The Martians of Budapest
“There is a rumor in America that there are two intelligent races on Earth: Humans and Hungarians” — Isaac Asimov
Photos of nine Martians of Budapest: von Neumann, Erdos, Wigner, Teller, Szilard, Karman, Halmos, Polya and Kemeny
John von Neumann, Paul Erdős, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller, Leó Szilárd, Theodore von Kármán, Paul Halmos, George Polya and John G. Kemeny
The Martians of Budapest”, sometimes referred to as simply “The Martians” is a colloquial term used to describe a group of prominent Hungarian physicists and mathematicians who emigrated to the United States following the Great Purge of 1933. The term refers to—what appeared, from the perspective of Americans—to be a group of men with superhuman intellects, arriving from an obscure country speaking an incomprehensible foreign language and English with strong, characteristic accents (later popularized by Bela Lugosi in Dracula). Scientists typically thought to belong to the group include refugees from the University of Göttingen, early associates of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) and members of The Manhattan Project, including:
John von Neumann (1903–1957), Hungarian: Neumann János Lajos. The polymath genius generally considered “the last representative of the great mathematicians”, early Professor at the IAS and member of the Manhattan Project;
Paul Erdős (1913–1996), Hungarian: Erdős Pál. The eccentric, nomadic mathematician sometimes referred to as “the most prolific mathematician in history”;
Eugene Wigner (1902–1995), Wigner Jenő Pál. The 1963 Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics lauded for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus;
Leó Szilárd (1898–1964), Hungarian: Szilárd Leó. The former engineer who conceived of the nuclear chain reaction in 1933 and in 1939 wrote the now famous Einstein-Szilárd letter which prompted the formation of what became the Manhattan Project;
Edward Teller (1908–2003), Hungarian: Teller Ede. Colloquially known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb” and an early Manhattan Project member;
Theodore von Kármán (1881–1963), Hungarian: Kármán Tódor. The prominent aerospace engineer generally regarded as “the most outstanding aerodynamic theoretician of the 20th century”;
John Hersányi (1920–2000), Hungarian: Harsányi János Károly. The 1994 Nobel Memorial Prize Laureate who made important early contributions to the study of games of incomplete information;
John G. Kemeny (1926–1992), Hungarian: Kemény János György. Einstein’s assistant at the IAS who later worked for Richard Feynman on the Manhattan project and invented the early programming language BASIC;
Paul Halmos (1916–2006), Hungarian: Halmos Pál. von Neumann’s assistant at the IAS who made fundamental contributions to logic, probability theory, statistics, operator theory, ergodic theory and functional analysis;
George Pólya (1887–1985), Hungarian: Pólya György. A first-rate mathematician who made fundamental contributions to combinatorics, number theory, numerical analysis and probability theory;
Although all pursuing different scientific interests (ranging from nuclear fission to aerodynamics, game theory and set theory) the ten Budapestian Martians shared common ancestry, childhoods, cognitive abilities as well as similar education and career paths.
Although typically described as a property of being Hungarian in the early 20th century, the most prominent Martian characteristic may in fact be to be European and of Jewish ancestry. The history of the Jews in Hungary dates back to (at least) the medieval Kingdom of Hungary. By the time of the First World War, Jews in Hungary were fairly well integrated into Hungarian society, having grown to constitute 5% of the country’s population and 23% of the population in its capital Budapest. Jews became especially prominent in science, the arts and business. In 1913, over 30% of the student body at the Budapest Universities of Sciences, Technology and Economics were of Jewish origin.
The level and degree to which the parents of the various Martians’ observed their Jewish faith is however another matter altogether. von Neumann’s parents for instance, are known to have been non-observant, as were Wigner’s, Teller’s and Erdős’. Teller later wrote the following on the topic:
“Religion was not an issue in my family. Indeed, it was never discussed. My only religious training came because the Minta required that all students take classes in their respective religions. My family celebrated one holiday, the Day of Atonement, when we all fasted. Yet my father said prayers for his parents on Saturdays and on all the Jewish holidays.” — Edward Teller
Although he attended classes in Judaism, Wigner’s family later converted to Lutheranism, “not motivated by a religious decision but an anti-communist one” (Szanton, 1992). Szilárd’s parents did observe the Jewish faith. Pólya’s parents converted to Catholicism prior to him being born, baptizing and raising him as a Christian. Hersanyi’s parents did the same in 1919. Indeed, by 1941 over 17% of Budapest’s Jews were Roman Catholic conversos (Endelman, 2015).
Their parents’ secularism likely influenced the Martians’ own religious bends, as many of them grew up to be agnostic or atheist. Among those mentioned, Erdős, Wigner, Teller, Szilard, Pólya and von Neumann were all non-believers, although von Neumann experienced a deathbed conversion to Catholicism later described by his friend Oskar Morgenstern (1902–1977) to not “agree with anything whatsoever in his attitude, outlook and thinking when he was healthy”. Harsanyi was a devout catholic until his late twenties when he too lost his faith (Weymark, 2006). Although Erdős was an “agnostic atheist” he spoke extensively about a God-like deity he called the “Supreme Fascist” (SF), stating in a 1985 lecture that (Schechter, 2000):
“You don’t have to believe in God, but you should believe in the Book” — Paul Erdős
“The Book” was part of Erdos’ idiosyncratic vocabulary, a visualization of Erdős’ apparent belief in Platonic realism.
Although they came of age at different times — the oldest (von Kármán) being born in 1881 and the youngest (Kemeny) being born in 1926 — many of the Martians describe a similar upbringing in Budapest:
Educated and affluent working parents. von Neumann’s father Miksa “Max” was a banker with a Ph.D. in law and his mother Margit “Margaret” a heiress from wealthy Budapestian family. Erdős’ parents were both teachers with Ph.Ds. in mathematics. von Kármán’s father Mór “Maurice” was a leading professor of education with a Ph.D. in philosophy. His mother Helen, too was an ancestor of a leading bohemian family. Wigner’s father was the director of a leather-tanning factory. Szilárd’s father Louis was a civil engineer, Harsányi’s father Kàroly (“Karl”) owned a pharmacy, John Kemeny’s father Tibor was an import-export wholesaler. Halmos’ father Sándor (“Alexander”) was a physician. Polya’s father Jakab was a lawyer who later became a Privatdozent at the university of Budapest.
Homeschooling until the age of 10 was customary in Hungary prior to World War II. Despite all having working, professional parents, the martians all received excellent early education emphasizing both science, languages and literature. John von Neumann was taught by governesses, Erdős by his parents, von Kármán by a former student of his father and Wigner by private tutors.
Parents with unusual ideas about education. von Neumann’s father insisted his son learn English, French, German and Italian in addition to Hungarian. His father would also regularly “bring his workaday banking decisions home to the family and ask his children how they would have reacted to particular investment possibilities and balance-sheet risks” (Macrae, 1992). Despite von Kármán’s obvious early talents for mathematics, his father (a professor of education who practiced his research ideas on his son) insisted he be kept away from the subject, instead emphasizing that he learn geography, history and literature. Erdős once described teaching himself to read by “going through books his parents left around the house”.
Early entry to and graduation from university. von Neumann entered university at 18 and earned his Ph.D in mathematics at age 22 while simultaneously completing a B.Sc. in chemical engineering at ETH. Erdős entered university at age 17 and earned his Ph.D at age 21. Halmos graduated with BA degrees in both mathematics and philosophy at age 19 and a Ph.D in mathematics at 22. Teller earned his Ph.D in physics by 22. Kemeny graduated with an A.B in mathematics and philosophy at the age of 20 (despite taking a year off to work under both von Neumann and Richard Feynman on the Manhattan Project in 1943) and a Ph.D in mathematics at the age of 23. Halmos entered the University of Chicago after completing high school at the age of 15. He graduated with a degree in mathematics and philosophy at the age of 18 and a Ph.D at the age of 22. Pólya and Szilárd earned their Ph.Ds at 24 in mathematics and physics, respectively, while von Kármán earned his at age 27. Harsanyi earned two Ph.Ds, one in philosophy and sociology in 1947 and one in economics at Stanford University in 1959, working under Kenneth Arrow. He was 27 when he earned the first, having his studies interrupted by the second world war.
The Martians, in other words, grew up in affluent families with highly educated and/or successful parents who emphasized the value of education and hard work. The schooling system in Europe and America being as it was, enabled them to get an early start on their research careers — mostly before the age of 25 and in the case on von Neumann and Erdos, publishing before the age of 18. As Balazs and István Hargittai (2016) wrote, “the Martians were growing up in fin de siècle Hungary. They benefited from the comfort of their well-to-do families, from the sophisticated atmosphere of Budapest, the liberal capital of a largely feudalistic Hungary, and from their excellent high schools.”
Left: John von Neumann (age 7). Right: Paul Erdős (age 8)
Exceptional Cognitive Abilities
Although partially a product of their environment, of course not every wealthy, young Hungarian in the early 1900s could have hoped to become a first-class mathematician or physicist. John von Neumann and Paul Erdős are especially remembered as uniquely gifted children. Both came to master mathematics early, the young von Neumann being able to divide two eight-digit numbers in his head by the age of six and the young Erdős calculating in his head how many seconds a person had been alive by the age of four. von Neumann, equipped with an eidetic memory, also dazzled teachers and other students from an early age by recalling entire novels by heart.
von Kármán was however also described by his brothers as a mathematical child prodigy who could perform large mental calculations when he was six years old. Teller and Halmos too developed early loves for numbers. Despite being a later talker (as were Einstein and Feynman), Teller in an interview later recalled being able to calculate large numbers in his head for fun at a young age. Halmos, similarly, later recalled:
“In mathematics classes, I usually was above average. I was bored when class was going on, and I did things like take logarithms of very large numbers for fun.” — Paul Halmos
Although his brothers Jenö and Lásló excelled at the subject, George Polyá later described preferring biology and literature to mathematics. Ironically, although he generally excelled in high school, Polyá‘s work in geometry was only considered “satisfactory”.
Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium and its most famous teacher László Rátz (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
of von Kármán in 1872 and attended by him from 1891–98 and Teller from 1917–25.
Főreálgimnázium (“Main Real High School”) attended by Szilárd from 1908–1916.
Dániel Berzsenyi Gimnázium attended by Pólya from 1930–38.
von Neumann and Wigner shared the same high school math teacher in László Rátz (1863–1930) who in 1893 also founded a well known high school mathematics journal entitled Középiskolai Matematikai és Fizikai Lapok (KöMaL) in which both Pólya, Harsányi and Erdős later published. von Kárman (mathematics, 1897), Szilárd (physics, 1916), Teller (mathematics and physics, 1925) and Harsányi (mathematics, 1937) all won the prestigious Eötvös Prize for the “Best Student in Mathematics and Science in Hungary”.
Having immigrated to America at the age of 16, John G. Kemeny attended George Washington High School in New York. Halmos, who emigrated at 13 years old, attended high school in Chicago. Although speaking no English when he arrived, he graduated at 15 and was accepted as an undergraduate the University of Illinois the same year.
As Marx writes, around the year 1900 in Hungary “50% of all the lawyers and medical doctors had Jewish roots”. However, for Jews “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”.
Indeed, von Neumann’s father wanted him to follow his footsteps into industry, while von Kármán’s father wanted him to study engineering. Harsanyi’s father compelled him to pursue chemical engineering. Both Halmos and Szilárd too entered college intending to study chemical engineering. Despite excelling in mathematics and physics, Szilárd too began his academic career by studying engineering, at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin until his attention turned to physics and he transferred to Friedrich Wilhelm University. Halmos changed to mathematics and physics. Szilard’s life-long friend Wigner too initially enrolled to study chemical engineering, at the Budapest University of Technical Sciences (“Budapesti Műszaki és Gazdaságtudományi Egyetem”) in 1920. He however also eventually transferred, to the Technical University of Berlin (“Technische Hochschule”) in 1921 in order to pursue physics.
Eötvös Loránd Tudományegyetem (“University of Budapest”) and Budapesti Műszaki és Gazdaságtudományi Egyetem (“Budapest University of Technical Sciences”)
At the University of Budapest (“Eötvös Loránd Tudományegyetem”) von Neumann, Erdos and Pólya later shared the same thesis advisor in Lipót Fejér (1880–1959) whose Hungarian school of analysis educated much of Hungary’s mathematical elite in the early 20th century.
Harsanyi wanted to study mathematics and philosophy, but his father insisted that he too instead study chemical engineering. He enrolled at the University of Lyon in 1939, but had to return to Hungary following the outbreak of World War II. He next entered the University of Budapest (“Eötvös Loránd Tudományegyetem”) to study pharmacology, earning a degree in 1944. Following his graduation, he was compelled to join a forced labor unit on the Eastern Front and later deported to a concentration camp in Austria. Harsanyi however managed to escape, hiding out in a Jesuit house for the remainder of the war. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy and sociology in 1947 and a second Ph.D. in economics in 1959.
Tenures at the University of Göttingen
Theodore von Kármán was the first Martian to travel to the “Mathematical Center of the Universe” at the University of Göttingen. Having graduated from the Budapest University of Technical and Economics (“Budapesti Műszaki és Gazdaságtudományi Egyetem”) in 1902, he moved there to join Ludwig Prandtl (1875–1953) as a graduate student. He earned his doctorate in 1908. Pólya too spent time in Göttingen, from 1912–13 where he met Hilbert, Klein, Landau, Weyl and Courant. He left the university somewhat infamously in 1913, when, according to his own later recollection:
I had a verbal exchange — about my basket that had fallen down — with a young man who sat across from me in the train compartment. I was in an overexcited state of mind and I provoked him. When he did not respond to my provocation, I boxed his ear. Later on it turned out that the young man was the son of a certain Geheimrat; he was a student, of all things, in Göttingen. After some misunderstandings I was told to leave by the Senate of the University. — George Pólya
von Neumann travelled to Göttingen in the fall of 1926 in order to work on the foundations of logic under Hilbert. Wigner too was invited to work under Hilbert in Göttingen, by Arnold Sommerfeld (1868–1951). While there, Wigner laid the foundation for the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics. Edward Teller, a few years younger than von Neumann and Wigner, went to Göttingen in 1930 to study under Max Born (1882–1970).
By the time of the post-war period, following the Great Purge of 1933, the University of Göttingen had lost its stature as the “center of the mathematical universe” and so Kemeny, Halmos and Harsanyi’s post-doctoral periods were spent elsewhere (at the Office for Naval Research, Reed College/IAS and the Australian National University/Wayne State University, respectively).
Exodus to America
“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.” — Nicholas Kurti
According to Robert Leonard (2010), “a characteristic emphasized in many histories of the Jews of Hungary is the degree to which, beginning in the mid-19th century, they achieved integration into Hungarian society”. In the eyes of conservative nationalists who came to power in Hungary in 1920, however, the Jews remained “menacingly alien” (Marx, 1997). When the opportunity arose the first anti-Jewish law the numerus clausus was enacted in Hungary in 1938, reversing the equal citizenship status granted to Jews in Hungary in 1867. Similar racial laws, inspired by the German Nuremberg Laws were also enacted in 1939 and ’41, specifically forbidding intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews and excluding Jews from many professions (including as civil servants, i.e. teaching positions and professorships). By the time of the enactment of the laws, many of the Martians had already been working in Berlin and/or Göttingen for some time, and so experienced first-hand how life for those of Jewish ancestry would be under right-wing authoritarian rule.
John von Neumann was the first to leave. He had first visited America in 1929 while still a Privatdozent at the University of Hamburg, in order to teach the newly developed quantum theory to Princeton University graduate students. The stay lead to an invitation return as a visiting professor, which he did from 1930 to ‘33 when the Berufsbeamtengesetz (“Law for the Restoration of the Professsional Civil Service”) first passed, expelling Jewish teaching staff, professors and graduate students from German universities. In his confirmation hearing for the position of Commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1955, von Neumann later explained his motivation for leaving Hungary as follow:
“I must say that the main reason was partly because conditions in Hungary were rather limited, and I thought the thing I was doing had a better field in America and to a considerable extent because I was much more in sympathy with the institutions of America; and lastly, because I expected World War II, and I was apprehensive that Hungary would be on the Nazi side, and I didn’t want to be caught dead on that side” — John von Neumann
von Neumann accepted a lifetime professorship at the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He was 30 years old, and would remain at the IAS until his premature death in 1957 at the age of 54. Although not involved in the founding of the Manhattan project von Neumann later contributed by way of his work on the mathematical modeling of explosions and in particular, the conceptualization and design of explosive lenses needed to compress the plutonium core of the “Fat Man” weapon later dropped on Nagasaki.
John von Neumann talking with Richard Feynman and Stanislaw Ulam in Los Alamos (Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory)
Alongside von Neumann to Princeton in 1930 also came his friend Eugene Wigner. According to Wigner himself, on a recommendation from the university, Princeton Professor Oswald Veblen (1880-1960) was encouraged to (Macrea, 1992):
"..invite not a single person but at least two, who already knew each other, who wouldn't suddenly feel put on an island where they had no intimate contact with anybody. Johnny's name was of course well known by that time the world over, so they decided to invite Johnny von Neumann. They looked: who wrote articles with John von Neumann? They found: Mr. Wigner. So they sent a telegram to me also."
- Excerpt, John von Neumann by Norman Macrae (1992)
Left to right: Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilárd
Wigner too stayed for three years, splitting his time between Berlin and Princeton until 1933. Reportedly, when he was first recruited for a one-year lectureship at Princeton, his salary increased seven-fold from what it had been in Europe (Szanton, 1992). Following the expiration of his term in 1936, Princeton chose not to renew his position and so Wigner had to move to the University of Wisconsin. There he stayed for two years before returning to Princeton in 1938 to commence work on the Manhattan Project. Wigner bid farewell to Hungary for good in a 1939 letter to Rudolf Ortvay, writing:
“The growing feeling pains me that I am getting estranged from Hungary. […] I start feeling that I no longer desire to convince my erstwhile compatriots about anything, and it no longer matters to me what is going on in Hungary”.
He was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for “for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles”. He remained at Princeton until his death in 1995.
Wigner’s lifelong friend Leo Szilárd left Germany for England in 1933. Reportedly, he transferred his savings of £1,595 (about £100,000) from Zurich to London and was able to live in hotels without work for over a year. His first job in England the next year came when he took up work as a physicist in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, working on radioactive isotopes for medical purposes. He next travelled around the U.S. as a visiting researcher in 1938–1939, eventually settling at Columbia University. Known now best for his discovery of the nuclear chain reaction, he worked in the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago during the war and later helped found the Salk Institute. He died in 1964 of a heart attack.
Edward Teller had been in Copenhagen studying with Niels Bohr until just before Hitler fame to power. He was in Göttingen in the spring of 1933. From there he immediately left for England with the help of the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid founded in 1933 at the encouragement of Einstein. In England, Teller was welcomed at the University College of London, before being offered a full professorship at George Washington University in D.C., which he accepted in 1935. He worked in the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory and later on the first hydrogen bomb. Controversy came upon him when he testified against Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967) in 1954. He died in Stanford in 2003, where he had served as a Senior Research Fellow.
Apprehensive about the developments in Europe, Theodore von Kármán in 1930 accepted an offer of directorship at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology . He worked there until 1936 when he together with Andrew G. Haley, Frank Malina and Jack Parsons founded the Aerojet Corporation. He worked on rocket research for the U.S. military during the war and helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1944. He died in 1963 at 82 years old after having been awarded the first recipient of the National Medal of Science by John F. Kennedy, who stated that he was recognized
“For his leadership in the science and engineering basic to aeronautics; for his effective teaching and related contributions in many fields of mechanics, for his distinguished counsel to the Armed Services, and for his promoting international cooperation in science and engineering.”
Following his graduation from the University of Budapest with a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934, Paul Erdős set out on a lifelong nomadic journey. Travelling from country to country Erdős lived out of a suitcase, spending time at various institutions while collaborating on mathematical papers with colleagues. During the war, he found refuge at the Institute for Advanced Study. In his lifetime, he published more than 1,500 academic papers. He died of a heart attack while attending a conference in Warsaw in 1996. About how he would want to die, he once stated (Bruno & Baker, 1999):
“I want to be giving a lecture, finishing up an important proof on the blackboard, when someone in the audience shouts out, ‘What about the general case?’. I’ll turn to the audience and smile, ‘I’ll leave that to the next generation,’ and then I’ll keel over”
George Polyá emigrated to California in 1940 to assume an emeritus professorship at Stanford University. Prior to emigrating, he had been professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich in Switzerland since 1914. Stanford University the building Polya Hall at 255 Panama Street in his honor. Built while he was still teaching, he would complain to his students that its name made people think he was already dead. He died in Palo Alto in 1985 at age 97.
After completing his second Ph.D. under Kenneth Arrow (1921–2017) at Stanford University, John Harsanyi took up an economics professorship at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1961. He remained there for two years until 1964 when he moved to the University of California at Berkeley (UCB). There, he pursued his work in game theory for which he would later be awarded the 1994 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Harsanyi died in Berkeley, California in 2000 from a heart attack after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Paul Halmos’ father left Hungary in 1924, returning in 1929 to get Paul and his brothers George and John. Halmos’ mother had died when Paul was six months old. Following his graduation in 1938, he first took up a postdoctoral position at Reed College before learning that his friend Warren Ambrose() had been offered a fellowship at Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. As he later wrote:
That made me mad. I wanted to go, too! I resigned my job, making the department head, whom I had never met, very unhappy, of course. I … went to my father and asked to borrow a thousand dollars … I wrote to Veblen and asked if I could become a member of the Institute for Advanced Study even though I had no fellowship. … I moved to Princeton.
After six months in Princeton, Halmos too was offered a fellowship. In his second year there, he became von Neumann’s assistant. The two co-authored a paper together, published in 1958. Later in life, Halmos taught at the universities of Syracuse, Chicago (1946–60), Michigan (1961–67), Hawaii (1967–68), Indiana (1969–85), California at Santa Barbara (1976–78) and Santa Clara University (1985–96). He retired in 1985 and died in 2006.
John Kemeny’s father similarly left for America in 1938, returning to get his family in 1940 (Weibel, 2005). Kemeny pursued his Ph.D. at Princeton University under Alonzo Church (1903–1995), while also working part-time for Albert Einstein (1879–1955). Following his graduation in 1949, he was appointed a full professor at in the Dartmouth Mathematics Department in 1953 at the age of 27. He became the Department’s chairman in 1967. In 1964 he invented the programming language BASIC later used by Bill Gates and Paul Allen to found Microsoft. He died at the age of 66 in 1992.
Origins of the Term
Many of the most popular anecdotes about the Martians of Budapest are collected in various works by György Marx (1927–2002):
Marx, G. (1992). Beszélgetés Marslakókkal. OOK-Press. Vaszprém, Hungary.
Marx, G. (1997). A Marslakók Legendája. Fizikai Szemle 3, pp. 77
Writing in an unorthodox structure, Marx’ work presents various word-of-mouth stories about the supposed existence of a group of extraterrestrials posing as Hungarians. A popular such anecdote goes:
The universe is vast, containing myriads of stars, likely to have planets circling around them. The simplest living things will multiply, evolve by natural selection and become more complicated till eventually active, thinking creatures will emerge. Yearning for fresh worlds, 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 the Fermi Paradox:"They are among us," he said, "but they call themselves Hungarians".
— Excerpt, Arrival of The Martians by György Marx (2000)
This story was biologist Francis Crick’s version of the myth of the Hungarian martians, foretold in Crick’s book Life Itself (Crick, 1981). Other popular versions of the origins of the term include the following, recounted in Yankee Magazine in 1980:
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 crash-landed somewhere in the center of Europe. There are three firm proofs of the extraterrestrial origins of the Hungarians: 1. They like to wander about (like gypsies radiating out from the same region). 2. They speak an exceptionally simple and logical language which has not the slightest connection with the language of their neighbour. And they are so much smarter than the terrestrials.In a slight Martian accent John G. Kemény added an explanation, namely that it is so much easier to learn reading and writing in Hungarian than in English or French that Hungarian pupils have much more time left to study mathematics.
— Excerpt, Yankee Magazine (1980)
The Martians Wikipedia page describes, without reference, the term’s origin as follows:
Since they all spoke English with a strong accent (made famous by horror actor Bela Lugosi), they were considered outsiders in American society. The Hungarian scientists were seemingly superhuman in intellect, spoke an incomprehensible native language, and came from a small obscure country. This led to them being called Martians, a name they jocularly adopted.
“Fine Hall English”
“These odd men with their funny accents, peculiar dress, and passion for obscure scientific theories became national heroes” — Sylvia Nasar
As Marx explains, “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”.
“It is difficult to learn anything about America in Princeton,” wrote Einstein’s assistant Leopold Infeld in his memoirs, “much more so than to learn about England in Cambridge. In Fine Hall English is spoken with so many different accents that the resultant mixture is termed Fine Hall English.”
— Excerpt, A Beautiful Mind* by Sylvia Nasar (1998)
About Wigner’s accent Teller once said:
“Sometimes, even Hungarians find Hungarians hard to understand”
The accent has later been compared with that of Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi (1882–1956) in his depiction of Count Dracula in the 1931 film Dracula.
The extraterrestrial origin of “the Hungarians” is proved by the fact that the names of Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann and Leó Szilárd cannot be found on the street map of Budapest, but there are craters named after them on the Moon — György Marx
As Marx writes, “there is only one single factual piece of evidence about the descent from planet Mars”:
There are huge impact craters named Von Kármán on the surfaces of both Mars (64.6°, 58.5°) and the Moon (44.8°, 175.9°), named after Theodore von Kármán;
On the North-Western part of the lunar surface of the Moon (34.0°, 105.7°) there is a 122km diameter crater entitled the Szilárd Crater named after Leo Szilárd;
On the far side of the northern hemisphere of the Moon (40.4°, 153.2°) there is a 78km diameter crater entitled the Von Neumann, named after John von Neumann;
Those interested in learning more about The Martians of Budapest are encouraged to check out the book Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century* by Istvan Hargittai (2008).
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The Einstein-Szilárd Letter, June 7th 2021
The Mathematical Center of the Universe, August 8th 2021
The Eccentricities of J. Robert Oppenheimer, July 23rd 2021
The Duties of John von Neumann’s Assistant in the 1930s, July 11th 2021
The Unparalleled Genius of John von Neumann, May 19th 2021
The Privatdozent newsletter currently goes out to 7,777 subscribers via Substack.
Bruno, L.C. & Baker, L. W. 1999. Math and Mathematicians: The History of Math Discoveries Around the World*.
Hargittai, I. 2008. Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century*. Oxford University Press
Hargittai, B. 2015. Wisdom of the Martians of Science: In Their Own Words with Commentaries*. WSPC
Macrae, N. 1992. John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More*.
* This essay contains Amazon Affiliate links
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