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Beyond Budapest: how science built bridges

Fin de siècle Hungary was a progressive country. It had limited sovereignty as part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy but industry, trade, education, and social legislation were rapidly catching up with the Western World. The emancipation of Jews freed tremendous energies and opened the way for ambitious young people to the professions in law, health care, science, and engineering (though not politics, the military, and the judiciary). Excellent secular high schools appeared to challenge the already established denominational high schools; there was a healthy competition and the result were graduates that would become major players in world science and culture. They included seven future Nobel laureates, among them Eugene P. Wigner and Dennis Gabor, and the five so-called Martians of Science, among them John von Neumann and Leo Szilard.

The happy peacetime of fin de siècle Hungary changed drastically after World War I. Firstly, there was the brief, ruthless, Red Dictatorship (March-August 1919), followed by the equally ruthless White Terror (1920-1944). Hungary had the sad record of introducing the first anti-Jewish legislation in post-World War I Europe. The so-called numerus clausus (closed number) law in 1920 severely restricted the number of Jewish students in Hungarian higher education. Toward the end of Nicholas Horthy’s anti-Semitic regime, it became numerus nullus, and hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed in 1944 and 1945. The lucky ones had already left the country. In the 1920s, they mostly left for a democratic Germany. After the Nazi takeover of Germany, they fled to Great Britain and the United States. The exodus of young, ambitious Jews has continued ever since. In fact, nowadays, it is not only a Jewish phenomenon. Economic opportunities in the West and the shortage of democracy in Eastern Europe pull many young people of varying backgrounds to the West.

The Abel-Prize winning mathematician Peter Lax, of New York University, was 15-years old when he left Hungary for the United States with his family in 1941. They were lucky to take the last boat from Lisbon to New York. Until his departure, he was a student of the ‘Minta,’ the Model Gimnázium in Budapest, where before him, among others, the US aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán, the economist-historian Karl Polanyi, the chemist turned philosopher Michael Polanyi, the UK economists Baron Thomas Balogh and Baron Nicholas Kaldor, and the US nuclear physicist Edward Teller had studied.

Peter Lax, by Konrad Jacobs. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Lax had excelled in math in Budapest and his physician father consulted von Neumann as to where his son should continue his education. In New York, Lax attended the Stuyvesant High School, but he did not take math. Instead, he became a member of the math team of Stuyvesant. In the year when Lax was member of the team, Stuyvesant won the national competition in math. The Stuyvesant—now occupying a different campus—has graduated four future Nobel laureates.

The Budapest high schools are notorious for producing world-famous scientists and other contributors to world culture. Don’t be too quick to idealize these schools, however. The “drill-like” atmosphere was not pleasant, even for their best pupils. The lessons started with recitation and the teacher could call upon any pupil at any time, so all were in frightened anticipation. Lax’s experience is unique in that he could compare his experience in the Minta and in the Suyvesant.

Lax was a good student yet his teachers petrified him at the Minta. At the Stuyvesant, Lax felt his teachers were friends. In a conversation with us, Lax admitted that despite the unpleasant “drill-like” atmosphere, Hungarian high schools proved efficient in preparing its pupils for life. The pupils found themselves in a realistic life situation with powerful enemies. They all recognized who their enemy was: the teacher.

Dennis Gabor (1900-1979) attended another high school in Budapest, a generation before Lax. It was the Berzsenyi Gimnázium. This school also produced notable graduates, perhaps more in the humanities and social sciences. Following high-school graduation, Gabor continued in Berlin and trained to become an engineer-physicist to acquire skills and knowledge that would guarantee his employment in Great Britain. In England, he held research and development jobs in industrial laboratories, followed by professorial appointments at Imperial College in London. He invented holography, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1971.

These are just two examples. Both Gabor and Lax demonstrated parallel lives that linked two cities. Budapest, on the one hand, and New York and London, on the other. Budapest ejected them whereas New York and London welcomed them. Thus, science has built bridges, albeit highly asymmetric ones, between Budapest and New York and Budapest and London. Sadly, none of the Hungarian scientists who have won the Nobel Prize went to Stockholm from Budapest to claim it; they went there from other lands. Yet, we are proud of them, and their impact on science in their birth city of Budapest.

Featured image credit: ‘Anonymous’, by Jenny Downing. CC-by-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. ange. ferrer

    The Hargittais have a talent for bringing to life people who have only been names in the press or journals.

    They also seem to be able to inject a little paprika into their discussions. We are very thankful that they have exercised their writing talents illuminating the world of science.

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