By Charles Simonyi
AN EXCEPTIONAL BOOK SUCH AS THIS could have been created only under exceptional circumstances. My father was a working physicist and a beloved university professor who taught a whole generation of Hungarian electrical engineers. His textbooks on the foundations of electrical engineering have been translated into many languages. Yet, in the politically charged atmosphere of the 1960s in Hungary, his quasi-apolitical personal conduct, based on the age-old virtues of hard work, good character, and charity, was interpreted as political defiance that could not be countenanced by the state. Hence, he progressively lost his directorship at the Physics Research Institute, his post as department head, and finally his teaching position altogether. I was still a minor when I left the country—and my parents—in search of a better life. It was understood by all that my doing so—a political act in a totalitarian era—would make my father’s situation even more difficult.
Besides being a scientist, my father was a great humanist, not only in terms of his concern for his fellow man but also in the sense of a scholar of the humanities: he was extremely well read in the classics as well as in contemporary literature and history. The break in his career at midlife did not drive him to despair; his humanism instead commanded him to work on the subject he had perhaps always wanted to work on: the history of the interplay of science and the humanities. His first notes became a lecture series, first given off campus, in the evenings at the invitation of student organizations. Much later, when I was able to return to Hungary, I was privileged to listen to one of these lectures, still filled to more than capacity with students and young intellectuals, hearing my father convey the excitement and wonder of scientific development—how difficult it was to make progress in science, not simply because of ignorance but because the arguments were complex and the evidence was often ambiguous, and how the scientists gained courage or were otherwise influenced by the humanities. The success of these lectures gave rise to the present book that he continued to revise and extend almost until his death in 2001.