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The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century

Oxford University Press
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I have a good friend who taught mathematics at my institution (Bates College ) for a couple years, and then was Dean of Women (when that position still existed) in the 70s, but is best known as the author of a memoir called Seed of Sarah. Like the scientists profiled in The Martians of Science, she is a Hungarian émigré and her early dreams and aspirations (for instance to study literature at the Sorbonne) were interrupted by Hitler’s rise to power. The time appears to be ripe for telling the stories of “these products of Budapest’s Golden Age” as this group of Hungarians has been described by Kati Marton, another refugee (this time from the Communists) who fled Hungary as a child in 1957. Marton’s choice of nine exceptional Hungarians in her book The Great Escape, includes four of the five scientists (Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann) whose lives are chronicled by István Hargittai (the fifth is Theodore von Kármán) in the book under review. Her collection also includes the stories of two photographers, two film directors and a writer (more on him later).

István Hargittai is well positioned to write about this extraordinary group of scientists. He is a physical chemist who has also published books and articles on symmetry (a topic he was introduced to by Wigner) and interviews with famous scientists. Thus he is versed in the science as well as having had the opportunity to know some of the subjects and their families before they died (the last of them, Teller, died in 2003). Although Hargittai is sympathetic to his subjects and “found some common traits in our origins and backgrounds” (p. viii), his narrative is primarily factual and dispassionate. Marton’s tale is more personal, “in my bloodstream” as she says in her introduction, and she openly identifies with the characters she writes about. Both authors muse on the reasons for the recent spate of interest in the Hungarian Jewish diaspora. Marton attributes the time lag in writing this story for an English speaking audience to the impenetrability of the Hungarian language (in which some early studies were done) and the difficulty of doing history during the communist regime.

Hargittai acknowledges the work of previous Hungarian authors like the physicist George Marx (The Voice of the Martians) and William O. McCagg Jr (Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary), who directly addresses the question “In Explanation of Hungary’s Scientific Geniuses.” Although one may still not be able to tease apart the interacting roles of nature and nurture in forming these men, after reading The Martians of Science one understands and appreciates just how special they were. The reason for the nickname is given early in the introduction, and I’ll let you read it for yourself. And I’ll also warn you that, at least in my edition, pages 147-178 from Chapter 5 are misplaced after page 114 in Chapter 4. But aside from that, the book is well edited.

The first five chapters of the book are organized chronologically: from childhood to the Gimnazium; emigration to Germany; the transition to the United States; World War II; the Cold War. After providing historical background for each period, the author tells each scientist’s story during that time, again organized chronologically (by birth year): von Kármán (1881-1963); Szilard (1898-1964); Wigner (1902-1995); von Neumann (1903-1957); Teller (1908-2003). This format got a little tedious after a while, although it is effective for drawing comparisons, which the author does in the sixth chapter, where he is interested in their differences not as scientists but in the ways they reacted to the same external events. In an epilogue, Hargittai indulges in some speculation on what constitutes greatness in science and explores some “what if” questions on the hypothetical fates of the Martians under different circumstances.

I was particularly interested in the mathematical side of each of these characters. Von Kármán and Hilbert were evidently close friends (they were introduced by Alfred Haar) and Hilbert taught von Kármán who became a pioneer in mathematical aerodynamics, to value quantitative descriptions of Nature. Zermelo is said to have quipped “Kármán, of all the applied idiots I think you are the only one with the possibility of being educated” (p. 36). There are other moments of humor sprinkled throughout the book. Speaking of Zermelo (who proved the very first theorem on game theory in 1913), there is an often-recounted story of von Neumann meeting with Stan Ulam at the Chicago train station to recruit him for the Manhattan Project. He could not tell Ulam the location, only that it was in the southwest, to which Ulam famously replied: “I know you can’t tell me but you say you are going southwest in order that I should think that you are going northeast. But I know you are going southwest, so why do you lie?” This was, of course, a reworking of an old Jewish joke about two men on a train to Kiev. What struck me on reading it this time, was how much the joke embodied game theoretic reasoning and how perfectly apt it was that it should have been told of von Neumann.

Although they ended up on opposite sides of the political spectrum, both Szilard and Teller remained good friends and shared friendship with another Hungarian émigré, Arthur Koestler (the writer profiled by Marton) whose Darkness at Noon had a profound effect on Teller in particular. He read it at Los Alamos in 1943, and called it a “major milestone” in his thinking, thereafter seeing himself as an anti-communist “of the school of Koestler” (from Teller’s Memoirs, quoted on p. 128, The Martians). Coincidentally, just last week while I was having lunch with my Hungarian author/mathematician friend, she mentioned a short piece in December 18, 2006 issue of The New Yorker about the artist Eva Zeisel, who was a childhood friend of Koestler, and later, for a brief period in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, his lover. Zeisel escaped the Nazis, but was imprisoned by Stalin’s secret police for 16 months of mostly solitary confinement in the Soviet Union. And it was this experience, as recounted to him by Zeisel, that Koestler used in writing Darkness at Noon. Eva just turned 100 last month. My friend was 80 last year, and I soak up all her stories of that exceptional time and place that spawned so many creative individuals. I feel a strange kinship with these people. I live in a world they had a large role in shaping. Publishing their stories seems timely and relevant. Reading about their lives helps me understand my own world a little better.

Bonnie Shulman is Associate Professor of Mathematics at Bates College in Lewiston, ME. She is interested in the history and philosophy of mathematics and science and has a special fascination with the history of the Manhattan Project.

Date Received: 
Friday, September 1, 2006
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István Hargittai
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Bonnie Shulman

List of Plates
1. Arrival and Departure
1.1. Family Origin and Early Childhood
1.2. Gem and Less: Gimnazium Experience
1.3. Background in Hungary and First Transition
2. Turning Points in Germany
3. Second Transition: to the United States
4. "To Protect and Defend": World War II
5. To Deter: Cold War
6. Being Martian
6.1. Comparisons
6.1.1. Szilard and Fermi
6.1.2. Teller and Oppenheimer
6.2. Traits
6.3. Religion and Jewishness
6.4. Being Hungarian
Greatness in Science
Had They Lived
Appendix: Quotable Martians
Select Bibliography
Annotated Name Index
Subject Index
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Saturday, December 30, 2006