Scientists Fêted at 190th Annual Franklin Award Ceremony

Previous Franklin Laureates included:
• 1889, 1899, 1915: Thomas Alva Edison. For the telephone, electricity, phonograph and more inventions.
1894: Nikola Tesla. For high-frequency alternating electrical current.
1909: Marie and Pierre Curie. For the discovery of radium.
1912: Alexander Graham Bell: For the electrical transmission of articulate speech.
1914, 1933: Orville Wright. For the arts and science of aviation.
1918: Guglielmo Marconi. For the application of radio waves to communication.
1935: Albert Einstein. For work on relativity and the photo-electric effect.
1939: Edwin Hubble. For studies of extra-galactic nebulae.
• 1953: Frank Lloyd Wright. For contributions to architecture including Philadelphia’s Beth Shalom Congregation.
• 1970: Jacques Cousteau. For placing man in the sea as a free agent.
• 1981: Stephen Hawking. For contributions to the theory of general relativity and black holes.
• 1999: Noam Chomsky. For contributions to linguistics and computer science, and insight into human thought processes.
• 2003: Jane Goodall. For pioneering studies with chimpanzees.
2008: Judea Pearl (father of Daniel Pearl) for work in computers and cognitive science.


UCLA professor Judea Pearl created the first general algorithms for computing and reasoning with uncertain evidence, allowing computers to uncover associations and causal connections hidden within millions of observations.

Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute has been presenting the Benjamin Franklin Medal to leaders in science and engineering since 1824. It is the longest running science award in the United States; its history eclipses the Nobel Prize which was first awarded in 1901. This year’s distinguished laureates join the ranks of some of the most celebrated scientists and engineers in history who have come to Philadelphia to receive the Franklin Institute Award. (See sidebar on the right.)

As master of ceremonies for the fifth consecutive year, Bob Schieffer pointed out past laureates who were in attendance before the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial at the Franklin Institute. Schieffer is the moderator of CBS’s Face the Nation and has interviewed every US President since Richard Nixon. He enjoyed the chance to return to Philadelphia:

I interview people in Washington. Not much happens there anymore. [But] these [scientists]  are people who get things done…. As Franklin said: “An investment is knowledge pays the best dividends.”

Physics Award

Daniel Kleppner is one of the great Jewish minds at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He designed the precision hydrogen maser clocks which made today’s global positioning system (GPS) possible. He invented these clocks for an entirely different reason — to prove that time is slowed down by gravity as predicted by Franklin Award laureate Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Kleppner also devised techniques to create and manipulate Rydberg atoms. In recent years, Kleppner was indispensable in the creation of the long-sought Bose-Einstein condensate predicted by Einstein nearly a century ago. This is a rare and curious state of matter that is possible only at extremely low temperatures and may be instrumental to work in quantum computing.

Mechanical Engineering Award

Ali Hasan Nayfeh (VPI — Univ. Jordan) had a surprising journey to academic acclaim. He was born to illiterate parents in the Arab village of Tulkarm (טולכרם) during the British mandate of Palestine. (10 miles East of Netanya between Tel Aviv and Haifa). He quipped that if his father had listened to the local wise men he “would have been a camel driver” instead of a leading mechanical engineer. However, his mother encouraged him to study in the United States saying “Go ahead, but do not come back without earning the highest degrees.” He started at San Mateo Community College but followed his mother’s advice, earning his BS, MS and Ph.D. from Stanford University in four and a half years. He returned to the Middle East and founded the engineering school at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan.

In a broad sense, Nayfeh’s specialty is about finding some kind of order and predictability in seeming chaos, whether in the form of vibrations and sounds occurring in jet and rocket engines, the movement of water around ships, or the oscillations of huge structures such as cranes and skyscrapers. Unless well modeled, dangerous consequences may result: A bridge may collapse; a ship may break apart; a building may fall; a plane may crash. Nayfeh’s developed new analytic methods  using multiple time scales in perturbation analysis for the solution of the nonlinear differential equations at the heart of these phenomena.

More biographies and videos follow the jump.
Life Science Award

Joachim Frank was born during World War II in Siegen, Germany. He has vivid memories of staying in bomb shelters during allied bombing raids and wonders whether the uncertainty of war creating a need for order in his mind which led to his scientific investigations. According to Karpas Mossman:

As an 8-year-old boy, Frank was fascinated by science and conducted chemistry experiments under the veranda of his family’s house. Frank, like many scientists of a certain age, entered physics through the portal of amateur AM radio. “When I was 12 or 13,” he recalls, “I bought the first stuff for building radios-very small devices. Later I took old radios apart and reassembled them.”

Frank studied earned his Ph.D. in 1970 under the direction of Walter Hoppe, an X-ray crystallographer, in Munich at the Max Planck Institute für Eiweissund Lederforschung.

One of the professors on the examining board, impressed, nominated him for the prestigious Harkness fellowship. Under the terms of the Harkness, Frank was funded for two years’ work in the United States at any laboratory that would have him, plus a generous stipend for traveling. On arrival in the United States, Frank headed for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. The JPL might seem to be an odd destination for a specialist in microscopy, but “at the time,” Frank says, “they were the leading people in the world in image processing.” He was able to adopt the JPL software, to which he made his own electron-microscope-specific improvements.

The Franklin Institute’s award committee cited

Joachim Frank for the development of Cryo-Electron Microscopy [and] for using this technology to investigate the structure of large organic molecules at high resolution, and for discoveries regarding the mechanism of protein synthesis in cells.

Much of biology comes down to studying the smaller pieces of the larger whole: the structure and workings of DNA, RNA, the synthesis and folding of the proteins through which all life’s workings are accomplished. But these intricate processes occur at a level of existence that requires sophisticated techniques to capture, study, and ultimately understand. Joachim Frank has dedicated his career to extending the vision of science to previously unseen layers and depths.

Ever since its invention, electron microscopy (EM) has been one of science’s most powerful tools. Using a beam of electrons to probe matter at infinitesimal scales impossible with light microscopy, it has revolutionized the study of both the living and non-living universe. But it has its limitations, particularly in biology, where the radiation and hard vacuum needed for EM are anathema to living cells. Examining biological samples with EM generally means working with dead cells with a somewhat distorted structure unlike those in their native state. While dead cells are useful, their study doesn’t allow in vivo visualization of living processes. Using the techniques of cryo-electron microscopy and single-particle reconstruction, Frank has overcome these difficulties and accomplished unprecedented feats of structural biology, including some of the most detailed images yet seen of the ribosome and its workings.

The ribosome, the complex molecular machine that translates messenger RNA into functional proteins, has been a central touchstone for most of Frank’s work, both as a testing ground for the development of his microscopy and single-particle imaging techniques and as an object of study in its own right. Because the ribosome lacks the convenient crystallographic symmetry of other biological macro-molecules, it has proven notoriously difficult to fully visualize at high resolution. However, Frank made major strides in overcoming that problem. Devising techniques by which 2-D images from various angles (i.e., “single particles”) could be combined and averaged to create 3-D images, Frank the first three-dimensional images of the ribosome. He went on to develop the SPIDER software suite for the single-particle reconstruction of molecular structures, now used by researchers worldwide. In cryo-electron microscopy, a sample is examined after being frozen in vitreous (uncrystallized) ice, allowing biological macromolecules to be examined in their natural state without staining or other artifacts that can obscure structural detail. Frank used his image processing techniques in conjunction with cryo-EM to visualize the ribosome in action, showing protein synthesis as it happens. Perhaps his most notable achievement along these lines has been his discovery of the “ratcheting” motion that moves tRNA and mRNA through different parts of the ribosome during translocation.

Joachim Frank is a professor of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University in New York City. His lab is located at Columbia University Medical Center. He is married to Carol Saginaw, a Jewish woman from Michigan.

While I was speaking to him at the Franklin Institute, a guest came by to show him a necklace that she was wearing. The pendant on the necklace was a 3-d model of the ribosome structure which Frank had discovered from thousands of images. Indeed, Frank spoke in the institute’s video of the beauty in nature that can only be appreciated through science. Driving through the forest shortly after his discovery of the “ratcheting” motion of the two components of the ribosome he thought to himself how many trees there were, each with thousands of leaves, each with millions of cells, each with thousands of ribosomes constantly dancing in this “ratcheting” motion as they build new proteins and he felt privileged to have made the discovery which allowed him to be able to appreciate these processes which go on around us and inside us all the time.

Chemistry Award

Harvard Professor Christopher T. Walsh revolutionized “the development of antibiotics for the treatment of disease and provided the foundation for the new field of Chemical Biology.”

Earth and Environmental Science Award

Lisa Tauxe (Scripps, University of California San Deigo) developed “observational techniques and theoretical models providing an improved understanding of the behavior of, and variations in intensity of, the Earth’s magnetic field through geologic time.”


Electrical Engineering Award

Until recently magnetic media stored information “longitudinally” as magnetic signals arranged end-to-end on magnetic disks or tapes. However, technology had already approached the theoretical density limit as nearby magnetic dipoles naturally repel each other making further miniaturization impossible without a new paradigm. Instead, Shunichi Iwaski (Tohoku) and Mark Kryder (Carnegie Mellon) arranged the magnetic signals side-by-side, that is perpendicular to the magnetic media, boosting capacity by orders of magnitude. Seagate commercialized the first PRM hard drive in 2006 and now “virtually all hard disk drives operate with PRM principles”.


Bower Science Awards

Additionally since 1990, the Franklin Institute has bestowed the Bower Science Awards made possible by a bequest by the late Philadelphia chemical manufacturer Henry Bower. The Bower Award for Achievement in Science includes a $250,000 prize, one of the most significant scientific prizes in the U.S.

Edmund M. Clark (Harvard) led in “the conception and development of techniques for automatically verifying the correctness of a broad array of computer systems, including those found in transportation, communications, and medicine.”

William H. George (Carnegie Mellon) was honored for “his visionary leadership of Medtronic Corporation, his promotion and writings on corporate social responsibility and leadership, as well as his extraordinary philanthropic contributions to education and health care through The George Family Foundation.”

Learning the Science of Food

— by Hannah Lee

When I was enrolled in chemistry in college, it was a humbling experience to realize that I do not have the spatial intelligence to imagine organic molecules in three dimensions. However, I am an avid cook, so I was intrigued to register for Coursera’s free online course on the science of gastronomy.

The months of waiting until the start date was announced led me to wonder if the company was waiting for a threshold number of registrants, but by the time it was launched this summer, it was very well subscribed. By Assignment 9, the course had 5,438 students from all over the world, including Germany, Mexico and the Philippines.

More after the jump.  
This course was taught by two professors from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, so the deadlines for the weekly assignments were in Hong Kong time, 12 hours ahead of the Eastern Standard Time zone. Each week offered about two hours of video lectures, divided into smaller units of 15 minutes or less. The assignments were usually graded immediately on-screen. To pass and qualify for an “e-Statement of Accomplishment,” the student must score at least 70%.

There was a discussion forum for the students’ use. For the assignment on gluten development in dough, students shared ideas on what to do with the remains of the experiment: Their ideas included turning the non-yeasted mass into pizza, short-crust pie, and Christmas tree ornaments. I did not attempt to join a “Meetup” group, but I learned that 185 self-identified Philadelphians were taking a Coursera class.

The topics covered included: energy transfer, hunger and satiety, the sense of taste and smell, the sense of sight and touch, fruits and vegetables, a perfect steak, sauces, and dessert. I loved learning about the chemistry for what we cooks know from experience, and the two professors were thoroughly grounded in the scientific concepts. They also provided plenty of visual graphics, as well as student demonstrations from their campus.

One assignment was on the importance of our sense of smell for our enjoyment of food: Much of what we consider taste actually comes through our nose, which explains why a stuffy nose impairs our sense of taste. Another fun experiment was on how sweetness suppresses sourness, as we compared solutions of vinegar and sugar in different concentrations.

The assignment on gluten development was one that I was eager to do, because each of the test ingredients — oil, vinegar, and salt — is part of my regular challah recipe. I demonstrated to myself that each of the three hinders gluten development, yielding a mass with shorter strands of protein than the control portion of flour and water. I suppose they are included in my challah recipe for flavor and texture.

When I registered for the course last January, I noted a list of recommended books. Being the kind of college student who would purchased the books for interesting courses that she did not have time for, I ordered every one of them. I later found that while none of them were essential, they were useful references. If you are a foodie, the following titles are fine additions to your culinary library:

Coursera is a pioneer in offering massive open online courses (MOOCs), and since its launch in April 2012, it has rapidly added academic partners, which now total 66 institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Exploratorium, and the American Museum of Natural History, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. New partners are the University of Chicago, Yale, and Tel Aviv University.

Last March, Coursera announced a milestone number of over 3 million students, enrolled in 325 courses. I have not yet identified my next online class, but I can tell you that two local professors will be featured on Coursera: Paul Offit of the University of Pennsylvania will be teaching a nine-week class on vaccines, and Jonathan Biss of the Curtis Institute will be teaching a five-week course on Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Both classes will start on September 3rd.

Groundbreaking Research at Technion

Brain-Computer Interface: Overcoming Brain Injury

Once the stuff of science fiction, Technion researchers are developing technology that would allow a person paralyzed by ALS or Parkinson’s disease to move an object using only his thought processes. Prof. Miriam Zacksenhouse discusses her cutting-edge research in brain-computer interface: the point where brain research meets robotics.
TCE: Technion Computer Engineering Center

As computer technology has evolved, the boundaries between electronics and software have blurred. The new Technion Computer Engineering Center combines faculty from both areas, while also connecting Technion researchers to industry. Ruth Boneh, Director TCE and formerly of Intel, explains the novel concept.

B’nai B’rith to Host Top Israeli Biofuel Researchers


Fuel prices in Germany in Euros per liter.
US equivalent would be $4.87/gallon for bio-diesel and $5.51/gallon for diesel.

Today, B’nai B’rith International will host a welcome reception for 15 of Israel’s top biofuel researchers as they kick off a week-long scientific dialogue in the United States. The visitors, winners of the U.S.-Israel Bio-Energy Challenge, will begin their program with a briefing at the White House, followed by the event at B’nai B’rith headquarters.

Sponsored and coordinated by two not-for-profit organizations, The Israel Energy Partnership (TIEP) and the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Foundation (USISTF), the U.S-Israel Bio-Energy Challenge fosters a scientific exchange between Israeli experts and their counterparts in U.S. government agencies and private industry. The goals are to build bilateral energy cooperation between the two countries and to spur research and development on alternative fuels that can replace fuels derived from imported oil.

“We applaud the organizers of the Bio-Energy Challenge and we’re excited to be hosting some of Israel’s top minds in the field of biofuel research at our event,” B’nai B’rith International President Allan J. Jacobs said.

Israel is a global leader in cutting-edge R&D in this area, so we hope the dialogue they begin with American experts during their trip here will help both countries advance their common goal of independence from traditional fossil fuels.

Continued after the jump.
The Israeli delegation’s trip will includes stops in Washington, D.C., Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Emeryville, Calif. The visitors will meet a number of senior officials from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, NASA and other agencies, as well as top private and academic researchers.

“It’s important the United States and Israel work on this issue together,” B’nai B’rith Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin said.

For too long, the U.S. and its allies have relied on fuel from countries whose interests are adverse to our own. This oil dependence threatens our national security and we welcome increased cooperation between the U.S. and Israel in tackling this issue.

Social Consequences of Food Allergy

— by Catharine Alvarez

A recent study published in Pediatrics reported that over 30% of children with food allergies say they have been bullied about their allergies. Previous studies have also found that having a food allergy puts a child at risk for bullying. I’d like to share my experience with raising two children with food allergies and examine why bullying is such a problem for this group.

Les Misérables food allergy parody “One Grain More” the story of a “Food Allergy Party” by Michael Bihovsky with Dena Blumenthal, Megan Ermilio, Lily Bayrock, Michael DeFlorio, Bernie Langer, Matthew Dorsch and Liz Sanders.

More after the jump.
Food sharing is one of the most basic social constants in human culture.  We use food as our social glue. When a group shares food, we are saying we are a family, a team, a tribe. Many cultural traditions and religious rituals involve the sharing of food. We use it both as an offering and as a way of increasing our status within the group. We use it as a way of connecting with one another. So what are the consequences when an individual cannot participate in these most basic of social interactions? Asking this question can help us understand the social stigma of food allergies.

I have two children with anaphylactic food allergies who experienced this stigma during the time they were in public school. When I was new to the world of food allergies, I didn’t understand why many people seemed so resistant to accommodating the needs of my children. Why did they feel so angry about restrictions placed on bringing treats to class for holidays and birthdays? To me, it seemed obvious that a child’s safety should be placed above custom, and yet there were a few parents and teachers who intentionally circumvented the rules, and others who obeyed, but grudgingly. I learned that they viewed the safety rules as arbitrary barriers preventing them and their children from participating in the food sharing traditions they felt were vital for their own and their children’s social connections and standing.

Now let’s look at the same situation from the perspective of a child with food allergies. Whenever cupcakes were brought to class, my son was not able to eat one. Yes, we did provide him with some other treat, but the deeper message was that he could not share what the others were eating, and was not part of the group. Every event based on food sharing was a reminder of his separateness. It was also a reminder that the adults in charge did not think he was important enough to be included.

An example of the kind of food sharing interaction we all take for granted:
A parent comes to the class bringing cupcakes. Each student is offered a cupcake and enjoys the sweet treat. The students’ trust and liking for this parent is increased. The birthday student is a celebrity for a day, and when the other kids have their birthdays, they ask their parents to bring cupcakes.

What happens when there is a student with a food allergy in the class:
A parent brings cupcakes to class. My son is offered a cupcake, but he must say, “No thank you, I have food allergies.” He is allergic to egg, and these cupcakes almost certainly contain egg. This is the first moment where the food sharing ritual breaks down. The food allergic person is forced to refuse the offer of food. In many cultures, refusing an offer of food is considered rude. Even though he gives the reason (food allergies) this is often not accepted. People become defensive, and don’t believe that the allergy is real or serious. They offer objections: Their friend’s child is allergic to egg but can tolerate baked goods, so this cupcake is okay. A little bit won’t hurt. They are pretty sure the item doesn’t contain eggs, and so on. To them, his rejection of the food feels like a rejection of the person offering it.

Children with food allergies are put in the difficult social position of having to stand up to adults who are determined to give them unsafe food. My son tries to mollify them by saying, “It’s okay, I have my own treat.” Or he will take it and “save it for later,” but trying to avoid the stigma of the food allergy by saying that he is not hungry is not very effective because this is also seen as a rejection of the person offering the food. Eating his own treat does not serve the same symbolic social function as sharing what everyone else is eating. In fact, it carries the opposite meaning: he is separate, and not part of the group. Having to refuse the offered food sends the message, “I don’t trust you, and I don’t want to be part of your group.”

Even if the food allergic student’s parents try to compensate by bringing safe food to share with the whole group, the inability to reciprocate by accepting food from others creates stigma. When the parent of a food allergic child overcompensates by bringing multiple offers of food to the group, that is often met with resentment from the other parents who feel they are not given equal opportunities to share. This is a no-win situation, and the resentment of the group is expressed as ostracism of the allergic child and his family.

Many times, excluding the allergic child is rationalized:

  • He needs to get used to being left out because food allergies are a fact of his life.
  • Kids shouldn’t feel entitled to special treatment; the world isn’t going to change for them.
  • She’s used to being left out; it doesn’t bother her.
  • This child’s parents are overprotective; this level of caution is unnecessary.
  • Other people with food allergies can eat this, so this should be good enough for her, too.

The reality is that kids with food allergies get plenty of practice at being excluded. Far from feeling entitled to special treatment, they internalize the message that their food allergies are a burden to others. Children with food allergies do not take inclusion for granted. This is especially true for children with multiple food allergies, or who are highly sensitive to the allergens. They are at the greatest risk for stigmatization because the necessary precautions seem unusual to people. In addition, there are many people with food allergies who are not aware of best practices for food allergy management, and their casual approach to the risks involved is seen as more socially acceptable.

Modeling exclusion

My daughter’s teacher once decided to bring candy to the class for Easter. Since it was a last minute decision, the teacher didn’t take the time to ask me which candy was safe for my daughter who is allergic to peanuts. She gave the candy to all the children, including my daughter who tried to refuse it. When my daughter wouldn’t eat the candy, she was told she could eat a leftover part of her sandwich from her lunchbox while her classmates enjoyed the candy. My daughter was six years old.

When adults exclude the child with food allergies, they are modeling exclusion for everyone. They are sending a message to all the kids that it is okay to exclude the allergic child, and a message to the allergic child that they are not worth including. Many kids with food allergies are bullied at school because of this social stigma. Allergic children deserve to feel safe and that their well-being is important to the adults in charge. They deserve to have their basic needs for safety and inclusion met.

Take a moment to look at this diagram. If it looks familiar, that is probably because it is based on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Notice that the need to belong is part of the base of the pyramid. We are all social beings, and belonging is a basic, human need. The power of that need is probably greatest in adolescence, and that is reflected in the fact that teens are at a greater risk of dying from their food allergies than younger children. Years of social stigma take their toll, and teens may place a higher priority on inclusion than safety. And in the school context, when kids’ basic needs are not being met, their ability to learn is compromised.

If we can bring awareness to these very human reactions, we can choose to respond differently. We can choose to include kids with food allergies. This is going to require effort because accommodating food allergies means conscientiously checking ingredient labels and carefully cleaning cooking utensils and surfaces. It means talking to the child’s parents to find out what is safe. It means accepting that those parents may not feel comfortable trusting their child’s life to home baked cupcakes, and choosing to center a party around non-food activities instead. It means remembering that families with food allergies live with those inconveniences every day. Most kids take being included for granted. Imagine what it means to a child with food allergies.

What can you do?

As a parent of a child with food allergies you can:

  • Advocate for inclusion at school, and help raise awareness
  • Mitigate some of the exclusion by volunteering to share safe food
  • Support your child’s self-advocacy efforts

As a teacher you can:

  • Choose to use non-food items for class projects, manipulatives, and incentives
  • Promote celebrations that focus on activities rather than food
  • Support the self-advocacy of children with food allergies

As a parent of a child without food allergies you can:
Choose to send non-food treats for holidays and birthdays
Make an effort to include the allergic child in social events outside of school
Model compassion for kids with food allergies to your own children

Catharine Alvarez, PhD studied applied mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently home schooling her two children while independently studying psychology and game theory.

She writes about education, food allergies, advocacy, and mathematics, and moderates online interest groups for food allergies and math education.

A Film Informs My Sh’ma: Powers Of Echad

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

As a single young man in 1977, I once found myself in a science museum where I viewed a just released short film that — there’s really no other way to put it — expanded my consciousness.  It apparently did the same for many others and remains to this day, despite powerful advances in special effects, an impressive work.

More after the jump.
Produced the year I encountered it by husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten begins with a simple scene, a picnic in a Chicago park.  As predicted by the voice-over, though, the camera pulls away from the picnic, at a rate of one power of ten per 10 seconds.  The zoom-out continues straight up, so that, in a few seconds, the picnic blanket is but a dot of color against the green expanse of the park, which soon enough, with the camera continuing to soar heavenward, itself shrinks to a speck.  Then the viewer sees the outline of Lake Michigan, then North America; the earth’s cloud cover next fills the screen, and then earth itself, which itself quickly recedes into the distance.  Eventually we see an image of our solar system and then the galaxy to which it belongs, before it, too, becomes but one of many galaxies.  The camera seems to fly ever backward, until it reaches the farthest reaches of space.


The effect is visceral, or at least it was for me.  It recalled to me how, as a child, I would sometimes lie flat on my back on our lawn on a clear dark night and concentrate my vision on the starry sky until I felt an inexplicable and sudden shock.  It was as if the sheer vastness of the stars, of the universe itself, had somehow reached out and seized me; it was a frightening experience, yet one that, when feeling brave, I would occasionally seek out.  Although Powers of Ten on a screen could not quite evoke that childhood shudder, it visually captured, maybe even more compellingly, the vastness of the cosmos.

The film, which proceeds from outer space to inner space, zooming back in to the picnic and then further, into the skin of a picnicker, into one of his cells and its DNA, then into an atom and an electron, has been recently celebrated on the 35-year anniversary of its release.  (Charles Eames passed away the following year, in 1978, and his wife Ray, in an arresting irony, died precisely — to the Gregorian calendar day — ten years later.)

The short film actually plays a role in my life as an observant Jew, thrice daily when reciting the fundamental Jewish credo, the Sh’ma (at morning and evening prayers and before retiring). The Sh’ma declares G-d’s transcendence of time and space, and, as we pronounce the word echad (“one”) halacha prescribes that we try to conceptualize, to the degree we can, the immensity of the universe – “above and below and in all four directions” (Brachos 13b) — and the fact that the Creator of it all is not of it at all but “beyond” it and in control of it.

One of the ancient Hebrew euphemisms for G-d is “Makom,” which literally means “place.”  The Talmud explains that the word describes the Divine because “the universe is not His place, but rather He is the ‘Place’ of the universe.”  

Leaving — even in our imaginations — the dimensions of time and space isn’t an option for us mortals.  We are like the two-dimensional residents of Flatland, Edwin Abbott’s 1884 satirical fantasy world, trying to comprehend three-dimensional existence.  There is a reason the Hebrew word for both time and space is “olam,” rooted in “ne’elam,” which means “hidden.”

And yet, we are required all the same to concentrate, as we recite the first verse of the Sh’ma, on G-d’s transcendence of time and space.  That can be done in an entirely intellectual manner, without any sort of visualization.  I find it helpful, though, when I recite the Sh’ma, to try to capture something of the feeling I felt as a child lying on the lawn on those starry nights. Images from Powers of Ten, as they did 35 years ago, provide me a “visual” to accompany the intellectual recognition of the scope of the olam.

I doubt that the Eamses ever thought of their film as something that would come to invigorate a Jewish religious devotion.  But that’s what it did, at least for this Jew.

© 2012 Rabbi Avi Shafran

It’s All in the Angle (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.