Department of Atomic Physics, Eötvös University, Budapest
It is well known that it was the U.S., and soon thereafter the
Soviet Union, England, France, and China, where nuclear power
was accomplished. In addition, a number of highly talented physicists
of other nations contributed to the success, e.g. Germans (Hans
Bethe, Felix Bloch, Otto Hahn, Rudolf Peierls), Austrians (Otto
Robert Frisch, Hans Halban, Lise Meitner, Victor Weisskopf), Italians
(Eduardo Amaldi, Enrico Fermi, Bruno Pontecorvo, Emilio Segré).
Teller used to emphasize: - It was the work of many people.
- Why are just Hungarian scientists considered to be, in some
The birth of a legend
- 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 myth.2 - A saying circulated among us that two intelligent species live on Earth: Humans and Hungarians - as Isaac Asimov recalled. Hans Bethe wondered quite "seriously" whether a brain like von Neumann's does not indicate a species superior to that of man.3 - Richard Rhodes4 has reported: - At Princeton a saying gained currency that Neumann, the youngest member of the new Institute for Advanced Studies, twenty-nine in 1933, was indeed a demigod but that he had made a thorough, detailed study of human beings and could imitate them perfectly. - 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. Leon Lederman, director of the Fermilab, reported possible hidden intentions5: - 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. - (See Kovács' map in this volume, p.45.) As a matter of fact, these suspicious Hungarians - Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, Leo Szilard - enjoyed the myth. Edward Teller became especially happy of his E.T. initials, but he complained about indiscretion, - Von Kármán must have been talking. Yankee magazine [March 1980] reported this landing in detail:
- Gabor, von Kármán, Kemeny, von Neumann, Szilard, Teller, and Wigner were born in the same quarter of Budapest. No wonder the scientists in Los Alamos accepted the idea that well over one thousand years ago a Martian spaceship crashlanded somewhere in the center of Europe. There are three firm proofs of the extraterrestrial origins of the Hungarians: they like to wander about (like gypsies radiating out from the same region). They speak an exceptionally simple and logical language which has not the slightest connection with the language of their neighbors. And they are so much smarter than the terrestrials. (In a slight Martian accent John G. Kemeny added an explanation, namely, that 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.)
Valentine Telegdi recalled his youth [talk in Budapest 1989]: - For a young Hungarian abroad it may be good to hide his Hungarian descent, because if it is made known, too much will be expected of him. People will know that he is one of the Martians of exceptionally high intelligence who use that incomprehensible language. There was another profession besides science which was crowded by Hungarian talents, the cinema, - an art born from the marriage of traditional drama and modern technology.
Landing in Hollywood
- Legend has it that Hollywood was founded by Hungarians. (At least in part.)6 - Sándor Korda was born in Hungary, in the fateful year 1919 he emigrated to Germany, from there to Hollywood, but reached the peak of his career in England (The Private Life of Henry VIII and Lady Hamilton), and became Sir Alexander Korda. The names of Hungarians in Hollywood make a long list, from Adolph Zukor - born in Ricse (Paramount Pictures) to William Fox - born in Tolcsva, near Tokaj (20th Century Fox) as founders; from Michael Curtiz - born in Budapest (Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood) to Andy Vajna - born in Budapest (Rambo and Evita) as directors; from Menyhard Lengyel ( Typhoon and Ninotshka) to Joe Esterhas - born in Csákánydoroszló (Flashdance and Basic Instinct, working now on a script about the 1956 revolt of Hungary) as screenwriters; from Laszlo Kovacs - born in Budapest (Easy Riders and Free Willy) to Willy Zigmond (Close Encounter of the Third Kind and The Dear Hunter) as cinematographers; from Bela Lugosi - born in Lugos (Frankenstein and Dracula) to Zsa Zsa Gabor - born in Budapest (Moulin Rouge and A Nightmare on Elm Street) as actors, and so on. A special attraction to atoms has been shown by Ciccolina - born as Ilona Staller in Budapest (in her Orgia Atomica). There is also a list of second generation Hungarian actors like Tony Curtis - fluent in Hungarian (stylishly the Lobster Man from Mars and The Boston Strangler who Likes it Hot) through Paul Newman ( The Sting, then Exodus, followed by a Long Hot Summer) up to Leslie Howard - born László Steiner (A Free Soul, later The Scarlet Pimpernel, to be Captured! and then Gone with the Wind). (Howard was wounded in World War I; while flying an airplane near Gibraltar on a secret mission in World War II he was shot down in action, according to myth at the direct order of Hitler. ) Hungarians have been laureated by Oscar Awards: George Cukor (director), József Rufusz (cartoon director), Vilmos Zsigmond (cinematographer), Adolph Zukor (for life's work). On the wall of Zukor's office there was an inscription:
In a low voice Adolph added: - But it may help. - Non-Hungarians in Hollywood used to say, - If you have a Hungarian friend, you don't need an enemy. - According to Norman Macrae, the biographer of John von Neumann,
- The American word "movie" probably derived from the Hungarian "mozi. " Cynics says that Hungarians created America's Hollywood before other Hungarians less destructively created America's A-bomb.
István Szabó (1938-), the Oscar winner Hungarian director, recently made a film for the BBC about the capital city of Hungary. - I called this film "Staying Afloat" because to me Budapest is like a boat trying not to capsize as it is buffeted by waves from all directions. We've been lashed by history and we mustn't let it suck us under. The very air of Budapest exudes this daily struggle for survival, this feeling that we're clinging to the rails; this is why I love my city.
Coming from outer space
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. Hungarians left more traces on the Moon: a huge ring in the southern part of the far side of the Moon has also been named Von Kármán Crater, honoring the pioneer of supersonic flight. East of it is the tiny crater honoring Imre Izsák, the Hungarian-American expert of celestial mechanics of the Space Age (1929-1965). In the North-West, near the lunar Terminator Line, halfway between H.G. Wells and F. Joliot is the great Szilard Crater of 122 km in diameter. East of it astronauts may find the Von Neumann Crater. Further l9th century Hungarians, who did not cross the Ocean, also deserved place on the Lunar Map: in the southern part of the far side are János Bolyai (pioneer of non-Euclidean geometry, 1802-1880); a bit east of it is Roland Eötvös. A tiny crater represents Gyula Fényi, the Jesuit solar astronomer (1845-1927), another one the Austro-Hungarian Nobel laureate, Richard Zsigmondy. But there is a Martian who proved that the craters on the Moon are not products of lunar volcanism but had been created by impacts of meteors from outside: Egon Orowan, while working on plasticity and fractures in solids, studied high resolution photographs brought back by the Apollo missions.7 (There is indeed an asteroid named Teller orbiting around the Sun, discovered by E.F. Helin in 1989.)
Speaking an alien tongue
An obvious explanation of the myth of the Martians may be their strange language: its grammar and vocabulary are 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.) When polyglott Valentine Telegdi decided to learn Japanese, he rushed to Budapest to buy a Japanese language book written in Hungarian, because Hungarian grammar is similar to Japanese, while for an English author it is difficult to explain how Japanese think and speak. (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans put family name first, given name as last; in Europe only the Hungarian language follows this rule.)
According to myth, at a top secret meeting of the Manhattan Project General Groves left for the gents' room. 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 Neumann and Wigner had frequent telephone conversations in Hungarian. [Teller, talk in Budapest 1991.] The "thick Hungarian accent" was often heard even in the corridors of the Pentagon. (The Lugosi accent made the alien power of Dracula, the count from the faraway Transylvania even more realistic. )
This explanation of the myth, however, is certainly not sufficient. Let us quote now George 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 almost in 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 give
an answer. For my part: I cannot find 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.
Crossroads in space-time
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 only 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! - Psychology teaches us that an impact-rich environment cultivates talent. To support this view, let's quote one of the strangest Martians, Arthur Koestler8:
- When Tom Corbett, Space Cadett, 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?"
There may be historical reasons for this alien coherence of the Hungarians: - Hungary was usually in turmoil; a situation attributable mainly to an accident of geography.9 - As Kati Marton (Mrs Holbrook), who left Hungary as a child in 1957, said,l0 - My parents had too much history. - 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), Russia (Eastern Orthodox Christianity), Osman Empire (Islam) met each other, presenting alternatives and igniting conflicts. Armies from East and West were marching on the roads through centuries. We have learned agriculture from the Slavs, the Renaissance arrived from Italy, and industry came from Germany. Through one and a half centuries the armies of the Osman Empire took everything what they could from the Hungarian peasants - but pigs; this is why pork is the favorite meat of the Hungarians till today. Grapes were introduced by the veterans of the Roman legions, in oder to make wine. Beer-brewing came from Germany. The Russians have shown how to distill vodka. And the Turks introduced the strong black coffee, a present national drink of the Hungarians. So much about the first Hungarian millenium.
A hundred years ago (when the Martian heroes of this book 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) - and unsolved social contradictions. In 1896 politicians in Parliament spoke of the glory of the past thousand years of Hungarian history, but the world exposition, organized in Budapest to honor the millenium, presented new physical inventions and the first underground metro system on the continent was already operational in Budapest (second only to London).
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 against 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, and a communist government organized resistance - looking for help from Moscow (21 March 1919). 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.
Almost all the Martians attended university and began their careers in Germany, where and when quantum mechanics had been born. This does not contradict but confirms our thesis that conflicts cultivate creativity. The 1920s were the decade of the Weimar Republic, which was full of psychological conflicts: the democracy was overshadowed by the lost World War ("Dolchstoss von hinten" ), the dream of a new German Empire (das Dritte Reich), the trilemma of liberalism-communism-nazism. This fruitful period of the coexistence of contradicting ideologies lasted there over ten years, before terminating in the tragedies of the economic crisis, dictatorship, and war.
A similar critical but creative period of accelerating history was experienced in Petrograd in the early 1920s, after the fall of the Czar and before the rise of Stalin, resulting in an explosion of creativity. In Hungary, however, all these revolutions and counter-revolutions happened in a mere twelve months!
The most sensitive period in human life is being a teenager,
when one's personal system of values is built up. The diagram
indicates that the Martians - so successful in later years across
the Ocean - attended high schools in Hungary just at the time
of the great World Wars (figure). What a privilegized time
to live in!
When were the Martians teenagers?
The Jews were expelled from Western Europe 500 years ago, but were welcome in Eastern Europe for bringing trade and industry, especially by the king of Poland. In the l9th century Poland was divided among Germany, Austria, and Russia. Escaping from the pogroms encouraged by Russian orthodox priests, the Jews moved southwards, towards Hungary, adding to her former Jewish population. 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. At the proposal of the Minister of Culture, the enlightened Baron József Eötvös (the father of the physicist Roland Eötvös) 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) Baron Roland Eötvös, a physicist served as Minister of Culture just for a few months. Because he was an aristocrat, he was able to convince the conservative Parliament to widen civil rights, including complete religious freedom and civilian marriage. 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 anti-Jewish law, the numerus clausus was enacted in Hungary; according to it, the percentage of Jewish university students was restricted to the percentage of the Jewish population 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 (alias Virág Lipót) 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 attended school in Budapest. After graduation he left Hungary to study law in Vienna (1878), and he died in Austria. (Now a grand boulvard in Tel-Aviv is named Herzl Street, a hill in Jerusalem is Mount Herzl.) - The word "Holocaust" (burning completely to dust) was first used by peace-Nobel-laureate Elie Wiesel.
On this spot of the globe, within distances less than 1000 km, we find Albanians, Austrians, Bosnians, Croatians, Czechs, Gypsies, Hungarians, Jews, Slovakians, Slovenians, each possessing their own language, their own culture, most of them their own country with a population of a few million or even less. (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 heritages differ even more.) The tolerated coexistence and sparking conflict of cultures were present not only in foreign affairs or in the sectors of the Parliament but within the heads of young individuals. For example, it could happen in the family that the father spoke Hungarian, the mother spoke German, grandma's family originated somewhere in Poland, grandpa kept the Jewish feasts, the school teacher taught Christianity. 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 strengths. Nicholas Kurti told the author [Budapest 1990]:
- I don't think we were much more talented than the other students in the West, but we knew that we could not go back. Our talents would have to be used. There was no chance for us to waste our talents. - John von Neumann confirmed: - 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 extinction.4 - Not everyone appreciated this originality. Telegdi 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. Arthur Koestler expressed the opinion [Ubiquitous Presence]:
- 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 best-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 "gulash-bars" of Vienna, New York, and Tokyo 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.
To Koestler's words let us add one remark. It may be that the language of pictures was easier for immigrant Hungarians in America that speaking and writing in the foreign tongue. (Vilma Banky was an admired actor until sound film swept her off the screen for her Hungarian accent. Tony Curtis was born in the U.S. but he had to take long phonetics lessons to get rid of his inherited Hungarian accent.) The French film review Positif recently wrote:
- Hollywood gained much from the immigrant Hungarian artists'
creative capacities, dedication to imagery, their tendency of
Tourist brochures advertise Hungary as the country of Tokaji wine, red-hot paprika, gypsy music, csardas dancing. It is less ackowledged that the coach (1400) and the match (1836), ball-point pen (1943) and Rubik's cube (1978), alternating current technology (1885) and streamlined airplanes (1928), tungsten filaments (1905) and krypton-filled light bulbs (1930), radioactive tracing (1913) and the nuclear reactor (1942), electronically programmable computers (1946) and time-sharing computer networks (1960), the BASIC language (1964) and the WORD word processor (1988), among others, emerged from brains born and schooled in Hungary, and changed the way we live in the 20th century. Wigner's student, Alvin Weinberg designed the safe water-moderated nuclear reactors; Wigner's other student, John Bardeen invented the transistor, opening new gates for human progress.
The precondition for the coexistence of different cultures in such a tiny domain of space-time is tolerance, a merit of Hungarian society, especially in the early 20th century. Being different enhances critical spirits and creative associations. There is no better expert on this than Arthur Koestler who compared his youth to riding a roller-coaster; in his late years he devoted most of his attention to understanding the interplay between conflict and creativity.l2 According to him the genius in science or the arts notices that two concepts - considered beforehand to belong to completely different dimensions - are deeply interrelated, even identical. (There are several examples of such insights in the history of science initiating scientific revolutions: Light / electricity. Heat / disorder. Mass / energy. DNA / heredity. Struggle / evolution. ) If the student is instructed to memorize only traditional skills, rules, laws, and boundaries postulated by axioms, then he may not recognize further interrelations presented by reality. But if someone is exposed to contradictions, he will not be afraid of wild associations. As Koestler has put it,
- The manner in which some of the most important individual discoveries were arrived reminds one more of a sleepwalker's performance than an electronic brain's.
- Chemistry and physics could only become united after physics had renounced the dogma of the indivisibility and impermeability of the atom, and chemistry had renounced its doctrine of ultimate immutable elements. A new evolutionary departure is only possible after a certain amount of de-differentiation, a cracking and thawing of the frozen structures resulting from isolated, over-specialized development. Perhaps our age of specialists is again in need of creative trespassers.l3
Well, Martians don't respect political and disciplinary boundaries; this might be how these refugees from the Wild East of Europe came to deserve the adjective: Mad Hungarians. It is impossible to classify them according to well-established disciplines; they show an inherent interdisciplinary spirit. It is hard to tell whether George von Békésy, Andrew Grove, George de Hevesy, John von Neumann, George Olah, Michael Polanyi, Edward Teller, Valentine Telegdi, Eugene P. Wigner, Richard A. Zsigmondy were chemical engineers (as their university diplomas indicate) or biologists, mathematicians, physicists, philosophers.
Geophysics was introduced by Roland Eötvös who, after having studied the accurate proportionality of inertia and gravity, applied his gravimeter to peep below the Earth's surface, to find oil. George de Hevesy applied radioactivity to geochronology as first. Egon Orowan used his pioneering results on plastic dislocations in solids to explain the motion of glaciers, drifts of continents, and the formation of mid-oceanic rifts.
Biophysics is a favorite hunting place for Martians: Robert Bárány, Erwin Bauer, Albert Szent-Györgyi started from medicine, George von Békésy, Leo Szilard, Eugene P. Wigner from engineering, to cross the physics/biology borderline. Wigner estimated the mathematical probability for the spontaneous emergence of life in the framework of quantum mechanics. Szilard experimented with evolution and speculated about the biochemistry of aging. John von Neumann, the mathematician, distinguished the role of software and hardware in the living cell before biologists clarified the distinct roles of DNA and enzymes; he constructed cellular automatons on the computer screen to explain self-reproducing molecules, and wrote a book about the computer and the brain. Martian mathematicians, physicists, and chemists cannot resist biological temptations.
Information theory is an emerging new development on the border of traditional disciplines. It originated with Leo Szilard's paper on the conflict between information-creating intelligence and disorder-creating thermodynamics (1929). John von Neumann recognized first the revolutionary importance of electronically programmable computers; after artillery trajectories he applied them to meteorology, economics, and strategy. He was followed by John Harsanyi, Nobel laureated for developing game theory in economics for players with imperfect informations. Dennis Gabor received the Nobel Prize for extracting the complete information carried by a light ray with the technique of holography. John G. Kemeny recognized that computers were for every (educated) person, therefore he invented the Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC). Charles Simonyi is now the chief architect of Microsoft, the most successful software company. Andy Grove is the president and chief executive officer at Intel, the most successful hardware company. Hungary prepared the on-board computers for the Russian long-distance space missions, which reached Mars and Comet Halley. The RECOGNITA - software made in Hungary - is able to read hand-written texts.
Telling the future
- We live in an age in which the pace of technological change is pulsating ever faster, causing waves that spread outward everywhere. This increased rate of change will have an impact on you, no matter what you do for a living - it will bring new competition from new ways of doing things, from corners that you don't expect. It doesn't matter where you live. Long distances used to be a moat that both insulated and isolated peop1e from workers on the other side of the globe. But every day, technology narrows that moat inch by inch. Every person in the world is on the verge of becoming both coworker and competitor to every one of us. We can't stop changes. We can't hide from them. Instead, we must focus on getting ready for them. - This was written by Andrew Grove in his book Only the Paranoid Survive.l4
In a stable world sensing the state of the environment, the so-called "social adjustment" has survival value. In a variable climate, however, noticing the trends of change (the time derivative), sensing coming storms helps one survive. This explains another Martian characteristic: the capability to predict the future.
- Leo Szilard 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. "15 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), there 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 war.16 -- In Yugoslavia we witness today the Catholic [Croatian]-Eastern Orthodox [Serbian]-Islam [Bosnian] conflict, and the superpower play behind it, having turned again to war. As Leo Szilard has summarized: - You don't have to be cleverer, you just have to be one day earlier.
- My father taught me that one gains very little knowledge of how to behave as a nation from looking at year-to-year changes. To find the true worth of historical experience, one must examine generations - Von Kármán recalled. It is Central Europe where history happens. World War I erupted in Sarajevo (Bosnia). World War II started in Danzig (Gdansk, Poland). The focus of the present greatest European conflict was again Sarajevo. Condensed historical experiences enable the scientists living here to notice the trends more acutely than those living in quieter regions. Dennis Gabor had already written in 1938: What a Price of Peace!
- 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, Chechnya, Kurdistan, and elsewhere still believe in it.
John von Neumann also wrote in June 1938: - I think , that there will be war, although it may be at a distance of a half year or perhaps even one or two years. - (The exact time of grace left was 15 months.) About the Western surrender in the case of Czechoslovakia in Munich (30 September 1938) he said: - I can only say that Mr. Chamberlain obviously wanted to do me a great personal favor. I needed a postponement of the next world war very badly - because Neumann traveled to Budapest to marry in November. In 1940 the German army cut through France as Neumann predicted, but he also expressed the unbelievable views that Britain would deter a German invasion, and whichever president was going to be elected in 1940, would probably bring America into the war in 1941. (So it happened.) He thought that free mankind's two enemies (Hitler and Stalin, that time allies) might by then be doing the nice thing of fighting each other. - Stanislav Ulam, a fellow mathematician at the Manhattan Project, said: - I can testify that in his forecasts of political events leading to World War II and of military events during the war, most of von Neumann's gueesses were amazingly correct.l7
Egon Orowan - a physicist turned mechanical engineer - picked up writings of Ibn-Khaldun, the l4th century Tunisian Arab historian, about the rise, maturation, and senescence of Arabic tribes from dynamic beginnings to rich and decadent ends, when they are replaced by a new wave of dynamic invaders. Orowan has found many parallels to these in modern Western societies where economics becomes to be of central importance. Beginning at Adam Smith and Malthus, Orowan concluded that the present problems of industralized Western societies result from ever increasing productivity which replaces the old crafts of many skilled craftsmen with automated industries. The outcome is chronic unemployment followed by government's "charity" in the form of armanent industry, in government contracts for public work and research centers not necessarily needed by society. Orowan liked to call his approach to socionomy, coined from sociology+economy.
- Till now man has been up against Nature, from now on he will be up against his own nature - said Dennis Gabor.l8 - Our civilization faces three great dangers. The first is destruction by nuclear war, the second is overpopulation, and the third is the Age of Leisure. For the first time in history we are now faced with the possibility of a world in which only a minority needs work to keep the great majority in idle luxury. Soon the minority which has to work for the rest may be so small that it could be entirely recruited from the most gifted part of the population. Almost every important invention unbalances the front of progress, and a new invention is needed to redress the balance. Disinfectants have reduced child mortality, and we need the "pill" to keep the population in bounds. The steam engine, the internal combustion engine are threatening our stock of fossile fuel with exhaustion; we must have nuclear power and later on thermonuclear power. We cannot stop inventing, because we are riding a tiger.
- It's like sailing a boat when the wind shifts on you but for some reason, maybe because you are down below, you don't even sense that the wind has changed until the boat suddenly keels over. What worked before doesn't work anymore; you need to steer the boat in a different direction quickly before you are in trouble, yet you have to get a feel of the new direction and the strength of the wind before you can hope to right the boat and set a 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 of an enterprise. - This is what Andrew Grove, a skilled navigator says about his experiences, failures, and successes.14
Perhaps the storms experienced by Martian sailors beforehand in Europe enabled Szilard to sense the approach of the Atomic Era and Neumann to feel the coming of the Computer Era. What do common terrestrials do when the storm arrives?
- When the environment changes in such a way as to render the old skills and strengths less relevant, we almost instinctively cling to our past. We refuse to acknowledge changes around us, almost like a child who doesn't like what he's seeing so he closes his eyes and counts to 100 and figures that what bothered him will go away. The phrase you're likely to hear from grownups at such times is "Just give us a bit more time."14
Correct forecasting of the future may make money. - 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.l9 - My basic idea is that our understanding of the world in which we live is inherently imperfect. There is always a discrepancy between the participant's views and expectations and the actual state of affairs. Sometimes the discrepancy is so small that it can be disregarded but, at other times, the gap is so large that it becomes an important factor in determining the course of events. History is made by the participants' errors, biases, and misconceptions. - Citizens of quiet regions may afford to believe in a fixed set of values, but Hungarians cannot afford it. This is how Soros explains his successful intuitions:
- Rationality has its uses, but it also has its limitations. If we insist on staying within the limits of reason, we cannot cope with the world in which we live. By contrast, a belief in our fallibility can take us much farther. It can guide us through life.
Andrew Grove gives the following diagnosis on the state of the world: - When most companies of a previously regulated economy are suddenly thrust into a compatitive environment, the changes multiply. Management now has to excel in the midst of a global cacophony of competing products, and every person on the labor force suddenly must compete for his or her job with employees of similar companies on the other side of the globe. When such fundamental changes hit a whole economy simultaneously, their impact is cataclysmic. They affect an entire country's political system, its social norms and its way of life. This is what we see in the former Soviet Union and, in a more controlled fashion, in China. l4
George Soros warnsl9 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: - We do not have much time to come to our senses. 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. We carry on with business as usual while all our institutions of collective security are disappearing. The collapse of communism was a revolutionary event, and a revolution creates opportunities! - Later he added [Time, 10 July 1995]: - We have missed the opportunity, and now it will be forty years in the wilderness.
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.20 - 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.l4 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. President Kennedy answered his letters about the importance of a superpower dialoge, resulting in the Washington-Moscow hot line. Szilard also 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; criticized President Johnson bitterly for his war in Vietnam; 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 received the Medal of the Congress and President Reagan made him 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.l9
In the middle of the night Arthur Koestler called and woke up Gaitskell, the leader of the British Labour Party, before Gaitskell's visit to Moscow, asking for his intervention at Krushchev in order to save the life of the Hungarian writer Tibor Déry after 1956 - and he succeeded. In the 1930s, during his visits to the Soviet Union, Michael Polanyi contacted Bukharin, chief of scientific and technological planning. In conclusion, let us quote Dennis Gabor, one of the most ardent prophets, who 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.
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 liberation of nuclear power also a Martian success story. The first six recipients of the Atoms for Peace Award were 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. " - (A Dane, a Canadian, an American and three Hungarians make up this list.)
George Marx: "Beszélgetés
Marslakókkal" (interviews in Hungarian). OOK-Press,
Veszprém, Hungary (1992) 145 pages. George Marx: "The
Voice of the Martians;" first edition Eötvös Physical
Society, Budapest (1993) 230 pages; second edition Hungarian Academy
Press, Budapest (1997), 420 pages. This paper is essentially a
chapter from the last quoted book.
First page in Francis Crick's
book: "The Life Itself." Macdonald, London 1982.
Norman Macrea: "John von
Neumann." Pantheon Books, New York (1992)
Richard Rhodes: "The Making
of the Atomic Bomb." Simon&Schuster, N.Y.(1986)
Leon Lederman: "The God
Particle." Boston (1993)
"Hungarians in Film."
Magyar Filmunió, Budapest (1996), p.6.
Proceedings of the Royal Society,
A336 (1974) p. 141.
Arthur Koestler: "The
Boredom of Phantasy" (1955)
A. Blumberg - G. Owens: "Energy
and Conflict." G. P. Putnam, New York (1976)
Newsweek, 17 February 1997
"Hungarians in Film,"
Arthur Koestler: "The
Act of Creation." Hutchinson, London (1964)
Arthur Koestler: "The
Sleepwalkers." Hutchinson, London-Macmillan, N.Y. (1959)
Andrew S. Grove: "Only
the Paranoid Survive." Doubleday, New York (1996)
Leo Szilard: "His Version
of Facts," selected recollections; editors S. R. Weart -
G. Szilard. MIT Press, Cambridge MA (1978)
Sending this letter was not permitted.
Printed in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
"John von Neumann Memorial
Dennis Gabor: "Inventing
the Future." Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1964)
George Soros - B. Wien - K. Koenen:
"Soros on Soros." John Wiley, New York (1995)
This aspect has been emphasized
by Gábor Palló.