‘But, Herr Einstein, that’s nonsense’

Tibor Fischer in The Telegraph:

Screenhunter_29_jul_01_1315Like me, you probably don’t associate the traffic lights on Southampton Row with the end of the world.

But it was while waiting there in 1933 that the Hungarian polymath Leó Szilárd conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, and thus the creation of the atomic bomb. Szilárd is one of a generation of exceptional Hungarian scientists and artists that Kati Marton examines in The Great Escape, a study of nine Hungarian Jews who fled their homeland.

Four of the scientists – Szilárd, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann and Edward Teller – also feature prominently in PD Smith’s Doomsday Men, which lays out the science of superweapons and their depiction in literature and cinema.

Why Hungary exported so much talent in the 1930s is hard to explain.

The emancipation of the Jews in the Austro- Hungarian Empire and the ruthless gimnázium system are standard suggestions, but it was very odd how one small country produced so many Nobel Prizewinners in one swoop – and then practically nothing. Szilárd was especially gifted.

More here.