The Martians of Science

  • István Hargittai
Oxford University Press: 2006. 376 pp. £19.99 $34.50 0195178459 | ISBN: 0-195-17845-9

The Martians of Science tells the gripping story of five brilliant and colourful Hungarian scientists — Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner — who had an extraordinary impact on their profession and on world events in the twentieth century. Fritz Houtermans, a physicist who knew them all in the 1930s, once quipped that they “were really visitors from Mars”, hence the book's title. István Hargittai, a fellow Hungarian, tells their collective story for the first time, basing his research on interviews and documentation.

High fliers: aerodynamics expert Theodore von Kármán (above, writing) and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner John von Neumann (left, seated). Credit: NASA

All five were from Budapest. They all attended its excellent high school, went to its technical university, completed their studies in Germany and eventually emigrated to America. Von Kármán, the eldest, was born in 1881, Szilárd in 1898, Wigner in 1902, von Neumann in 1903 and Teller in 1908. All were raised in middle-class, highly intellectual Jewish households. In the years after the First World War there was a dramatic increase in anti-Semitism in Hungary. With the exception of Teller's, their families converted to Christianity, which offered them some protection until the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, when converted Jews were rudely reminded of their origins. By the early 1930s, all five men were well known in America.

Von Kármán was a world-renowned expert in aerodynamics. He worked for the German air force in the First World War and continued to work for them afterwards as a consultant, even though this contravened the Treaty of Versailles. In 1930 he became director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. Air Marshall Hermann Göring invited him back to Germany in 1934 to work as a consultant, telling German critics: “I decide who is a Jew.” In the Second World War and afterwards, von Kármán made important contributions to the development of jet aircraft and ballistic missiles.

Von Neumann studied two different subjects at two universities, completing a degree in chemical engineering at the ETH in Zurich in 1925, and a PhD in mathematics at the University of Budapest for work on axiomatic set theory. “Endearing, a genius, but not a modest man,” as a colleague recalled, von Neumann ranged over the scientific landscape. With his bottomless supply of scatological jokes, he was the life of the party. Among his lasting achievements were the design of digital computers and the development of nuclear weapons, another of his passions. He effectively began the field of game theory and contributed to economics, mathematics and quantum physics.

When Szilárd was studying at the University of Berlin, the front row of the famous physics colloquia was reserved for the likes of Albert Einstein, Max von Laue and Max Planck. Students were supposed to sit towards the rear,but Szilárd thought otherwise. He wanted to tell Einstein about some of his recent ideas. Einstein was impressed. Together they applied for patents on a silent refrigerator run by an electromagnetic pump operating a liquid metal coolant, thus avoiding the possibility of noxious fumes.

The day after Szilárd fled Germany in March 1933, the borders closed. He took this as a lesson in life: “If you want to succeed in this world you don't have to be much cleverer than other people; you just have to be one day earlier.” He became a peripatetic scientist and for the rest of his life always kept a packed suitcase ready. Among his discoveries were the principles of a nuclear chain reaction and its potential uses in both peace and war. In 1939 he persuaded Einstein to inform President Franklin D. Roosevelt about it. Einstein's letter — virtually dictated by Szilárd — was one factor leading to the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. Szilárd spent much of his life raising ethical issues about the postwar role of nuclear weapons, and Hargittai believes that for this he should have shared the 1962 Nobel peace prize with Linus Pauling.

Like Szilárd, Wigner did his PhD at the University of Berlin. He pioneered the use of group theory to explore the symmetry properties of atoms. For this he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, the only one won by the martians. Strangely, Hargittai has the least to say on him — perhaps he was the least colourful.

Teller was one of Werner Heisenberg's students at the University of Leipzig and went on to make important contributions to molecular physics, astrophysics and nuclear physics. His period at Los Alamos was central to his political development. There he read Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, which reminded him of the appalling treatment of his Russian friend and colleague Lev Landau at the hands of the NKVD, the Soviet Union's secret police, and he became a virulent anti-communist. Teller became a leading figure in the Manhattan Project and was obsessed with developing a nuclear weapon that would relegate the bombs dropped on Japan to mere firecrackers. The result was a serious falling out with others in Los Alamos, notably Robert Oppenheimer, who had no interest in Teller's project to make a thermonuclear bomb and afterwards disagreed with its development.

Apart from Szilárd, the martians were fanatical about the cold war. Hargittai discusses this in detail while criticizing Teller's “reckless” testimony against Oppenheimer in 1953.

This is an important story that needs to be told, and Hargittai tells it well, although I would liked to have learnt more about the martians' creativity. Their politics aside, they were brilliant thinkers who were able to spot connections among apparently unconnected disciplines and thus identify fundamental problems — and then solve them.