The scientists of Mars

When asked why we have no proof of extraterrestrial life, the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard joked that Martians were already among us… they just called themselves Hungarians.

Leo Szilard
U.S. Department of Energy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

You may remember Leo Szilard as the author of the letter (co-signed by Albert Einstein) that warned the US president about the possibility of nuclear weapons. Or you may know him as the first person to describe a scientifically-feasible doomsday device. But he was just one of a cadre of Hungarian scientists who emigrated to the United States during and immediately after World War II. This highly influential group came to be called the Martians.

This nickname began with György Marx, a Hungarian physicist who did some groundbreaking work on lepton interactions. Writing about the Fermi paradox (if alien life exists, why haven’t we seen it?),

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.”

The Martians

The name stuck. In addition to György Marx and Leo Szilard, Hungary had provided a disproportionate volume of scientific luminaries. John von Neumann (mathematician, founder of game theory, part of the Manhattan Project, and creator of the “mutually assured destruction” Cold War strategy) was a Martian; so was Edward Teller (the father of the hydrogen bomb). Theodore von Kármán co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; John Kemeny co-created the BASIC computer programming language. George Pólya, the mathematician who taught us to not trust the small numbers, was a Martian.

Paul Erdős was another member: he was a prolific mathematician and co-authored many influential papers. Today mathematicians (tongue-in-cheek) still measure their stature by how many connections between co-authors it takes to get from them back to Erdős. For example, if I co-authored a paper with someone who co-authored a paper with someone who co-authored a paper with Erdős, I would have an “Erdős Number” of 3.

The Martians were major contributors to the science and math of the 20th century. They also shared a keen sense of humour – when Teller was asked about being an extraterrestrial, he is reported as saying “Von Kármán must have been talking!”

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