Interview with author Istvan Hargittai
Author of bestselling books like The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century and Great Minds Istvan Hargittai has a passion for not just science but scientists. His new book Brilliance in Exile, The Diaspora of Hungarian Scientists from John von Neumann to Katalin Karikó co-written with his son Balazs Hargittai showcases more than 50 Hungarian scientists who found careers away from home. Their stories are inspiring, uplifting, but sometimes also radiate tragedy. A well-established research physical chemist himself, the investigation of life paths of his peers in the scientific community offers as thrilling lessons about life as academic discoveries. We talked to him about his new book and his passion for biography and history.
This is not your first book about the history of science. What inspired you for this one? How did your interest change over time? What was your method of research? How long did it take to write the book?
I have always been interested in how scientific discoveries are made. A shift in my interest happened when I realized that the Hungarian diaspora of scientists meant more to me than the famous individuals of “Martians” or the Nobel laureates. Over the past hundred and twenty years there has been a constant stream of talent departing for good. Over the years a large amount of material has accumulated in my files, so you might say that making this book took decades whereas writing this book may have taken hardly more than a year and a half. The pleasure of working on this book was enormously enhanced by doing it together with Balazs, our son, and this was not our first joint venture of this kind.
What is your background? How did your personal experience affect the book?
I am a physical chemist with broad interests in physics and other branches of science beside chemistry. I had to overcome considerable hurdles before I could get the education I had thrived for. I had personal interactions with a surprisingly large number of the scientists mentioned in this book. I say surprisingly because this did not influence our choices. To name a few, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, Nicholas Kurti, Michael Polanyi, Avram Hershko, Peter Lax, Laszlo Tisza, Valentine Telegdi, Georg and Eva Klein, and at least as many others.
Which story was the most inspiring for you? Which was the hardest to write?
Perhaps those stories were most inspiring for me in which the backgrounds of the scientists were similar to mine. I could not single out any as being especially difficult to write because once we immersed into any of these stories, a kinship had developed, which made the “interaction” with any of our “subjects” increasingly intimate.
What do you think about the psychological effect of relocation on emigrated scientists?
It is most stimulating. I have experienced this on my numerous visiting professorships that even though did not carry the weight of a final immigration, it made me anxious to perform well and enjoy the benefits of the new environment.
You give “control” biographies of scientists with tragic fates who didn’t emigrate. Do you have other examples?
In experimental science we often devise control experiments. In our stories, we could not have done so literally, so the next best thing was to examine the fate of similar scientists who did not stay out but returned home. Yes, many other equally compelling cases could be presented, but the two cases we did, demonstrated our intention profoundly.
What do you think about the future of science in Hungary?
Science in Hungary could have a bright future, perhaps if talent could be more appreciated at home rather than only after it had manifested itself abroad; perhaps if science would be better supported, which cannot be substituted by bragging about the achievements of those who had left the country and had made great discoveries elsewhere; and perhaps if academic freedom and university autonomy would be restored and observed.
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
Almost exclusively nonfiction; biographies; political science; the history and role of the media in our time; and about how to communicate science effectively.
Brilliance in Exile, The Diaspora of Hungarian Scientists from John von Neumann to Katalin Karikó is out now from CEU Press.
Istvan Hargittai with Eugene P. Wigner, 1969, on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin in front of the old physics building (by unknown photographer)
Balazs Hargittai with a bust of Eugene P. Wigner, 2015, on the campus of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (by Istvan Hargittai)