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The Martians of Science: An Excerpt

martians.jpgWe received a great tip this week from Crooked Timber about The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century by István Hargittai. Apparently, Charlie Munger, recommended it at the Wesco Annual Meeting. Hargittai’s book tells the story of five brilliant men born at the turn of the twentieth century in Budapest: Theodore von Kármán, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller. Below is an excerpt from the introduction to the book.


Budapest in the period 1867–1914 was a uniquely fertile site for promoting talent. The first date refers to the so-called Compromise between the Habsburgs and Hungary and the second to the outbreak of World War I. The compromise was called Ausgleich in German and Kiegyezés in Hungarian. The Habsburgs and the Hungarians had to come to an agreement following the crushed Hungarian revolution and war for liberation of 1848–1849 against Austria. The Habsburgs could not defeat the Hungarians alone and had to call in the Russian czar for their rescue. A period of ruthless terror followed and finally the Austria weakened by lost foreign wars could no longer live with a rebellious nation under her rule. The compromise created a dual monarchy of Austria and Hungary, a personal union under Franz Joseph I. He became the King of Hungary in addition to being the emperor of the rest of the empire. The Austrians and the Hungarians henceforth reigned over smaller nations. Thus, for example, the Kingdom of Hungary included Croatia and Slovakia, which today exist as independent nations. The monarchy had Vienna and Budapest as its twin capitals. Budapest was born from uniting Buda, Pest, and Óbuda (ancient Buda) in 1871, with Buda and Óbuda on the right bank of the Danube and Pest on the left. Buda is hilly and Pest is considered to be plain because its elevation is gradual; its outer districts reach the altitude of the conspicuous Gellért Hill of the Buda side. The city lies in a basin and the air sits over it when there is no wind, turning into smog especially in wintertime.

With 1867, the door opened to unprecedented progress in Hungary, and Budapest became one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. Immigration was encouraged. At the end of the nineteenth century Budapest was one of the main destinations of Jewish immigration in the world, second, perhaps, only to New York City. According to some, the more well-to-do Jews congregated in Budapest and the poorer went to New York. The Hungarian nobility—and it was a large class, especially those without any land—monopolized the political bureaucracy and the military. It left wide open the professional intellectual trades, which became vastly popular among the recently emancipated Jews, as well as among the Germans and other minorities. There seemed to be a welcome division of labor between Hungarians and Jews with intensifying Jewish assimilation. This assimilation was largely welcomed by the Hungarians and especially by the political elite. This was because the loyal Jewish Hungarians strengthened numerically the Hungarian population that found itself in the minority in large areas of this multiethnic country.

There are opposing views as to the origin of the great possibilities for Jews in fin de siècle Hungary (meaning, of course, the turn of the twentieth century). According to one view, it was because Hungary was so liberal. The opposing view maintains that it was exactly Hungary’s backward feudalistic regime that brought about those unique opportunities for Jews in Hungary.1 In any case, their numbers were swelling because of the absence of persecution. They burst onto this scene after centuries of having been excluded from the professions. They were ready for the new opportunities because their culture valued education.

Budapest of the early 1900s has been the subject of as much scrutiny as admiration because of its extraordinary production of gifted scientists, artists, composers, and playwrights. One-fifth of its population was Jewish, consisting of native Budapesters, incomers from provinces of Hungary proper, and immigrants from all directions. My own ancestors came from the northwest on the paternal side and from the southwest on the maternal side. They spoke German, and soon learned Hungarian.

Many came from the East, from Galicia (see map), and they spoke Yiddish. An early twenty-first century anti-Semitic utterance by an extreme right-wing Calvinist minister in Budapest referred to Jews as “the nobodies from Galicia.” Whether he knew it or not, and it would not have mattered to him anyway, Galicia has produced an extraordinary amount of talent in the Western world, often going through Hungary. This is little known because often these outstanding contributors to world culture had lost their Eastern origins and been regarded as Austrians. A case in point is Erwin Chargaff, the noted biochemist, who lived in the United States from the mid-1930s and whom everybody considered to be the archetypical Viennese, which he was. But Chargaff was originally from Czernowitz, which he describes as “at that time a provincial capital of the Austrian monarchy” and he refers to his father as “a typical old-fashioned Austrian.”2 A look at the map reveals that Czernowitz (called #ernovcy today) is about 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the eastern border of today’s Austria, east of the CarpathianMountains and well into today’s Ukraine.

Isidor I. Rabi’s Nobel autobiography states that he was born in Raymanov, Austria.3 His biographer writes more precisely that he was born in Rymanow Galicia, “then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, now in Poland.”

It is curious that nobody has yet made a compilation of famous scientists who originated from Galicia and more broadly from the strip of area stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltics, much of which used to be called the Pale. It would be of interest to examine the fertility of that region for scientific talent. The task would not be easy because of the masking effects of autobiographies by such people as Chargaff and Rabi. Of our five heroes, at least Szilard’s and von Neumann’s ancestors had come from Galicia.

For prominent Jews the ultimate sign of assimilation in Hungary was to become a member of the hereditary nobility. And what could have been better evidence of the liberal atmosphere of the Habsburg Empire than the fact that even non-converted Jewish families could acquire such a distinction? In the early 1900s, even some members of the Hungarian government came from Jewish families, with names that sounded genuinely Hungarian. But World War I, known also as the Great War, brought an end to this seemingly idyllic situation. The most forward-looking Jewish families had sensed for some time that the peaceful condition could not last forever and made sure that their children received a good education that would help them survive in any part of the world. In addition to the traditional approach of placing great emphasis on education, this meant cultivation of modern languages and practical trades.

Von Kármán, Szilard, Wigner, von Neumann, and Teller came from a Budapest upper-middle class Jewish background and developed like many other children of similar backgrounds. Even their precocity might not have led to extraordinary lives had there not been some special circumstances. Many others experienced similar circumstances but perhaps not in their totality. These included affluence, valuing education and culture, and early exposure to totalitarianism: the short-lived Hungarian “Soviet” Republic and the savage White Terror that followed it in Hungary in 1919–1920. They knew that they had to excel in their immediate environment in order to survive, and they gained experience from early emigration. This emigration was forced upon them not only by anti-Semitis but also by the lack of perspective at home. They all went to Germany, whose economy had suffered from a lost war, but which at the time was a flourishing democracy, the Weimar Republic. Many others followed this path and their destinations included other West European nations as well. My future stepfather was among them.5

The most important experience for the Martians in Germany was that they became part of top-of the-world science. This catapulted them into a different orbit. This experience was the Berlin physics colloquia for Szilard, Wigner, and von Neumann; Werner Heisenberg’s Leipzig group for Teller; and, two decades before, Ludwig Prandtl in Göttingen for von Kármán. The five were able to turn this opportunity to their advantage and soon became recognized players in top science. This was a turning point in their lives. That Hungary ejected them so early was also to their advantage as it prepared them for later challenges. Their Hungarian existence was the first period of their lives, and their years in Germany the second. The third period started with their departure from Germany and lasted until the start of World War II. There were small variations. For Szilard it was a shorter period, which ended when he realized the possibility of nuclear chain reaction. For Teller it ended when he attended Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech to the scientists that made him realize that he—together with thousands of others— carried a special responsibility.

The fourth period was World War II and within it, conspicuously, the creation of the atomic bomb. This was the time when their political formation was completed. The fifth period was the Cold War, including the development of the hydrogen bomb and, on von Kármán’s part, the creation of the modern U.S. Air Force. The hydrogen bomb dominated Teller’s and von Neumann’s defenserelated activities, while civil defense was Wigner’s highest concern. Szilard was also deeply involved (although on the other side of the fence) with the struggle to curb the arms race and bring the two superpowers together. Von Neumann died in 1957, von Kármán in 1963, and Szilard in 1964. Wigner carried on. He remained committed to defense, but his activities no longer carried global significance. In this last period, Teller remained alone in his self-determined role as defender of Western civilization, as he saw it, or as a Cold War warrior, as many others saw him. Our discussion will loosely follow this subdivision of their paths.

Of all the five friends, only Teller remained a non-converted Jew, but this had no more significance on his life than the conversion of the others had on theirs. Their Jewishness was not a determining factor per se, but it was an important factor because of the external circumstances. This is basically why they had to leave Hungary, and then Germany as well. Their common Jewish roots and similar backgrounds in childhood and youth contributed much to their friendships and much to their dedication to fight totalitarian regimes. Their being Hungarian and Jewish is interwoven, regardless of whether we consider Szilard and von Neumann, who never stepped onto Hungarian soil after World War II, or Teller, who loved to bathe in Hungarian recognition and admiration after the political changes of 1989–1990. When Teller first returned to Hungary after the fall of the one-party system, he addressed his audience at a rally with something like “My blood brother Hungarians!”6 This was as bizarre as it was pathetic.

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