Fizikai Szemle nyitólap


Fizikai Szemle 1999/5. 153.o.


George Marx
Department of Atomic Physics
Eötvös University, Budapest

May you live in interesting times!
(ancient Chinese New Year's wish)

From European Battlefields to Sweden

During World War I deep in imperial Russia, in Turkestan, near the Afghan border at the town of Merv, there was a camp for prisoners of war. One day in October 1915, a Russian officer was desperately looking for a certain Dr. Bárány among the prisoners. When the officer found him, he handed over a cable from Stockholm, informing the prisoner of war that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize. This was acknowledged by a telegram answer (facsimile):




Prince Charles, the president of the Swedish Red Cross, later contacted Grand Duke Konstantin, the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, to release Robert Bárány to attend the Nobel Ceremony in Stockholm. As a youth, his leg had been infected, resulting in a limp. The Russian general ordered the release of Robert Bárány as a war invalid. As Bárány began to explain that his stiff leg was due to a childhood illness, the general replied, - It's me who decides who is a war invalid, not you! - Thus Dr. Bárány was transferred to Finland and released to Sweden. Robert Bárány (1846-1936) received the NOBEL PRIZE from the King of Sweden "for his work on the physiology and pathology of the vestibular apparatus" on 11 September 1916.

After the glorious Nobel ceremony Robert Bárány returned to Vienna. There he learned that the Council of the Faculty of Vienna University had rejected his nomination to university professor because his jealous university colleagues had queried his priority. A cartoon in a Viennese newspaper depicted Dr. Bárány holding the Nobel diploma and saying: - I have succeeded in curing all kinds of ear injuries but the deafness of the Vienna Faculty. - After having cleared himself in court from the accusation of plagiarism, Bárány accepted the invitation of Uppsala University and obtained Swedish citizenship in 1917. - He rests in the Stockholm cemetery.

This story characteristically illustrates the fate of scientists in Central Europe, a region always at the crossroads of history, but especially so in the 20th century. I would like to argue about the advantages of growing up in such an interesting region of space-time.

telegram facsimile


Robert Bárány's oldest son, Ernst Bárány, having hesitated between the study of radio electronics and hearing, between the study of physics and medicine, finally became a professor of medicine at the University of Uppsala. His son, Anders Bárány, however, is now professor of physics at the University of Stockholm, president of the Swedish Physical Society, and serves the Nobel Committee for Physics.

- As you may know, the first recipient of the Nobel Prize in otology (the science of the ear), Robert Bárány, was of Hungarian origin - Nobel laureate Békésy said at the dinner following the Nobel ceremony in 1961. Georg von Békésy (1899-1972) studied chemistry in Bern, obtained a Ph.D. degree in physics in Budapest (1923), worked in telecommunication engineering in the laboratory of the Hungarian Postal Service, just to obtain the Nobel Prize in physiology for his achievements in otology. The centenary of his birth is celebrated this June.

The laboratory of the Hungarian Telephone Service was well equipped. When complaints arrived from abroad about the poor quality of the long-distance phone lines running through Budapest, young Békésy was charged to solve the problem. This practical task led him to investigate the weakest part of the system: the receiver. The functional similarity between the microphone membrane and the ear drum led him to the study of the inner ear. His research brought him fame but he regarded as his greatest honor the invitation of Nobel laureate Robert Bárány, to Uppsala. In Budapest Békésy was promoted to professor of physics at the University (1943). But now World War II was on. An American air raid destroyed a neighboring building, partly Békésy's laboratory as well. Street fighting contributed to further damage of his equipments and papers. So it happened that George von Békésy accepted an invitation to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm (1946). Having dissected the ears of human corpses, Békésy could now do experiments on the ears of living apes. Later he was invited to join the faculty at Harvard University. In his laboratory located in the basement of the university Békésy carried out research with enlarged mechanical models, in order to study the vibrations of ear fluid. Békésy received the NOBEL PRIZE for his discoveries concerning the physical mechanism of stimulation within the cochlea, " initiated in Budapest. In his autobiography Békésy made a comparison:

- Hungarians like good living; they have discovered that research is a joy; thus they become enthusiastic researcher who spend nights in the lab without even asking for an increase in salary. In the U.S. this goes a different way: there people work for dollars. There are exceptions but they don't make a majority. A quick outcome is the most important thing. - This may explain why he moved to Hawaii for his later years (1966):

- There are so many cultures with their own histories and own ways of evaluating life. It is in Hawaii where I first realized how complicated the world really is and how difficult it is to understand another person's opinion, even if I do my best to understand it.

In his last will, he donated his unique collection of Oriental Works of art to the Nobel Foundation. At the sound of Hawaiian music, his ashes were scattered over the waves in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a long way from Budapest.

Tracing Life across Borders

Once upon a time Lord Rutherford, discoverer of the atomic nucleus, met his assistant, chemist George de Hevesy (1885-1966) in the corridor of his laboratory in Manchester, and said to him, - My boy, if you are worth your salt, you will separate the active Radium-D from that nuisance of lead! - Hevesy, using all the tricks of chemistry, tried hard to do so. His unsuccessful attempts resulted in the understanding that atoms of the very same chemical element (e.g. lead) could differ from each other. One of them may be stable, while the other one may radiate and decay spontaneously. This realization was the breakthrough leading to the concept of isotopes.

- But if I am unable to distinguish between Radium-D and lead, then it has to be impossible for Nature as well - Hevesy argued to himself. The idea of radioactive tracing was thus born (Budapest 1913).

During World War I Hevesy was nominated to become professor at Budapest University, to head the Institute for Applied Physics (1917). Assignment was provided under the newly established republic (1919), signed by Theodore von Kármán, undersecretary (later state commissar) for university affairs. Hevesy started to organize his laboratory for the study of radioactivity. But soon foreign troops marched into the streets of Budapest (June 1919), then nationalist troops took power, in order to bring back the ancient regime (November 1919). The conservative epigons of Roland Eötvös, having been schooled only in classical mechanics, deemed it timely to get rid of Hevesy, who was spreading conspicuously novel ideas such as radioactivity (1920). George de Hevesy was deprived of his professorship for having been appointed by "suspicious communist sympathizers" like von Kármán.

Hevesy then accepted the invitation of Niels Bohr, to organize a nuclear laboratory in Copenhagen (1920). His goal was to utilize radioactivity as a tracer in biology. The natural radioactive isotopes at the end of the Periodic Table play no role in biology; they are even toxic. To fully achieve his goal, Hevesy developed neutron activation for making radioactive isotopes of lifeessential elements. His first product was radiophosphorus. This enabled him to study the metabolism of phosphorus, among others in the energy carrier ATP and in the genetic material DNA. He was awarded the NOBEL PRIZE in chemistry for his work on the use of isotopes as tracers in the study of chemical processes" (1943). After the Nazi occupation of Denmark Hevesy moved to Sweden, where he became professor of organic chemistry at the University Stockholm and initiated nuclear medicine. - Two of his four children (Georg and Ingrid) live in Stockholm.


In the small village Smrdaky near Senica (then Northern Hungary, now Slovakia) a farm boy named Karol Gajdusek was born. Before World War I he emigrated to America and lived in Yonkers, in a settlement of mixed East-European immigrants. There he became acquainted with a Hungarian girl, named Ottilia Dobroczki, whose parents had emigrated from Debrecen (Hungary) to America. The son of Karol and Ottilia, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek (1923-) recalls:

- My mother, Ottilia Dobroczki, was a hyperromantic pagan who professed respect for whatever religion she encountered: Catholic when with Catholics, Protestant when with Protestants, Hebrew when with Jews, Moslem when with Moslems, and South and East Asian religions when with Asians. However, my first memories were the myths of the ancient Greeks that I and my brother were reared. I learned to pray to Zeus, Poseidon, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hermes and Athena before I heard Bible stories. - In his autobiography for the Nobel Ceremony (1976), he said:

- An uninterrupted flow of loud conversation in many tongues, rarely English, and kitchen odors of many Habsburg cuisines filled our home. On my Slovakian fathers's side we were a family of farmers and tradesmen, and my father's temperament for laughter and ribald fun, lust for life in work and play, song, dance, and food, and above all, conversation, affected us strongly. On my Classicist-Romanticist Hungarian mother's side were more sober academic and aesthetic aspirations and a heroic interest in fantasy and inquiry, in the culture and nurture, in classics and progress. - When his father revisited Europe, Carleton spent his time with grandparents in Slovakia and Hungary, so he understands Slovakian and some Hungarian as well.

Gajdusek's intellectual and cultural adventures guided him to geographic and ethnographic adventures: in researching strange epidemics he went to Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, crossed the Libyan Sahara, worked with Indian groups in Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. He found problematic epidemics to study with aborigines in Australia, with remote indigenous populations in China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Siberia, the Philippines, and particularly very isolated populations in Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, including the New Hebrides (Venatu), Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, and in New Guinea.

In his youth, Carleton was especially impressed by the biographies of Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur. Pasteur understood the origins of epidemic diseases by discovering bacteria which exploit the resources of the human organism to their own advantage. The human body defends itself against such alien infectious attacks with inflammation, fever, antibody production. But not all the diseases show this classic pattern. Gajdusek became fascinated by diseases which did not follow the Pasteurian chain of infection. Gajdusek came upon the first cases of kuru in remote and isolated villages of New Guinea in the 1950s. In local language kuru means trembling; it is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system, manifesting itself in loss of balance and an inescapable death. The kuru has a long latency period, it is a slow infection. With suspension of the infected brain tissue Gajdusek succeeded to transfer kuru to apes and monkeys. He found that common medical disinfectants like alcohol, formalin, or heating to 80°C did not inactivate the infectious agent of kuru. Even boiling at 100°C or dry heat above 300°C, although lowering the transfer probability, did not eliminate it. Gajdusek also concluded that the infection could not be caused by bacterium or conventional virus: in the highly infective brain tissue of the victims no alien nucleic acid could be found. George Klein said:

- The kuru agent is the smallest and the most mysterious actor on the borderline of life and death.1

In the 1930s to the 1960s the recognition emerged that there are also other diseases of the same type: scrapie in sheep, mink encephalopathy, and the mad cow disease. Each of them attacks the central nervous system, producing similar symptoms, resulting in a sponge-like decay in the brain and death. Gajdusek finally concluded that kuru, scrapie and all these diseases do not result from the information content of an alien nucleic acid, but from a change in conformation of a protein of the cell to an abnormal plate conformation. The protein in the modified conformation polymerizes into fibrils which are highly effective seeds for further autocatalytic conformation changes. Gajdusek assumed from the beginning that this was a host protein, not an alien one, this is why it did not cause inflammation, fever, or other defense reaction. If the change of conformation occurs, if the plate conformation appears somewhere in the membrane envelope of the neuron cells, at a slow pace it can transform also the healthy proteins of the neighboring nerve cells to harmful configuration, finally resulting in a sponge-form decay of the brain over a period of years.

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek received the 1976 NOBEL PRIZE in medicine "for his discovery concerning new mechanisms for the origins and dissemination of infectious diseases." To understand them has been a Long March for Gajdusek: from enjoying the diversity of cultures and scientific ideas to learning Papua languages and observing native rituals. He dislikes the conformity of globalized TV culture, he prefers diversity. According to colleagues, - We might never have an answer to these questions without Carleton's close contact with the natives and their culture. - As George Klein has put it,

- Carleton, if anybody, is able to see our world from many diverse cultural vantage points simultaneously. He needs no visa when crossing the borders between Washington D. C. and the Stone Age.

George Klein (1925-) survived the holocaust in Hungary by escaping from the train taking him to Auschwitz, found asylum in the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, where he became leader of the research in tumor biology. George Klein and Eva Klein advocate that cancer is not the consequence of a single change, caused perhaps by infection from outside, but cancer manifests itself when several molecular errors accumulate at different sensitive sites step by step. His essays on the interrelation of two cultures (science and moral), too, brought world fame for him, the LETTERSTEDT PRIZE among others.

Electrons and Life

Albert Szent-Györgyi (1893-1986) was the son of reputable noble Hungarian families. In keeping with family traditions he studied at the Medical School in Budapest, then started a wandering life through Europe and America. In Cambridge a message reached him (1930): the young man obtained a chair at the University of Szeged in Southern Hungary, and there he received research support from the Rockefeller Foundation as well. He began research in anatomy, then moved to physiology, biochemistry, landing in molecular biology. He taught his students:

- The Creator surely did not stop at the molecular level just to save biologists from learning the quantum mechanics of the electron. He might know a lot of quantum mechanics and materials science to be able to apply them so successfully.

Szent-Györgyi was interested in the biochemistry of oxidation: how the transfer of an electron from one molecule to another can supply a cell with energy. He found a specific compound which catalyzed and regulated oxidation: the catalyzer is Vitamin C. He isolated the pure compound from paprika (the famous Hungarian red-hot chili pepper) and clarified its chemical composition, bringing the NOBEL PRIZE in physiology to Hungary "for his discoveries in connection with the biological combustion processes, with special reference to vitamin C and the catalysis of fumaric acid" (1937). The worldwide carrier of Vitamin C started from Szeged.

World War II erupted two years later and Hungary soon found herself on the losing side. The leaders of Hungary looked for an escape from the alliance with Hitler. Albert Szent-Györgyi, with the aura of his Nobel Prize and with his British connections seemed to be the appropriate person to establish secret contact with England (1944). Under the guise of a scientific lecture tour Szent-Györgyi travelled to Istanbul and there approached the British Embassy. The Intelligence Service contact listened to Szent-Györgyi. The Western Alliance, however, instructed Hungary to surrender to the Soviet Union, according to the Yalta Pact. German troops moved into Hungary; the resistance movement was betrayed. Hitler shouted that Szent-Györgyi was a "Schweinhund" (pigdog), demanding his extradition. The professor went underground. The King of Sweden declared Szent-Györgyi to be a Swedish Citizen, thus the professor obtained a Swedish passport under the fictious name of Mr. Swensen. He took refuge in the Swedish Embassy in Budapest. But before diving underground, he mailed the interesting result of his recent muscle research to a prominent Swedish Journal. The Swedish editor wanted to inform the author about the referee's report, but did not know the address. Thus he sent a cable to the Swedish embassy in Budapest, asking the Ambassador to transfer the message to Szent-Györgyi wherever he was. The cable was intercepted by the Germans. Fortunately, someone had hinted to the Ambassador about the endangered incognito and the Ambassador smuggled "Mr. Swensen" out of the embassy building that evening in the trunk of his car. During the same night "a mob raided the embassy building" but the raid came too late: Szent-Györgyi was already hiding in another uninhabited house that had been ruined by American air strikes.

After prolonged street fighting, Soviet troops overtook Budapest from the Germans. In the destroyed city an English-speaking Russian officer searched for Professor Szent-Györgyi at the instruction of Molotov, the state commissar for foreign affairs in the Soviet Union. This way the professor and his family obtained food, shelter and safety. He was even invited to take part in the Bicentenary Celebration of the Russian Academy in Moscow (1945). The Yalta Pact made Hungary part of the Soviet zone of occupation. Szent-Györgyi looked for reconciliation with the Russians and became the first president of the Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Society. Some politicians wanted to make Szent-Györgyi the president of the Hungarian Republic. Soon he travelled to Moscow once again, trying to meet and convince Stalin personally to stop the brutalities committed by Soviet troops in Hungary, but he was firmly rejected. For research support, the professor wished to approach again the Rockefeller Foundation. He applied for an American visa, with the intention of persuading the Foundation personally, but the visa application was rejected on the ground of the applicant's "communist sympathy and Soviet contacts." So it happened that it was not Albert Szent-Györgyi - a Hungarian - who entered the United States but "Mr. Swensen" - with a Swedish passport.

After this American lecture tour Szent-Györgyi returned. But democracy did not last long enough for Hungary. With the support of Soviet troops the communists took over. To the secret police Szent-Györgyi became a suspicious person because of his Anglo-American connections. Thus in 1947 he applied for an American immigrant visa. The decades of emigration began. Szent-Györgyi preserved his Swedish citizenship for eight years.

When the Cold War turned hot in Korea and Vietnam, the professor left the ivory tower of science again, became a devoted opponent of the use of military might. The public debate between two ardent Hungarians, Albert Szent-Györgyi and Edward Teller (organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago) became a media event. Szent-Györgyi's best-selling book, The Crazy Ape (i.e. Homo sapiens) was the most bitter criticism of U.S. intervention in Vietnam:

- To the superficial observer it must look as if the armies of the two superpowers hold one another in balance. The truth is different. The truth is that these two armies are the sweetest allies, for without the Soviet army we would not need the American Army, and vice versa. The fruits of the labors of the citizens of these two countries would not go to their Defense Departments. Thus the two great armies work in concert, promising fear and hatred to prevent peace from breaking out. They fight peace with all their might. What we really need is a defense department against Defense Departments. (1970)

It is not too difficult to find the similarities between the characters of Albert Szent-Györgyi and his compatriot, Leo Szilard. Both of them were born in Budapest. Szent-Györgyi started from medicine and advanced to modern physics. Leo Szilard started from modern physics, then collided head-on with Lord Rutherford and General Groves, and landed ultimately in the peace of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, in biology. None of them respected boundaries, neither in science, nor in politics. They were watched by the intelligence agencies of both sides. They appealed directly to the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union with rational argumentation, in order to save mankind. Szilard travelled around the world contacting scientists to organize the Pugwash Movement in the interest of nuclear disarmament. The picture of Leo Szilard looks at George Klein in his Stockholm office.

The fate of these heroes of modern science with Hungarian roots show strong similarities. The fame achieved in science, the golden aura of the Nobel Prize, the peace of Sweden offered them safe haven in stormy weather. It is difficult to define them according to legal citizenship (Hungarian, Austrian, German, Swedish, or American?) and traditional disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, even literature?). Their adventures concluded with happy endings, thanks mainly to Swedish tolerance and Swedish respect of cultural achievements, occasionally expressed even by the Nobel Prize.

There is a fine-tuned interplay which may result in survival and success. Surviving ideological, political and military conflicts in Hungary requires an unconventional (even unprofessional) creativity, free of inhibitions. To select the pearls, grown under such irritating disturbances, an openminded unconditional respect of intellectual values has been necessary, offered in Sweden. Chance for the technical and social realization can been given under the American atmosphere, which does not admire the beauty of culture as much as Europe does, but sets high price on completed practical achievement. In cases where these favorable condition meet, conflict may rear success. It may even exert a positive impact on human history...

Space Age

Just at the entrance of the Space Hall of Fame (in Alamogordo, U.S.), the picture of Theodore von Kármán (1881-1963) looks at us. He studied at the Technical University of Budapest, escaped the rightwing military rule (1919) to Germany where he had become interested earlier in vortices created by moving bodies (e.g. ships). At the antisemitic Nazi takeover the Minister of Aviation, Hermann Göring wanted him to stay and assist the development of the Luftwaffe: - It's me, who decides who is a Jew! - But Kármán moved to California, developed the jet flight, created the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and helped the United States to win the Pacific War quickly by their air superiority (1945). The Jet Propulsion Lab became the main center for developing spacecrafts. He received the MEDAL OF FREEDOM from President Eisenhower (1956). President Kennedy decorated Theodore von Kármán with the very first NATIONAL SCIENCE AWARD of the U.S.

Zoltan Bay (1900-1992) was professor at the Technical University of Budapest. He developed radar for air defense in Budapest during World War II, independently of British and German efforts. Just weeks after the war, he directed his instrument towards the Moon, and observed the echo - practically simultaneously with the successful American experiments. Touching the Moon by radio waves opened the era of active radar astronomy. After the communist takeover, Bay emigrated to the U.S. In the National Bureau of Standards he developed a new way of measuring meter with atomic clocks, based upon laser technology, which has become the basis of the present international meter standard. Coupling the unit of length to the unit of time, by exploiting the constant value of the speed of light, realizes practically Einstein's idea of space-time. Bay received the BOYDEN PREMIUM of the Franklin Society "for overview on the topics of speed of light and based upon it, for his contribution to metrology". - According to his last will, his ashes returned to his native country.

Victor Szebehely (1921-1997) studied at the Technical University of Budapest, after the communist takeover he left for the U.S. (1947). At the beginning of the Space Age, his expertise in the three-body problem, obtained in Budapest, was warmly welcome. Szebehely designed the 8 shaped orbit of the Apollo spacecraft, moving under the influence of the gravity of Earth and Moon. This way Szebehely helped the American astronauts to put their feet onto the Moon.

Imre Izsak (1929-1965) studied celestial orbits in Budapest. After the suppression of the Hungarian revolt (1956) he emigrated to the U.S. There his knowledge was used to compute the orbits of American missiles and to reconstruct the orbits of Soviet ballistic missiles. Izsak utilized the observed orbits of artificial satellites to calculate the exact shape of the Earth. Now a crater preserves his name on the far side of the Moon. (On the map of the Moon one can also find the Hungarian names Bolyai, Eötvös, Fényi, Kármán, von Neumann, Petzval, Szilard, Zsigmondy.) From the study of lunar rocks Egon Orowan (1902-1989) proved that lunar craters are not the outcome of volcanism but products of meteoric impacts from outer space.

Antal Bejczy (1933-) studied at the Technical University of Budapest. After the defeat of the Hungarian revolt (1956) he emigrated to the U.S. There he designed Moon-rovers and Mars-rovers for the NASA. He is now the top expert in designing and building lightweight intelligent robots for performing work on alien planets. The recent active exploration of Mars with the Surveyor was his greatest success. He received the NASA EXCEPTIONAL SERVICE AWARD (1991).

Hungarian scientists are still interested to reach alien worlds. A group in Budapest designed electronic instruments (e.g. radiation detector) for the Russian "Vega" mission to Haley Comet, for the "Pioneer" mission to Venus, for the "Phobos" mission to Mars, and for the present American "Cassini" mission to Saturn. (Now signatures of experts from Budapest as welt are under way to the planet Saturn.) The Budapest Group has received the Gagarin Medal of the Soviet Astronautical Society and the NASA DIPLOMA OF ACHIEVEMENT'.

Atomic Era

Leo Szilard (1898-1964) attended school in Budapest, won the physics student competition, then after the rightwing military takeover he escaped to Germany (1919). In Berlin he made his Ph.D. with Max von Laue, with the support of Albert Einstein. After the Nazi takeover he emigrated to London (1933), to work on the biological use of radioactive tracers. There in the newspaper he read the remark of Lord Rutherford, discoverer of the nucleus. - Anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of atoms was talking moonshine. - He disliked hearing "impossible" and got the idea of neutron chain reaction: if the neutron (the recently discovered neutral nuclear particle) induces a nuclear reaction, in which - beside energy - also two neutrons are liberated, then these neutrons may induce two reactions, resulting in four neutrons, and so on. His idea was not welcome by Lord Rutherford, but Szilard received a British patent for the neutron chain reaction (1935). He was encouraged only by chemists who knew a chemical chain reaction: fire. At the intervention of Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) (the Ph.D. adviser of Eugene F. Wigner, himself working on chemical reactions), Chaim Weizmann (also a chemist, later the First president of Israel) tried to collect Financial support for Szilard's experiment. Eugene P. Wigner tried to call the attention of General Electric to the bold idea. After the discovery of the fission of the uranium nucleus Szilard recognized that this reaction may enable the neutron chain reaction. He showed experimentally that in nuclear fission, induced by a single neutron, two or more neutrons are emitted indeed (1939). He visited Albert Einstein, Einstein signed a letter composed by Szilard, addressed to President Roosevelt (August 1939). This historical letter initiated the Atomic Age. Szilard designed the nuclear reactor, which, was built in Chicago by Fermi (1942). The patent of the nuclear reactor for was given to Fermi and, Szilard (facsimile). Szilard did not participate in the construction of the atomic bomb, and seeing the military defeat of Nazi Germany, he tried to mobilize the scientists against its military use, in vain. He has received the EINSTEIN AWARD in the U. S.



Eugene P. Wigner (1902-1995) left Hungary after World War I, studied chemical engineering in Berlin where he witnessed and participated the early development of quantum mechanics. The Nazi takeover forced him too to move to the U.S. where he pioneered in the application of quantum mechanics to material systems. He received the 1963 NOBEL PRIZE in physics "for his contribution to the theory of the atomic nucleus and elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles." Contacting Leo Szilard, he soon recognized the possibility and importance of nuclear power. They both were present at the start of the first nuclear reactor in Chicago (1942, facsimile). As nuclear physicist and chemical engineer he became "the first reactor engineer" as well (words of Alvin Weinberg). He designed the first power reactor (with water cooling). This was acknowledged by the U.S. MEDAL OF MERIT (1946).

facsimile (1942.)


Nicholas Kurti (1908-1998) was born and schooled in Budapest, but the deteriorating political atmosphere made him leave Hungary. After university years in France and Germany he landed in Oxford (1933), where he studied low temperatures and later achieved a low temperature record by nuclear demagnetization. As part of the war efforts, with Franz Simon he developed the separation of the fissile 235U isotope by diffusion, and transferred the method to the U.S. in 1943-1944. For his merits he was made COMMANDER OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE (1973).

Edward Teller (1907- ) attended the same high school in Budapest that Lord Balogh and Lord Kaldor (the economists), Theodore von Kármán, Nicholas Kurti and Peter Lax did. Then he enrolled at the Technical University of Budapest (1928) and made his Ph.D. with Werner Heisenberg in Germany (1930). As Wigner and Neumann, Teller was also welcome in the U.S. to teach the new physics to the New World. With George Gamow, Teller developed the theory of thermonuclear fusion - to explain the source of sunshine. But Szilard made him involved in building the first nuclear reactor. Teller worked also in Los Alamos, participating in the design of the plutonium bomb.

Teller's name is mostly linked to the terrestrial realization of thermonuclear fusion: to the design of the hydrogen bomb. He advocated the construction of the "superbomb" in Los Alamos and especially in the early years of the Cold War, in the fear that the Soviet Union develops this weapon before the U.S. does. The H-bomb programme has got green light only in 1949, following the explosion of the Soviet plutonium bomb. The first American thermonuclear experiment was made in 1951. The Russians tested their thermonuclear device in 1953. Fortunately, hydrogen bombs were never used in combat. Edward Teller received the U.S. NATIONAL SCIENCE AWARD in 1986.

After World War II, Teller became the chairman of the Committee for Reactor Safety. In this capacity he arranged the closure of graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactors. (The danger of these inherently unstable reactors manifested later at the Chernobyl accident.) For assuring the safety of the American reactors Teller received the FERMI AWARD (1962). His present interest concerns the development of fool-proof reactors.

The prophecies of Hungarians were not always appreciated by their fellow scientists. Still, eventually, some of their forecasts and advice were acknowledged in America - because they worked. This has made the nuclear neutron-chain reaction, the liberation of nuclear power a Hungarian-American success story. The first six recipients of the ATOMS FOR PEACE AWARD of the United Nations - created with the support of the Ford foundation - were an American, a Canadian, a Dane, and three Hungarians: Niels Bohr (1957) for the theory of the atom and its nucleus, George de Hevesy (1958) for radioactive tracing and its application in medicine, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner (1959), as well as Alvin Martin Weinberg and Walter Henry Zinn (1960), "to honor the four men, who, of all men living, have done most to originate and perfect the nuclear fission chain reactor It alone, of all devices thus far conceived, provides practical means for utilizing the energy of the atomic nucleus and producing radio-isotopes in abundance. These gifts of the atom, if used wisely, will be of inestimable benefit to mankind. "

Computer Era

According to a basic law of thermodynamics, disorder increases spontaneously in Nature. Biology, however, teaches about Darwinian evolution. After having experienced the turmoil following World War I, polydisciplinary Leo Szilard speculated in Berlin, whether intelligence can decrease the disorder in Nature. His conclusion was that intelligence or life can do it, but only at the price of creating larger disorder elsewhere. This work of Szilard has been considered by Brillouin and Wiener to be the beginning of Information Theory. (In his late years, Szilard returned to these topics. He studied biological evolution in "test tube" and developed a theory of aging. Nowadays, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek follows his path by studying of the nature of "an infecting agent coming from the unorganic world.")

We collect most information with our eyes. The inventor of the ultramicroscope was Richard Adolf Zsigmondy (1865-1929), who was born in Vienna as the son of Hungarian parents. He received the 1926 NOBEL PRIZE in chemistry "for his demonstration of the heterogeneous nature of colloid solutions and for the methods he used, which have since then become fundamental in modern colloid chemistry." Dennis Gabor (1900-1979) succeeded in recording the full information content of light. He was made COMMANDER OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE, and received the NOBEL PRIZE in physics "for his invention and development of the holographic method" (1971). Gabor cooperated later with Budapest-born Peter K. Goldmark (1906-1977), inventor of color television (1940) and long-playing records. Goldmark received the U.S. NATIONAL SCIENCE AWARD (1977).

Fast processing of information obtained a decisive importance in World War II. John von Neumann (1903-1957) was originally interested in the foundation of mathematics (Budapest) and quantum mechanics (Göttingen), but joining the war efforts (U.S.), his interest focused on non-linear phenomena like shock waves produced by explosion. He studied this problem also in Los Alamos. The solution of non-linear differential equations demanded huge amounts of calculation, thus von Neumann had to use calculator machines. It was him who introduced the importance of binary code (1 or 0, yes or no, electronic switch on or off), which is today used by the computers worldwide. An old style computer was built for a specific problem, changing the formula demanded rewiring of the machine, which took more time than the whole calculation. Thus von Neumann learned electronics and introduced what we call today the von Neumann computer (1945): this can be reprogrammed electronically. Nowadays millions of such computers operate at our service in every industrialized country. Von Neumann received the U.S. MEDAL FOR MERIT (1954) and the FERMI AWARD (1965). He was interested in computation in order to extend the realm of mathematics to new areas like meteorology and climatic changes. (His calculations predicted global warming as a consequence of burning fossile fuels.) In his late years he became interested in the comparison of the computer and the brain, furthermore in the storage of biological information in the biological cell.

The importance of computers for science was recognized undoubtedly by John von Neumann. Their importance of computers for society was recognized by John G. Kemeny (1926-1992). He studied in the same school as George Klein, Tom Lantos, and the billionaire George Soros. Kemeny left Budapest as a schoolboy during World War II (1940), won the student competition in New York, and passed the entrance exam to Princeton University successfully. The examination board noticed his strange accent. When they learned Kemeny's nationality, the professor - who knew already Neumann and Wigner - exclaimed: - My God, one more Hungarian! - The young man fulfilled his military service in Los Alamos, working in the Computer Division under Feynman and von Neumann. Here he recognized the future importance of computers. Later, as professor and president at Dartmouth College, he made the use of computer compulsory for each student, even at the faculty of law and the faculty of arts. In order to achieve this, to substitute the user-unfriendly machine codes Kemeny developed the BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). This popular computer language is understood by more people than the Hungarian language. Kemeny developed the time-sharing technique as well, in order to make the central computer able to serve several terminals simultaneously. In the vicinity of Dartmouth College, scientists and lovers communicated by e-mail already in the 1960s! IBM acknowledged this by giving Kemeny the very first ROBINSON PRIZE.

Computers are able to store a lot of data, but they manipulate them (they think) with the microprocessor. Nowadays 90% of the computers contain "Intel Inside". The central importance of fast reprocessing was recognized by Andrew Grove (1938-). He was student at the Technical University of Budapest, became involved in the Hungarian revolt (1956), thus was forced to escape. When he became the president of the Intel Corporation (1979), he focused his attention on the speed of the microprocessor. Since that, Intel-286, 386, 486, Pentium became well-known expressions for every able teenager, by which they can indicate the increasing "power" of their computers. Time magazine acknowledged the importance of this fast progress by announcing Andrew Grove to be THE MAN OF THE YEAR 1997.

The other decisive ingredient is the operating system of the computer. Early computers reminded of old typing machines. Nowadays they work with icons on the Windows. The Windows Word processor makes the format of the typed text immediately visible. Data are handled automatically by the Excel system. All these are the creations of Charles Simonyi (1948-), a student from Budapest who is now Chief Architect at Microsoft. The German magazine Hör zu made recently a report with him, under the heading "The Man Who Made Bill Gates Rich ".

Out of Szilard's initiatives, computer science has developed as a new discipline, rejected by traditional mathematicians but developed by future-minded people. Paul Erdõs (1913-1996) worked in the theory of integers (combinatorics), Peter Lax (1926-) in numerical analysis, Laszlo Lovász (1948-) in combinatorics and minimizing the steps of computer programs. All the three Budapest-born mathematicians received the WOLF PRIZE (in 1984, 1987, 1998, respectively). Erdõs became member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, U.K. Royal Society, the Australian, Dutch, Hungarian, Indian, Polish academies; he was buried in Budapest. Lax worked also in Los Alamos under John von Neumann and Richard Feynman and became member of the U.S. Academy of Science, the French, Hungarian, Russian Academies, and received the U.S. NATIONAL SCIENCE AWARD as well. Lovász is professor at Eötvös University and at Yale University, member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Academia Europaea, the European Academy of Arts and Sciences.

When John von Neumann landed in the U.S., he felt an obligation of learning how to play poker. This initiated the elaboration of the mathematical theory of games. That was immediately used in economics and in military strategy. It is a historical fact that at the time of the Korean War the outcome of Neumann's computer simulation prevented the outbreak of a full-scale conflict between the U.S. and China: the simulation indicated that the risk and loss overweight the possible benefit and gain.

The Neumann-Morgenstern theory of games assumes that the rules of the game are known and obeyed by each player. But this is not generally true. In the late period of the American-Soviet nuclear disarmament negotiations it became important to develop the theory of games with incomplete information. Another Hungarian, John Harsanyi (1920-) (who studied in the same secondary school where John von Neumann and Eugene P. Wigner did) elaborated this theory, therefore he received the 1995 NOBEL PRIZE in economics "for his pioneering analysis of equilibrium in non-cooperative games". In these ways, Hungarians became designers of the game commonly known as Cold War.

After game theoreticians, it's appropriate to have a look at the player. The father of George Soros played the game of survival when he escaped from a Camp of Prisoners of War in Siberia during World War I. George Soros (1930-) played the game of survival during the World War II holocaust in Hungary. Both did it successfully. Then George Soros left Hungary and became the most successful player at the stock market. As he said to the author:

The Billionaire...
The Billionaire who would save the World.

- I like to live on the borderline of stability and chaos because that offers a more complete life. But I fear of destructive instability. If I had been taken to a concentration camp, that would have made my youth perhaps more exciting but I was happy that I had survived. My real passion is to find the borderline and I stay just within the border I fear destruction both in politics and the stock market. Instead of destruction I prefer to support progress. - An actual message from an experienced Hungarian. As the front-page picture of Soros in? Time magazine said: "The Billionaire who would save the World... and can almost afford to" - In a way George Soros may remind us of Alfred Nobel: Nobel has invested in preserving peace. Soros invests billions in realizing an open society. He has deserved and received the full appreciation of the European and the American Physical Society.

It may be appropriate to close this chapter with the words of Edward Teller:

- I believe that of all the inventions of the 20th century, the one with the most lasting influence will turn out to be the electronic brain, and Johnny von Neumann was its prophet.

The Myth of the Martians

- Enrico Fermi was a man with outstanding talents, he had many interests outside his own particular field. He was credited with asking famous questions. There are long preambles to Fermi's questions like this: - "The universe is vast, containing myriads of stars, many of them not unlike our Sun. Many of these stars are likely to have planets circling around them. A fair fraction of these planets will have liquid water on their surface and a gaseous atmosphere. The energy pouring down from a star will cause the synthesis of organic compounds, turning the ocean into a thin, warm soup. These chemicals will join each other to produce a self-reproducing system. The simplest living things will multiply, evolve by natural selection and become more complicated till eventually active, thinking creatures will emerge. Civilization, science, and technology will follow. Then, yearning for fresh worlds, they will travel to neighboring planets, and later to planets of nearby stars. Eventually they should spread out all over the Galaxy. These highly exceptional and talented people could hardly overlook such a beautiful place as our Earth. And so, " - Fermi came to his overwhelming question, - "if all this has been happening, they should have arrived here by now, so where are they?" - It was Leo Szilard, a man with an impish sense of humor, who supplied the perfect reply to Fermi's rethoric: - "They are among us," - he said, - "but they call themselves Hungarians."

This is Francis Crick's version of the myth2. The myth of the Martian origin of the Hungarian scientists who entered world history on American soil during World War II probably originated in Los Alamos. As Isaac Asimov said, - A saying circulated among us that two intelligent species live on Earth: Humans and Hungarians. - Leon Lederman, director of the Fermilab, reported possible hidden intentions:3 - The production of scientists and mathematicians in the early 20th century was so prolific that many otherwise calm observers believe Budapest was settled by Martians in a plan to infiltrate and take over the planet Earth. - As a matter of fact, these suspicious Hungarians enjoyed the myth. Edward Teller became especially happy of his E.T. initials, but he complained about indiscretion, - Von Kármán must have been talking. - Leo Szilard modestly commented: - The Martian spaceship landed in Budapest indeed around 1900, then departed, and due to overweight had to leave the less talented Martians behind.4

There is only one single factual piece of evidence about the descent from planet Mars: there is a mount named Von Kármán Crater on the Red Planet. It is much easier to find the landing site of the space ship: most of our heroes were born within a circle with a radius of one mile in downtown Budapest,5 in very narrow time gaps. A more romantic explanation is due to Andrew Vazsonyi:6

- Well, at the beginning of the century some people from outer space landed on Earth. They thought that the Hungarian women were the best looking of all, and they took on the form of humans, and after a few years, they decided the Earth was not worth of colonizing, so they left. Soon afterward this bunch of geniuses was born on Earth. That's the true story.

Some small countries lying in a strip going through Europe (from Sweden through Denmark and Switzerland to Austria and Hungary) were successful to pick up about one Nobel medal per million people. Then why are just Hungarian scientists considered to be, in some sense, "aliens"?

An obvious explanation of the myth of the Martians , may be their strange language: the Hungarian grammar and vocabulary is related to the Finnish, Estonian and even more closely to some Asian languages, but it is quite distinct from those of the Indo-European languages. Kármán and Bárány proudly accented the á in their names at all times, in spite of the opposition of computerized word processors. (The Báránys did so through generations.) Chinese, Japanese, Koreans put family name first, given name last; in Europe only the Hungarian language follows this rule. In a slight Martian accent John G. Kemeny added an explanation: - It is so much easier to learn reading and writing in Hungarian than in English or French, that Hungarian kids have much more time left to study mathematics. - According to myth, at a top secret meeting of the Manhattan Project General Groves left for the gents' room. Leo Szilard then said: - Perhaps we may now continue in Hungarian! - Hungarian emigrees enjoyed speaking their mother tongue whenever a chance offered itself. This has made them look suspicious. Los Alamos was a place of top security. General Groves was annoyed that John von Neumann and Eugene P. Wigner had frequent telephone conversations in Hungarian. The "thick Hungarian accent" was often heard even in the corridors of the Pentagon.7

Crossroads in Space-time

This explanation of the myth, however, is certainly not sufficient. Let us quote now Georg von Békésy:

- If a person traveling outside Hungary is recognized as a Hungarian due to his accent, something which - beyond a certain age - is impossible to drop, the question is asked in almost every case: "How is it possible that a country as small as Hungary has given the world so many internationally renown scientists?" There are Hungarians who have tried to find an answer. For my part: I cannot give an answer, but I would mention one thing. When I lived in Switzerland, everything was peaceful, quiet and secure; we had no problems earning a living. In Hungary, life was different, and we all were involved in an ongoing struggle for almost everything which we wanted, although this struggle never caused anybody's perdition. Sometimes we won; sometimes we lost; but we always survived. It did not bring an end to things, not in my case anyway. People need such challenges, and these have existed throughout the history of Hungary.

It is a fact of history that the great figures of human culture are not distributed evenly in space and time.


They concentrated, for example, in democratic Athens (Aristotle and Sophocles), while the city was fighting against Persian invasions; in renaissance Florence (Michelangelo and Galileo), in a city struggling with the supremacy of the Pope; at the dawn of the English industrial revolution (Shakespeare and Newton), while fighting the Spanish Armada. Quiet periods require social adjustment. Under a changing climate, however, old schemes no longer work, such conditions encourage creative individuals. If a very different final truth is offered each month, young people learn critical thinking, and become more interested in facts than in axioms. During the recent political turmoil a joke circulated: - What is the most unpredictable thing today in Hungary? The past! - As Kati Marton (Mrs. Holbrook), who left Hungary as a child in 1957, said, - My parents had too much history. - Psychology teaches us that an impact-rich environment cultivates talent. Let us quote here one of the strangest Martians, Arthur Koestler (1905-1983):

- When Tom Corbett, space cadet, behaves on the Third Planet of Orion exactly in the same way as he does in a drugstore in Minnesota, one is tempted to ask him. "Was your journey really necessary?"8

My thesis is that Hungary (together with her Central-European neighbors) has been at the crossroads of history, where the routes from Rome (Catholicism), Germany (Reformation), Byzantium/Russia (Eastern Orthodox Christianity), the Ottoman Empire (Islam) met, presenting alternatives and igniting conflicts. Armies from East and West were marching on these roads through centuries. We have learned agriculture from the Slavs, the Renaissance arrived from Italy, industry came from Germany, the Jews taught us trade. Through one and a half centuries the armies of the Ottoman Empire took everything what they could from the Hungarian peasants - but pigs; this is why pork is the favorite meat on Hungarian tables till today. Grapes were introduced by the veterans of the Roman legions, in order to make wine. Beer-brewing came from Germany. The Russians have shown how to distill vodka. And the Turks introduced the "black soup", i.e. strong black coffee, a present national drink of the Hungarians. So much about the first Hungarian millennium.

A hundred years ago (when most of our Martian heroes were born), a German-speaking Emperor-King ruled Hungary, supported by feudal landlords. But the industrial revolution was already in full swing, having brought the parliamentary system, compulsory education (1868). The first underground subway system on the continent was operational in Budapest (second only to London on the world) already in the late 19th century.



As the 20th century arrived, the Austro-Hungarian Empire started playing the superpower: Turkey was expelled from most of the Balkan Peninsula. Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia (1908), pushing Serbia toward an alliance with Russia. After a Serbian nationalist murdered the Habsburg crown-prince in Sarajevo (1914), war was declared against Serbia. Russia rushed to help the Serbs, Germany responded by attacking Russia, France and England declared war on Germany. Thus World War I was started, and was lost. After the military collapse Michael Károlyi, the liberal Count rose against the Austrian emperor and created a pro-Western democratic Hungarian Republic (31 October 1918). But with the encouragement of the Western Powers the neighboring countries attacked Hungary. Károlyi resigned. A communist regime organized military resistance (21 March 1919) - looking for help from Moscow. Their defense efforts could not last for long: Budapest was invaded by foreign troops (July 1919). Finally a group of Hungarian army officers assembled and took power (November 1919), made the country formally a kingdom again (but the military rulers expelled the Habsburg king trying to return). The rightist military rule took revenge. A wave of emigration began.

The most sensitive period in human life is being a teenager, when one's personal system of values is built up. The Martians - so successful in later years across the Ocean - arrived to Earth at about 1900, they attended high schools in Hungary just at the time of the great World Wars (graph). What a privileged time to live in! When in 1919 Theodore von Kármán had to leave Hungary due to an extreme-right takeover, he said,

- I had enough of politicians. Suddenly I was enveloped by a feeling that only science is lasting.

The Jews were expelled from Western Europe 500 years ago, they moved eastwards. Then in the 18th-19th century, escaping from the pogroms encouraged by Russian orthodox priests, the Jews moved from Russia and Poland southwards, towards Hungary. According to ancient law, Jews were forbidden to own land, so they turned toward trade and industry. Their wealth was increased by the industrial revolution. The Hungarian Parliament emancipated the Jews (1867). Some of them were made noblemen for their services in the economy (e.g. the father of George Hevesy in 1895, the father of Theodore Kármán in 1907, the father of John Neumann in 1913). One hundred years ago (1895) a physics professor served as Minister of Culture: Baron Roland Eötvös (1848-1919). (He created the Hungarian Mathematical and Physical Society in 1891.) Because he was an aristocrat, he was able to convince the conservative Parliament to widen civil rights, including civilian marriage and complete religious freedom (even a freedom to be an atheist). Around 1900, in the tolerant social climate of Hungary, over 50% of all the lawyers and medical doctors had Jewish roots. In the eyes of conservative nationalists, however, the Jews remained menacingly aliens. When the opportunity arose during the right-wing restoration (1920), the first antisemitic law, the numerus clausus was enacted in Hungary; according to which, the percentage of Jewish university students was restricted to the percentage of the Jewish population (5%) in the country as a whole (1920). Thus history was even more compressed in time for the Jews. The place of origin for the wandering Jew, the fictional Leopold Bloom was placed in Hungary by James Joyce, describing the contemplative day of 16 June 1904 on the streets of Dublin in the novel appropriately entitled Ulysses. Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), the founder of the movement for an independent Jewish state was born and schooled in Budapest. The word "Holocaust" (burning completely to dust) was first used by peace-NOBEL-LAUREATE Elie Wiesel (1928-), who was also schooled in Hungary.

On this tiny spot of the globe, within distances less than 1000 km, we find Albanians, Austrians, Bosnians, Croatians, Czechs, Gypsies, Hungarians, Jews, Rumanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenians, each possessing their own language, their own culture, most of them their own country with a population of a few million. (This may remind us of the city-states of Greece in Antiquity or the city-states of Italy in the Renaissance, but here the linguistic-cultural heritage differs even more.) Around 1900 for Jews especially, no career was open in politics, or in the army; they had to choose business. If a successful businessman wished to provide higher education for his son, he had to send him to study science or engineering. When later the political climate turned stormy for them, with the wind blowing from the east these young scientists sailed westwards. They landed on the coast of the New World at a time of great challenges and opportunities. Their rich political experiences, their open minds, and their critical thinking were their strength. As John von Neumann expressed: - In this part of Central Europe there was an external pressure on society, a feeling of extreme insecurity for individuals, and the necessity to produce the unusual or else face extinction9 - Not everyone appreciated this originality. WOLF PRIZE laureate Valentine Telegdi (1922-) recalled Enrico Fermi saying: - All the Hungarians I met were intelligent or terribly intelligent. Mostly too intelligent. Well, there are times when it pays to be conventional. - SONNIG PRIZE laureate Arthur Koestler expressed the opinion:10

- In contrast to Austria and other small countries, Hungary did not have linguistic contact with her neighbors; Hungarians form an isolated ethnic enclave in Europe. Hungarian writers could find a wider readership only by emigrating, by writing in a foreign tongue. But giving up the mother tongue usually means the end of the career for a poet, or turns him into an insignificant journalist. Since World War I the main export of Hungary has consisted of beat-selling journalists, producers, movie stars - the demi-monde of international culture. They were scattered worldwide by a centrifugal force, which arises when a small country has plenty of talents without the chance for their unfolding at home. But later I recognized that this opinion is only one side of the truth. This demi-monde of the cafes and "goulash-bars" of Vienna and New York does not represent the most valuable part of the Hungarian contribution to culture. The really valuable elements of the Hungarian "export" were absorbed by the physics, mathematics, and biology departments of universities, furthermore by hospitals, research laboratories, state committees, and orchestra. I don't think that a comparable exodus of scientists and artists ever existed since the fall of Byzantium.

Telling the Future

In a stable world sensing and respecting the state of society has survival value. In a variable climate, however, noticing the trends of change (the time derivative) helps one survive. This explains another Martian characteristic: the capability to predict the future.

- Leo proved to be the best prognosticator: he was able to foresee events better than anybody else I know - Ben Liebowitz said. When World War I erupted, Leo Szilard, then 16, told his classmates: - I am not afraid to be called to the army; Austria, Germany, and Russia will collapse. - This prediction sounded strange because Russia was on the side opposite to that of Austria-Hungary and Germany, but Szilard turned out to be right! After World War I, in the 1920s he tried to organize a Bund in Berlin, which "might stand ready to exercise the functions of government if and when the parliamentary system in Germany collapses, one or two generations hence."11 Hitler took power in 1933. Szilard left Berlin one day before Hitler ordered that Jews must not leave Germany. He did not stay in Austria either because in 1936 he anticipated, - Nazi Germany will invade Austria in two years. - So it happened in 1938. In London he told Michael Polanyi: - I shall go to America one year before war breaks out in Europe. - He sailed in 1938. World War II started in 1939. After the war (1945), ther was a disagreement concerning the Russian capability to construct an atomic bomb. Vannevar Bush, director at the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development guessed a decade; Szilard predicted five years. The first Soviet atomic bomb actually exploded in September 1949. Szilard wrote in his letter to Stalin (1947):

- It will only be a question of time, a few short years perhaps, until peace will be at the mercy of some Yugoslav general in the Balkans or some American admiral in the Mediterranean who may willfully or through bungling create an incident that will inevitably result in a new war12 - Dennis Gabor had already written in 1938:13

- President Wilson's 1919 doctrine about national self-determination was so self-evidently right that people did not see what nonsense it was. - The problem is that people in Bosnia, Corsica, Chechnya, Euskadi, Kosovo, Kurdistan, Ulster, and elsewhere still believe in it.

- Countervailing forces usually prevail, but occasionally they fail. That is when we have a change of regime or revolution. I am particularly interested in this occasion. I can do better in the financial markets than dealing with history in general, because financial markets provide a more clearly defined space and the data are quantified and publicly available - George Soros said.14 Citizens of quiet regions may afford to believe in a fixed set of values, but Hungarians cannot afford it. As George Olah (1927-) remarked,

- It is something in our nature, in the character of Hungarians that we don't go always along the well traveled main road. We are interested to leave the wide road in order to explore new trails. If you find something really interesting off the road, then it is worthwhile to stand up for your discovery, because if you yourself do not believe in its importance, why should others follow you. Looking ahead, he thought, - We are living in a fool's paradise. Much of what nature has provided us over the aeons is going fast. We must find ways through chemistry to substitute them. - Thus George Olah has got the heretic idea that the carbon atom - this classic school example of valence four - may be forced to catch even a fifth nucleus. The practical outcome of his hold program was the lead free gasoline with high octane number and the NOBEL PRIZE in chemistry.

Saving the World

A trait related to this peculiar property of the Martians was that they even tried to save the world. Some of them were considered to be hawks, others were doves, but each of them felt convinced that he was right. - We were - and still are - trying to shape the future at a time when this idea doesn't have broad currency. We were - and are - to be early movers - as Andrew Grove wrote.15 It may be due to the rich historical heritage of the Martians that they all liked to offer advice, even to Presidents. Leo Szilard urged President Roosevelt to develop nuclear power. But he was the first to protest against the actual military application of the nuclear weapon, well before Hiroshima. President Kennedy answered his letters about the importance of a superpower dialogue, resulting in the Washington-Moscow hot line. Leo Szilard and John C. Polanyi (1929-) - recipient of the NOBEL PRIZE in chemistry for the study of the dynamics of chemical reactions - traveled together to Moscow, in order to develop the dialogue among American and Russian scientists in the framework of the Pugwash Movement for nuclear disarmament. Szilard contacted Khrushchev, Nehru, and the Pope.


Theodore von Kármán advised President Kennedy on supersonic flight and ballistic missiles; he met Stalin and Gandhi as well. Eugene P. Wigner pressed President Johnson on civil defense. John von Neumann advised President Eisenhower on nuclear and rocket armaments. His daughter, Marina von Neumann advised President Nixon on economic affairs. Albert Szent-Györgyi travelled to Moscow to inform Stalin about the misbehavior of the Red Army in Hungary; invited President Kennedy to his home; even wrote - a Presidential Speech - never told. John G. Kemeny advised President Carter on the safety of nuclear plants at the time of the Three Mile Island accident. Edward Teller advised President Reagan on Star Wars; he is in contact with the prime ministers of Israel and Hungary concerning national modernization programs. Elie Wiesel (1928-) received the MEDAL OF THE CONGRESS and President Reagan made him the chairman of The President's Commission of the Holocaust. George Soros asked President Clinton to devote more attention to Central-Eastern Europe. As journalists claim, Soros used to have breakfast with one head of state, and dinner with another one on the very same day. -I am not ashamed of my messianic fantasies; the world would be a grim place without such fantasies.16 - He warns that the West is now missing a special opportunity to lead the former communist world from the closed societies of the past into the open community of nations: - The collapse of the Soviet Empire meant the end of a stable world order that prevailed during the Cold War, only we did not realize it. The collapse of communism was a revolutionary event, and a revolution creates opportunities! - Later he added:17 - We have missed the opportunity, and now it will be forty years in the wilderness. - Dennis Gabor, one of the most ardent prophets and inventors, took a long view ahead in his evangelium entitled Inventing the Future: - Technological development is much too fast to be matched by biological adaptation of man. Moses showed the Promised Land to his people, but then he led them around for forty years in the wilderness until a new generation worthy of it had grown up. Now forty years is not an unreasonable estimate for educating a new generation which can live in leisure, but we must find a better equivalent of the wilderness. At the present stage of technology the time ought to be shorter - merely the time to train teachers and for the teachers to train the first generation of modern workers. It is not so much the education of the people which is slow but the education of the leaders.

According to Andrew Grove, a skilled navigator on the rough sea of the late 20th century, who is paranoid enough to survive (as the title of his book announces),

- It s like sailing a boat when the wind shifts on you: what worked before doesn't work anymore. You need to steer the boat in an other direction quickly before you are in trouble, yet you have to feel the new direction and the strength of the wind before you can hope to right the boat and set the new course. And the tough part is that it is exactly at times like this that hard and definite actions are required. So the ability to recognize that the winds have shifted and to take appropriate action before you wreck your boat is crucial to the future.

Perhaps the storms, experienced by Martian sailors beforehand in Europe, enabled Theodore von Kármán to recognize the coming of the SPACE AGE, Leo Szilard to sense the approach of the ATOMIC ERA and John von Neumann to feel the coming of the COMPUTER ERA, transforming the history of the late 20th century more than any political doctrine. Acknowledging these historical merits, Theodore von Kármán and John von Neumann have received the U.S. MEDALS OF FREEDOM from the American presidents. Leo Szilard summarized the tricks of the Martians simply by saying:

- You don't have to be cleverer, you just have to be one day earlier.


Lecture at the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, 14 October 1998

  1. Live Now
  2. The Life Itself - Macdonald, London 1982, first page
  3. The God Particle - Boston 1993
  4. G. Marx: The Voice of the Martians - 2nd edition, Academy Press, Budapest 1997
  5. See map on inside of back coverpage.
  6. Bruce Schechter: My Brain is Open
  7. The Martians - Proceedings of the Workshop organized by the International Committee for the History of Technology in Budapest, Eötvös Society, Budapest, 1997
  8. The Boredom of Fantasy -1955
  9. Richard Rhodes: The Making of the Atomic Bomb
  10. 10 Ubiquitous Presence
  11. His Version of Facts
  12. Sending this letter was not permitted. Printed in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
  13. What a Price of Peace!
  14. Soros on Soros
  15. Only the Paranoid Survive
  16. Soros on Soros
  17. Time, 10 July 1995