The voice of the Martians

György Marx was everything I have never aspired to be: a physicist, an astrophysicist, a science historian, and a professor. Okay, I’d have liked to have been a professor, but not in science subjects. Google tells me that he discovered the lepton numbers and established the law of lepton flavour conservation. In my world, though, he made his mark by introducing me to the Hungarian Martians.

The myth of the Hungarian Martians was born in Los Alamos during World War II.  It refers to the fact that from 1890 to 1910, a slew of bright boys were born into Jewish families in Pest, boys like Thomas Balogh, Georg von Békésy, Dennis Gabor, Peter K. Goldmark, Nicholas Kaldor, Arthur Koestler, Nicholas Kurti, John von Neumann, Egon Orowan, Michael Polanyi, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and Eugene P. Wigner. They would head west and shape the technology of the twentieth century.

In America, they were viewed as strange creatures, extremely intelligent, who spoke a language that resembled nothing anyone there had heard before. Even their English had a peculiar accent. The idea that a Martian spaceship had crashed in Hungary and left these talented men behind grew legs.

They fascinated Marx.

He met them all in person. He talked to them about their lives, their discoveries, their legacies. His book, The Voice of the Martians, first published in English in 2000 by Akadémia Kiadó, tells their stories. To mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of György Marx, Pallas Athéné Books has brought out a new edition in an attempt to revive the memory of these famous Hungarian scientists.

And what a story it is.

Both entertaining and educational, and written in a present tense that reflects the late 1990s, it is fascinating to see how Marx’s predictions for the future, and those of the Martians, have unfolded. His profiles of some 20 Martians opened a whole new world to me. I lost count of the number of times I said ‘Wow’, a word I don’t often use.

More than their scientific discoveries though – and they are impressive – I was taken with their commentaries on life; these insights from some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century gave me pause for thought again and again.

By way of example, Dennis Gabor (Gábor Dénes – Nobel Prize in Physics 1971) noted:

For the first time in history, we are faced with the possibility of a world in which only a minority need work to keep the great majority in idle luxury–a nightmare of a leisured world for which we are socially and psychologically unprepared.

The book is peppered with truisms. I read it with a pen and paper to hand. Gems such as this, from Leó Szilárd:

You don’t necessarily have to be smarter than others. It’s enough if you’re a day ahead of them.

And he lived this. He left Berlin for Vienna in 1933, the day before Hitler decreed that Jews could no longer leave Germany. In 1936, he left Vienna because he reckoned Nazi Germany would invade within two years. And they did. In 1938. In London, he decided to go to America as he expected war to break out in Europe within the year. And it did. Always one step ahead of the game, he went through the rest of his life with a packed suitcase at the ready. And this, the man on whose suggestion a hotline was established between Kennedy and Khrushchev.

Edward Teller (Teller Ede, Nobel Prize for Peace 1962) recounts a compassionate conversation between Eugene Wigner (Wigner Jenő, Nobel Prize in Physics 1963) and astronomer Otto Heckmann.

Eugene and Heckmann were lying on the lawn near the municipal swimming pool in Göttingen. Heckmann observed that a trail of ants was crawling across Eugene’s right leg, and he asked Eugene, ‘Don’t they bite?’ The answer was, ‘They do.’ Question: ‘Then, why don’t you kill them?’ Wigner replied, ‘I don’t know which one it was.’

Andy Grove (Gróf András), a Martian who arrived in the USA much later than some of the others, having survived both the Holocaust and the 1956 revolution, made his mark as co-founder of Intel. Marx cites his advice on change:

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.

It’s not all serious though. Marx has a wonderful sense of humour that feeds on the humour of his subjects. I particularly liked this one about George de Hevesy (Hevesy György, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1943):

A landlady had the duty of cleaning the sleeping rooms of young assistants and of preparing their meals on Sundays and dinners on weekdays. But there were rumors that some of the weekday meals were made from Sunday meat, left by the students on their plates. To find out the truth, one Sunday, Hevesy left larger pieces of roast beef on his plate–but added some radioactive tracer to it. The next day he had meatballs for dinner. As he approached the Geiger counter to the plate, it began to click…

Or this, from John G. Kemeny (Kemény János, co-developer of the BASIC language):

The trouble with old-fashioned machines was that they never did what you told them to do. The trouble with modern computers is the fact that they do precisely what you told them to do, and not what you meant to tell them to do.

While this amused me, it was the words from his retirement speech as President of Dartmouth College in 1981 that The New York Times included in his obituary that set me thinking:

In the years to come, you will hear a voice heard in many guises throughout history, which is the most dangerous voice you will ever hear. It appeals to the most basic instincts in all of us; it appeals to human prejudice. It tries to divide us by setting whites against blacks, by setting Christians against Jews, by setting men against women. And if it succeeds in dividing us from our fellow beings, it will impose its evil will upon a fragmented society.

I didn’t know that Joseph Pulitzer, who lends his name to the Pulitzer Prize was born in Makó, Hungary. Or that Budapest-born Péter Goldmark patented colour television in the USA and developed the LP (remember the days when records were records and not vinyl). And I had no idea that Cornelius Lanczos (Lánczos Kornél) left the USA during the McCarthy era and went to Ireland to head the Theoretical Physics Department at the Dublin Institute for Advance Study in Ireland. And these are just the three that stuck with me. There are more. Many more.

Walking the streets of Budapest, I’ve never seen a street called after, say, Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, or Leo Szilárd but were I to go to the moon, I’d find craters bearing their names. What was it the Bible said: No prophet is accepted in their own country?

Marx has a lovely way of simplifying complexity and imbuing life into characters that often seem too intelligent to be human. Yet these Martians once roamed the Earth and during their time on this planet, they made the world a better place.

His dream, particularly relevant in today’s Hungary, is one I can embrace:

How beautiful it would be if, in the 21st century, Hungarian society (through its democratically elected representatives) also paid attention to its children, teachers, and researchers. Because the 21st century cannot be won with cannons and atomic bombs, but with information and creativity.

 The Voice of the Martians is not a book I’d usually go for, but it is one I heartily recommend.  Get your copy from https://pallasathenekiado.hu/konyvesbolt/the-voice-of-the-martians/

First published in the Budapest Times, 9 September 2023

One Response

  1. Giant thinkers and doers!
    fyi: In the Bp Science Park Campus there are Hevesy György u., Gábor Dénes u., and Neumann János u.

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