Dr. Fredy Zypman’s physics students at Yeshiva College in Upper Manhattan owe a debt to the South American Spanish-language propaganda activities of the Soviet Union.
Dr. Zypman, who lives in Cresskill with his wife, Raquel, and their two children, grew up in Montevideo, Uruguay. His grandparents had immigrated in the late 1920s, Jews fleeing Poland or perhaps Russia, depending when you checked the lines on the map. But by the 1970s, Uruguay no longer was a democracy. It was ruled by a right-wing military dictatorship. The effect of that change on Dr. Zypman was a career trajectory that recently led Materials Today — a website that serves as an umbrella for more than 100 journals with titles like “Advances in Colloid and Interface Science” and “Ultramicroscopy” — to award Dr. Zypman with an “Embracing Challenge” award.
“It was during the Cold War,” Dr. Zypman said of his childhood. “Even though it was clear the government had defeated the left-wing guerrillas, the Russians kept sending propaganda. Some of it was really not direct. Through local bookshops, they would sell very, very cheap publications about everything. Small pamphlets. You could read about physics, chemistry.”
This started his interest in physics. “I read many of these,” he said. “You could find them very easily on the streets.”
But this was not a good time to be interested in physics in Uruguay. The government had slashed education budgets and purged liberal professors from the universities.
“It was impossible to study science,” he said. “Humanities were even more complicated because of ideology. They had some trade schools, like engineering and medicine.”
So he enrolled in Uruguay’s University of the Republic and studied engineering. His heart still was set on physics, though, and he sought out teachers. He found a core of former physics teachers to help him privately.
This was not risk-free under the dictatorship.
As Materials Today tells it: “Unreported gatherings were restricted in Uruguay at that time. Certain political or suspicious books were prohibited, and simply carrying a book on quantum physics once led to Fredy being taken to a police station for interrogation.”
One professor led him to an unused room that had been an active physics lab 30 years earlier. There was a crystallography machine, used for studying the arrangements of molecules in a substance. “The professor didn’t know how to use the old machine,” Dr. Zypman said. “It broke down after a few uses.”
He earned his degree in engineering in 1982.
Already in high school, Dr. Zypman had discovered that physics was alive and well across the border.
“I got hold of a book of physics written in Argentina,” he said. “At the back of the book it said you can study physics at this institute in Argentina. I was a teenager. That was out of my league at the moment. But it stayed in my mind.”
So with his engineering degree under his belt, he joined the country’s brain drain and went to Simon Bolivar University in Venezuela, a relatively new institution modeled on MIT.
Venezuela had managed to weather the guerrilla storms of the 1960s without the sort of U.S.-backed dictatorship and repression that governed Argentina and Chile as well as Uruguay.
“A lot of professors from many countries went there,” Dr. Zypman said.
He studied in Venezuela for three years and earned an advanced degree in physics. He already had found a job working in a metals company when one his professors urged him to study for a doctorate.
“She hooked me up with people at Case Western Reserve University, where I got my Ph.D.,” Dr. Zypman said. He wrote his dissertation on high frequency electromagnetic fields in magnetic resonance imaging.
After a postdoc at the University of North Carolina, he taught at the University of Puerto Rico for nine years. He joined the YU faculty in 2000. Besides continuing his research — he recently published “Nanoparticle Charge in Fluid from Atomic Force Microscopy Forces within the Nonlinear Poisson-Boltzmann Equation” in the Journal of Applied Mathematics and Physics — he teaches both physics majors and non-science students.
“I always try to tell them that the most important thing they can benefit from is the different way of thinking physics provides, of approaching problems analytically,” Dr. Zypman said. “Be very suspicious, be very analytical, and try to come up with answers on your own. Which of course could be very annoying sometimes.”