Chosen people's chosen subject: scientific greatness

Jewish pre-eminence in 20th-century science was not a result of their genes. Matthew Reisz reports

June 10, 2010

A leading historian of science and religion has attempted to explain the startlingly high profile of Jews in 20th-century science.

Speaking at the Faraday Institute in St Edmund's College, Cambridge last week, Noah Efron, senior faculty member on the graduate programme in science, technology and society at Bar Ilan University in Israel, recalled one of the classic Bar Mitzvah presents from mid-20th-century America: the book From Moses to Einstein: They All Are Jews.

Many of the role models featured were scientists, he said, "a source of swelling pride for the great majority of Jews who would never wear a lab coat, titrate a solution or integrate a function. Jews had become important in science and science had become important to Jews."

This was just one sign of a much larger phenomenon, he said. Right across the world, and particularly in pre-Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and the US, Jews had a presence in science and won scientific Nobel prizes in wildly disproportionate numbers.

Quite simply, argued Dr Efron, "the achievements of science in the 20th century cannot be separated from the achievements of Jews in science". The key question is why.

A central part of the answer was the ideal - or illusion - of science as a field that "rejected as a matter of principle the notion that people ought to be judged by their ethnicity or creed or background ... Science seemed to offer Jews a nonpareil tool for entering into the non-Jewish societies where they found themselves," Dr Efron said.

"It seemed to offer a seat at the table, and sometimes the supremely elegant table, of the Royal Society, the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, or the Academy of Sciences of the USSR."

In early 20th-century America, advertising, banking, journalism and law all had more or less overt barriers to Jewish entry, he said. Yet Dr Efron claimed that "scientists and scientific institutions seemed to be sidestepping with growing success the exclusionary leather-armchair-and-brandy-snifter Protestantism that had stymied Jews in other areas".

Hence Jews of every stripe - "Zionists and anti-Zionists, businessmen and union organisers, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews" - all enthusiastically embraced the scientific ideal.

However, Dr Efron acknowledged, we may now doubt whether science can ever truly be "blind to the beliefs and backgrounds of scientists". Recent academic studies tend to stress "biases of race and gender" and "how science has served the monied and powerful".

Yet there was no doubt that science had once proved an intoxicating and inspirational ideal for Jews, "because it seemed to offer a way of doing good for oneself as well as mankind", he added.

Asked about issues of natural aptitude, Dr Efron emphatically rejected the idea of "Jewish genius". Boxing was once a largely Jewish sport, but no one would dream of looking for "Jewish boxing genes". The same applied to the remarkable Jewish achievement in the sciences, he said.

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