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January 27: The Geochemist and the Nazis

Lawrence Bush
January 27, 2017

Victor Moritz Goldschmidt, a Norwegian scientist considered to be the father of modern geochemistry and inorganic crystal chemistry, was born in Zurich on this date in 1888. Goldschmidt, the son of generations of rabbis, achieved fame as a young man (he had his doctorate by age 23) investigating the chemistry of minerals and the origins and composition of the planets in our solar system. His Goldschmidt Classification Table grouped the chemical elements within the Earth according to their preferred manifestations: lithophile (rock-loving), siderophile (iron-loving), chalcophile (ore-loving or chalcogen-loving), and atmophile (gas-loving). He also sought to complete a table of crystals and to explain the conditions of their formation. Goldschmidt joined the faculty of the University of Göttingen in Germany in 1929, but the rise of Nazism in 1933 drove him back to Norway. When the Nazis occupied Norway, he was twice arrested and then interned in a concentration camp. Late in 1942, Goldschmidt escaped to Sweden, then to Great Britain, with the help of British intelligence. He returned to Oslo in 1946 and died there the following year at 59.

Geochemistry is “the distribution and amounts of the chemical elements in minerals, ores, soils, waters, and the atmosphere, and the circulation of the elements in nature, on the basis of the properties of their atoms and ions.” --Victor Moritz Goldschmidt

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.