The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century

The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century

The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century

The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century


If science has the equivalent of a Bloomsbury group, it is the five men born at the turn of the twentieth century in Budapest: Theodore von Kármán, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller. From Hungary to Germany to the United States, they remained friends and continued to work together and influence each other throughout their lives. As a result, their work was integral to some of the most important scientific and political developments of the twentieth century.

They were an extraordinary group of talents: Wigner won a Nobel Prize in theoretical physics; Szilard was the first to see that a chain reaction based on neutrons was possible, initiated the Manhattan Project, but left physics to try to restrict nuclear arms; von Neumann could solve difficult problems in his head and developed the modern computer for more complex problems; von Kármán became the first director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, providing the scientific basis for the U. S. Air Force; and Teller was the father of the hydrogen bomb, whose name is now synonymous with the controversial "Star Wars" initiative of the 1980s. Each was fiercely opinionated, politically active, and fought against all forms of totalitarianism.

István Hargittai, as a young Hungarian physical chemist, was able to get to know some of these great men in their later years, and the depth of information and human interest inThe Martians of Scienceis the result of his personal relationships with the subjects, their families, and their contemporaries.


The twentieth century saw the transformation of science from a gentleman’s trade into an industry. It became a major arena of human endeavor, one of whose purposes was the creation of military might. No other institution or group of people symbolized this transformation better than the lives and deeds of the five friends that this book is about:

Theodore von Kármán (1881 Budapest–1963 Aachen, Germany)
Leo Szilard (1898 Budapest–1964 La Jolla, California)
Eugene P. Wigner (1902 Budapest–1995 Princeton, New Jersey)
John von Neumann (1903 Budapest–1957 Washington, DC)
Edward Teller (1908 Budapest–2003 Stanford, California)

These men are often referred to as the “Martians.” There are anecdotes about the origin of this label. The essence is that there was some discussion among the participants of the Manhattan Project about the smart and extraordinary Hungarian scientists. Someone suggested that they had come from Mars, but to disguise themselves they spoke Hungarian. The story has several variants, but the conclusion is the same, and nobody ever questioned its trustworthiness. So the label “Martian” was a joke originally; here I use it to refer to the five scientists as a group.

Edward Teller characterized the Martians in the dedication of his Memoirs in the following way: “All of them … came to the United States during the period that Fascism was gaining power in Europe. All of them played a role in the technical developments of the twentieth century.” All five were outstanding scientists dedicated to the defense of democracy, regardless of whether they were considered to be “hawks” or “doves.” In their deep concern for the Free World . . .

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