The Martians from Budapest

I write this as some sort of a follow up to my previous post, after reading Scott Alexander's article about the Hungarian physicists working on the Manhattan project. I would like to add two observations:

Szilard, Teller, Wigner and von Neumann were obviously great physicists - but they were not in the same league as e.g. Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac or Einstein.
There are several anecdotes about the great intelligence and mathematical abilities of on Neumann, but a high IQ seems necessary but not sufficient to be a genius of the Einstein league and I would even rank e.g. Gödel higher.

If the four from Budapest were indeed the product of Martians who visited the Earth at the end of the 19th century, I would suggest that those aliens probably tried to plant the seeds of our destruction.
Teller and von Neumann became fierce cold warriors and almost got us all wiped off the earth ...

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added later: In the spirit of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, let me also mention the contributions of Austrians to the development of nuclear weapons.
Lise Meitner was the first to understand what Hahn and Strassmann had observed.
Her nephew Otto Frisch was the first to understand the importance of fast neutrons and how a practical atomic bomb could be made.
Victor Weisskopf was group leader of the theory division at Los Alamos.
Gernot Zippe developed centrifuges for isotope separation used after the war, which made it possible for poor countries to obtain nuclear weapons.

9 comments:

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

John von Neumann was a mathematician, not a physicist, but he was also a polymath who contributed to physics, meteorology and economics and essentially invented the stored program computer. Einstein belongs in a class by himself, but in terms of overall intellectual impact I would put von Neumann well ahead of Dirac, Heisenberg and Pauli.

wolfgang said...

von Neumann was a great mathematician, physicist, etc. there is no debate about it.
But I think if he would not have made his contributions, then several years later other people would have. So in this sense perhaps 1 Neumann = 10 "normal" mathematicians?
But I am sure computers would have been developed without him, so would nuclear weapons, game theory etc.

I am not sure at all how long we would have waited for quantum theory without Heisenberg or Pauli; therefore I think they were in a different league.

Btw I think it was important for the success of Szilard, Teller and von Neumann to combine their talent of math and physics with a talent for politics and salesmanship.
All three fought for and received multi-million $$$ funding for their favorite projects, which is not a trivial achievement, but again does not put them in the Heisenberg/Pauli league imho.

dino said...

what I've always found remarkable is the _number_ of first-class Hungarian scientist of that period. von Karman, Gabor, Lanczos, Polya, and most likely others to add to the "martians". A sheer coincidence?

wolfgang said...

Scott provides for an answer which makes some sense, however, I would not know how to check or test it. But keep in mind that a lot of non-Hungarian smart guys were active in the (former) Austro-Hungarian empire, Pauli, Schroedinger, Goedel, Meitner, Frisch, etc.

dino said...

right, I should have read Scott's analysis in the first place, which looks indeed plausible.

rrtucci said...

How about Hans Bethe, how do you rate him?

wolfgang said...

Above the Hungarians and only slightly below Heisenberg.
He wrote important papers in his 80s and this alone is quite amazing.

Of course me rating great scientists is like an amateur who hardly
can play "Fuer Elise" rating Mozart > Beethoven > Brahms >> Salieri
(not sure if Bach is above or below Mozart).
Btw I used to be able to play "Fuer Elise" before I found that playing drums is more fun ...

dino said...

Landau would agree with you.

http://www.eoht.info/page/Landau+genius+scale

wolfgang said...

actually, when I wrote "above the Hungarians" I would exclude Wigner, who comes in my estimate between Heisenberg and Bethe (somewhat consistent with Landau's ranking).

But Szilard, Teller, Von Neumann (as physicist) rank below Bethe as far as I see it from my frog perspective ...