GEORGE MARX, president of the Eötvös Physical Society
Department of Atomic Physics, Eötvös University in Budapest
- 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 w h e r e a r e t h e y?" - 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 how Francis Crick's book "The Life Itself" begins. It is not difficult to find out where the alien space ship landed: the "Martians" having influenced science and technology in the 20th century (Dennis Gabor, Andrew Grove, George de Hevesy, Theodore von Kármán, John G. Kemeny, Arthur Koestler, John von Neumann, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Eugene P. Wigner) were born within a circle of 1 km radius in the downtown of Budapest. Does anyone need any other proof or explanation?
Well, Hungary was always at the crossroads of history. This is the place where history used to happen. The Roman legions, armies of the Mongol Dzengis Khan, the Muslim invasion were stopped at the Danube.
Catholicism came from Italy, Orthodox Christianity from the Bizantium, the Reformation from Germany, the Islam from the Ottoman Empire. Thus Hungary was a collision point of cultures.
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This delicious mixture was flavored, when the Jews - having been expelled from Western Europe in the 15th-16th century, then from Russia and Russia-occupied Poland in the 18th-19th century - wandered to Hungary. We have learned weapons from the Turks, agriculture from the Slavs, alphabet from Italian priests, industry from Germans, trade from Jews. The veterans of the Roman legions planted grapes to make wine. Germans taught us how to brew beer. Russians have shown how to distill vodka. And the antialcoholic Turks made us to like the Black Soup: the hot and strong black coffee, our national drink today.
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Leo Szilard emerged from this melting pot of cultures. His great-grandfather was a shepherd, the grandfather was an agricultural enterpreneur, the father was a machine engineer. The family slowly descended from the Carpatian Mountains towards Budapest; the father's mother tongue was German, but learned Hungarian in the school and changed his German-sounding name Spitz to the Hungarian Szilard (meaning solid). In his genetical and spiritual genes the Jewish, German, Slovakian, Hungarian ethnical heritages produced a special mix, enriched again by German and Austrian, then by British and American flavors in his grownup life.
Leo Szilard was born in Budapest, on the 11th February 1898, in a city of blossoming industrial revolution. (At this time alternating current, dynamo, electric train, telephone central were designed by Hungarians as firsts; the first metro of the continent already operated in Budapest.) The young Leo admired the marvels of the new tech. When her sister became ill of diphteria and was isolated, Leo communicated with her by home-made telegraph. Then he excelled in the high school physics competition. (This national competition is over 100 years old, the older Theodore von Kármán and the younger Edward Teller were also winners at their high school graduation.)
When Leo was 16, World War 1 erupted. Leo told his friend: - Don't be anxious because of the expected army service. Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia will loose soon! - This was a strange prophecy because Russia was on the opposite side on the front - but Leo still turned out to be right. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire declared the war - and lost.
When Leo became 20, Budapest experienced the rule of the Habsburg emperor-king, then republican revolution, parliamentary democracy, followed by communist rule, ending in foreign occupation, then in a military junta and an extreme-right-wing regime, all within twelve months. Each of them offered an ultimate truth, which sharply contradicted the previous one. It is a pedagogical experience that impact-rich environment cultivates talents. Under quiet sky the social adjustment helps to happiness. Under changing (ideological) climate, however, conservative traditions turn out to be useless, but creativity is welcome to search for new escape routes. World Wars offer excellent school years for talents.
At the beginning Leo enjoyed the changing climate. With his brother he joined the socialist youth organization and distributed an economic reform plan - to save Hungary. After the fall of revolutions, he was beaten by conservative students of the Budapest Institute of Technology, so in December 1919 he boarded a ship towards the West - for never to return.
As a matter of fact, he almost returned. Around 1960 he agreed to accept the leadership of a modern biological center in Austria - remember the "International Biological Research Institute", located in Vienna to study the dolphins' intelligence, according to Szilard's novel, The Voice of the Dolphins. But his illness prevented him in the realization of this plan. His earthly remnants took rest in Hungarian soil on the 11th February 1998, on his 100th birthday.
In this region one has to learn trespassing political borderlines if wants to survive. (One might even find himself in a different country just by staying at rest. This is where not only people but borderlines used to move. Szilard's ancestors' birthplace is now Slovakia.) With the same ease Leo crossed disciplinary boundaries as well. From machine engineering (studied at the Budapest Institute of Technology) he switched to physics (at Berlin University). Enjoying the fresh molecular point of view of statistical physics he asked (and solved) the problem, how intelligence can fight entropy. He has shown that thinking happens with friction, and calculated the (entropy) price to be paid for 1 bit of information: k ln 2. This problem made him interested in the reactions within living cells. In order to follow the biochemical reactions he intended to use radioactive tracers, thus initiated the chemistry of hot atoms. But the discovery of neutron and a provocative side remark of Rutherford made him to invent (and patent) neutron chain reactions, and to design the inhomogenous nuclear reactor. The tragedy of Hiroshima forced him again to turn to politics, with the mission to save the world. Without stopping his campaign against nuclear arms race, Szilard returned to his old interest in the basics of biology. He studied biological evolution in a test tube. Then developed the information theory of aging. Finally he fighted his own cancer by radioactivity, with a high dose of ionizing radiation.
Was all this a senseless random walk? Or following the straightforward lead of his interest did he cross senseless disciplinary borderlines without inhibitions? The fin de siècle science and history has shown: Leo has been right!
There are also other "mad Hungarians", having radiated out from Budapest, who survived and succeeded because of crossing disciplinary boundaries. E.g.
George de Hevesy studied chemical engineering (in Zürich), discovered radioactive isotopes and used them as radioactive tracers (in Budapest and Vienna), utilized them in geochronology (in Freiburg) and in studying the operation of DNA (in Stockholm). In the meantime he collected the Nobel Prize in chemistry and the Atoms for Peace prize in America. While moving through laboratories and disciplines, he said: - Do you think that it hurts less if I stay at rest?
George von Békésy studied also chemistry (in Bern), made PhD in physics (in Budapest), worked here in telecommunication engineering, became professor of physics at Budapest University, till World War 2 destroyed his lab. Then he left for Sweden, from there to the U.S., to Harvard and Hawaii. He studied the internal ear, and got the Nobel Prize in medicine. He left us the message: - Experiments survive politicians.
John von Neumann studied - you had already found out - chemical engineering (abroad), made PhD in axiomatic math (in Budapest), laid the foundation of quantum mechanics (in Berlin), became interested in non-linear aerodynamics (in America), therefore developed the electronically programable computers, applied them to meteorology, predicted the warming of climate due to carbon-dioxide release, studied self-replicating automatons similar to living cells, finally wrote a book about the computer and the brain. His conclusion was: - There is no cure against progress.
Andy Grove studied chemical engineering, worked on physics of semiconductors and taught it in Berkeley, recognized the central importance of microprocessors in computation, became the boss of INTEL, and - as professor - he teaches at the business school of Stanford University. The title of his last book is self-explanatory: - Only the Paranoid Survive.
The compressed historican experiences - adventures - make these people, having lived in the Central-Europe of the 1910-1920s, to be able to tell the future. Leo Szilard especially excelled: - You don't have to be cleverer than the others. You just have to be one day ahead of them - in order to survive.
- In Budapest Leo turned from Jew to Calvinist one month before rightwing
- He left Berlin one day before Hitler closed the borders for Jews,
- He left Vienna before Hitler annected Austria.
- I'll leave Europe one year before Hitler goes to war - he said and sailed to New York in 1938.
- In 1947 he wrote a letter to Stalin, forecasting the war in Yugoslavia, and the U.S. involvement in it.
All the times there were two suitcases packed in his hotel room, with keys in them, ready to leave immediately at feeling the approaching danger. He even left New York rushing to Switzerland at the peak of the Cuban missile crisis. People were smiling at him. Now we understand from the declassified documents how near the world came to a nuclear war in 1962.
Leo Szilard was a Central-European among the whites.