on February 11, 2007
As the daughter of the book's author, I bring an unusual perspective to this piece, one that will give you some background on how this book came about and why you will be in for a treat when reading it.
My father knew two of the five Martians discussed in this volume (Wigner and Teller) and had expressed a great interest in the work and lives of all five (Szilard, von Neumann, von Karman in addition to the above two) throughout his life. Curiously, however, despite having written numerous books about scientists, he never intended to write a book about these five until Oxford University Press approached him about it. When he finally took up this project, he threw himself into it with zest. When the book was near completion, he met with almost all of the surviving children of the Martians, not to change anything but to get an additional impression of their personalities. A byproduct of the book was a play he wrote about Teller, which surprised even me despite being used to his occasional unusual ideas.
Looking back, the Martians were always on my father's mind, and he cherished his long-lasting personal acquaintance with Eugene P. Wigner. (Even as a child, I remember seeing the picture of the two of them taken upon their encounter at the University of Texas at Austin in 1969.) The family legend had it that we might be distant relatives, but there was never any hard evidence for that. My father started correspondence with Wigner when he was still a student, well before I was born. Actually, Wigner wrote him first after my father had published an article in a Hungarian literary magazine soon after Wigner's Nobel Prize. My father's acquaintance with Teller came much later, when he and my mother visited the Tellers in their home in Stanford in 1996.
Having read The Martians of Science, I feel as if I had become personally acquainted with all five of the people discussed in the volume. It is fascinating to see that such incredible people emerge from just one country to contribute so much to science and to the defense of the United States. It is sad that they were forced out of Hungary, where even today - while their achievements are being recognized - the reasons of their departures are often covered up. This book puts these things into proper perspective.
For an engaging, detailed, and passionate account of the lives of five incredibly important figures (regarding both science and history), I highly recommend this book.
on January 14, 2007
This is a very interesting and informative book that I heartily recommend. I was inspired to buy it after reading a review of it in Nature magazine where the reviewer ended on the following helpful note: "This is an important story that needs to be told, and Hargittai tells it well", an assessment with which I concur.
The book is about the lives of five Hungarian Jewish scientists whose work changed the world, not just the world of science, but the world of politics as well due to the circumstances and period in which they lived and thrived.
The author does a very thorough job tracing the history of these important men. We are shown the uniqueness and diversity of the five Martians (Theodore von Karman, John von Neumann, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner) in addition to considering what bound them together. It is interesting to follow their parallel lives throughout exciting periods of the 20th century. Hargittai conveys the flavor of turn-of-the-century Budapest that yielded not only important scientists but also famous and important contributors to other realms of life (e.g. composers such as Bartok).
The author does a very good job of communicating how circumstances and situations evolved. For example, we see a change from the peaceful coexistence and cooperation of Jews and the rest of Hungary's population to a horribly anti-Semitic society. We are also told about transitions such as how the Martians turned from dedicated students into top players in world science; how the initially Ivory-tower scientists became the most practical contributors to the American military might; how esoteric physics became a source of lethal weaponry within a mere few years; and how quiet immigrants became esteemed citizens with a strong political voice.
In addition to telling us about events that happened, an intriguing feature of the book is that Hargittai tries to imagine what might have become of the Martians had they stayed in Hungary or had they lived in the Soviet Union rather than in the United States.
Overall, this is an extremely engaging and informative read. I agree with the Nature reviewer's assessment that this book needed to be written and Hargittai did an excellent job doing so. You will both enjoy this reading and learn a lot from it.
on December 4, 2007
"The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century", by Istavan Hargittai, Oxford Univ. Press, NY 2006. ISBN 13 978-0-19-517845-6. HC 314/240 pages includes Preface, Contents, Intro., Appendix 12 pgs., Notes 36 pgs., Biblio. 6 pgs., Chronologies 7 pgs., & Index 12 pgs. 9.5" x 6.5"
A cleverly devised treatise details five of the Worlds' most notable theoretical physicists - all began as Jewish Hungarian citizens of Budapest who, in time, migrated to the U.S., toiled collectively and separately to develop strategic defense systems including the atomic & hydrogen bombs, computers, modernized Airforce, and establishing or working at the AEC, NASA, JPL, Manhattan Project, Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, etc.
Convenient attribute of this writing is its apportionment into six chapters to reveal their progressive transition from early childhood into figures of greatness and thence onto their waning years. It reflects their family influences, societal environs, politico-economic conditions, scholastic opportunities, and acceptance into American cultural institutions as Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, Caltech and the U.S. military.
The plethora of B & W photographs contributes enormously to the book's value as does appendix of "Sampler of Quotable Martians". Perhaps most importantly are descriptors of personal interactions amongst the Martians themselves. This book embraces exciting history, racism, psychological ploys of embattled nations & bureaucracies, and the search for peace amidst glorious and sometimes inglorious purlieus. That the author is an acclaimed writer, recognized scientist, Professor of chemistry, authored several dozen books and is personally acquainted with and interviewed several of the 'Martians' is a plus. Its a good read and the price is right.
on February 17, 2014
This is a highly insightful Book, that I read a couple years back (I did originally order it from AMAZON, at the time), but waited awhile to write a review (because I just started writing comments, towards the end of 2013). It tells the story of a handful of extremely gifted human beings, who were forced to flee Europe due to the Nazi persecution (on account of their Jewish heritage). István Hargittai's extraordinary Book is essential reading to anyone fascinated by this terrible historical epoch, and the amazing impact this particular handful of great minds had on Science, and subsequently, the course of World events.
These 'Martians' (so called, because their ways of thinking seemed totally 'other-worldly'), were all born in Hungary (mostly Budapest), during that country's 'Golden Age' (late 19th, early 20th Century), when many of the brightest, most luminescent Stars of the Arts & Sciences, were molded by a truly stellar Educational system (within Hungary initially), then later matriculating throughout the best Universities of Europe (especially at Gottingen, in Germany - where there seemed to be a literal meeting of the greatest scientific Minds, mainly during the 1920's).
This group of 'Martians' included:
John von Neumann = the "Living Computer' who was probably the most naturally gifted mathematician from that time period, and later became a literal father of the underlying 'Logic' forming the very foundation of the subsequent computer & artificial intelligence explosion that was just at infancy, during the late 1940's, early 1950's.
Leo Szilard = the great 'conceptualist & theoretical Dreamer' who first envisioned the possibility of creating an authentic nuclear chain reaction, and took the Lead (with Wigner), in convincing Einstein to write the historic Letter, warning Roosevelt that an Atomic Bomb was feasible (therefore, it was imperative that America/Free-World build it before the Axis powers).
Eugene Wigner = the quietly Low-key, but extraordinarily brilliant Nobel Prize winner!
Edward Teller = the controversial, but also intellectually gifted, proponent of advanced weaponry as ultimate security (i.e. he lived by one mantra 'Offence is the only defense'), also the later bane of Robert Oppenheimer's existence** (although I think there was a mutual respect between the two, if not genuine friendship, during the Manhattan Project). An extremely complex/contradictory & highly polarizing figure - still controversial into the 1980's (for his vociferous support of 'SDI/Star Wars').
Theodore von Karman = the aerospace genius, that greatly modernized America's Air-Force/ air defenses.
This is really a story of survival. intriguingly played out by highly rational human beings that started Life in a World (prior to WWI), that seemed to be on a steady road of advancement & understanding in Science, and Beyond (a continuous path of Enlightenment, if you will) ==> only to be confronted head-on, by the World gone completely Mad/ coming terribly unhinged, overnight - i.e. the Long developing rules of rationality & reason dashed to Oblivion (in most of Europe, after Third Reich domination) => Ideas & Logic completely trumped by arbitrarily imposed racial hierarchies with absolutely no scientific basis/ no validity, completely abandoning all moral precedents.
How could any logical, reasonable, 'human' beings exist in such a World?!
They did it by emigrating to those nations that still valued the free-flow of ideas (i.e. where the good/ best ideas could still be judged on their Merits alone, and eventually win the Day!)
Most of the 'Martians' came to America = Greatly helping not just the WWII effort against the Axis powers, but contributing immeasurably to the scientific Wonders* that would soon be unleashed, in the coming decades (e.g. eventually leading to beneficial technology like personal computers, medical diagnostic breakthroughs, beginning of Space exploration, cell phones, Internet. I-Pads, etc.), that everyone now takes for granted!
I think, the story of these 'Martians' is most intriguing, but also possibly somewhat forgotten here in America, unfortunately - since it was America's pluralistic democracy (imperfect as it may be), and also the USA's virtual Love of 'New Ideas' that attracted/ encouraged these Martians to settle, and make their greatest contributions here - most stayed permanently, with children, and/or grandchildren born, and raised here.
note*: of course, many would say that Atomic bombs are not Scientific Wonders - but there are two salient points here: (1) can you imagine the World if the Axis powers had the 'bomb' first (even if I could imagine, I wouldn't dare contemplate it); and (2) the 'science' underlying the atomic fission process is absolutely an incredible wonder - and thorough understanding of this process is completely essential, to being able to have further Energy advancement possibilities (perhaps leading to much safer nuclear fusion).
note**: the Great Oppenheimer Biography, titled 'American Prometheus' (by Bird & Sherwin) = also discusses Teller vs. Oppenheimer's intensely strained relations, caused by serious disagreement over building the hydrogen bomb, in the early 1950's.
Kati Marton's Book called 'The Great Escape' also presents the flight of massive talent and brainpower, from Hungary, during the War Years (including the 'Martians' but also Artists, like photographer Robert Capa, and movie director Michael Curtiz = director of 'Casablanca'!)