from the journal Science. By sifting through observations from more than 100,000 distant stars, astronomers say they have discovered the first definitive Earth-sized planet that orbits in a habitable zone where water could exist in liquid form — a necessary condition for life as we know it.

Scientists don’t know whether the planet has water or a protective atmosphere. But they said the landmark discovery gives astronomers great hope that a bumper crop of Earth-like planets is waiting to be found nearby. “This is really a tip-of-the-iceberg discovery,” said Jason Rowe, an astronomer who spent a year analyzing data gathered by the Kepler space telescope.

The planet is 10% bigger than Earth, and its parent star is a red dwarf, smaller and dimmer than our sun but that is good news because red dwarfs are the most common star in our galaxy. UC Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, who discovered the first exoplanet said. “This is the best case for a habitable planet yet found. The results are absolutely rock solid.” read more

The Coyne Wars Reach Einstein

Sunday, March 9, 2014 @ 10:03 AM
posted by Roger Price

Q: What do Jonathan Sacks, Ross Douthat and Albert Einstein have in common?

A:  Let’s see. The first is the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, the second is a New York Times based columnist who writes frequently    about religion, and the third was the pre-eminent physicist of the twentieth century, responsible for teaching us how light can bend, time can slow, and mass and energy can convert into each other.

Oh, I know. In recent months, Jerry Coyne, biology professor at the University of Chicago, and author of the excellent book Why Evolution is True, has written critically of each.

In the cases of Sacks and Douthat, Coyne was responding to an essay. Rabbi Sacks’ piece appeared in The Spectator under the title “Chief Rabbi: atheism has failed. Only religion can defeat the new barbarians.” In it, Rabbi Sacks railed against two forces he saw as detrimental to an enduring, moral society: first, the idolatry of “the market, the liberal democratic state and consumer society,” aided and abetted by tone deaf, humorless secularists, the “new atheists,” and, second, a religious fundamentalism which combines into a toxic brew “the hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights.” read more

The Conflict over Whether Judaism and Science Conflict

Thursday, January 30, 2014 @ 01:01 PM
posted by Roger Price

From time to time, like when an itch just needs to be scratched or a roiling cauldron must overflow, essays are written and debates ensue over the question of whether there is a conflict between Judaism and science. The direct answer to the question depends to a considerable degree on how one defines Judaism, and to a lesser degree on how one defines science. But discussions about the topic, even from Jewish perspectives, often miss that basic point.

Recently Moment Magazine asked nine rabbis the following question: “In what ways, if any, do science and Judaism conflict?” The rabbis were apparently selected as representative of, though not necessarily representatives of, various orientations and denominations. Moment even ordered their responses as if there were a spectrum of Jewish thought from Independent to Humanist, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Orthodox, and, ultimately, Chabad. (Parenthetically, whether this means that Moment believes that Reform is at the center of Jewish opinion is unknown.)  The rabbis’ responses are illustrative of the problem inherent in these kinds of discussions. read more