[ExI] SOCIAL: Self-direction in Hungary

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Sun May 25 17:40:57 UTC 2008

BillK wrote
Sent: Monday, May 19, 2008 2:48 AM

> One famous Hungarian scientist once commented that he did indeed
> believe that there were aliens living among us. They were called
> Hungarians.

This is probably related to the "Men from Mars" phenomenon.

When I was a kid, I read George Gamow's "1,2,3,Infinity", which
is a very, very bad book if you like math, because he completely
misdescribes the Cantor continuum hypothesis.  Anyway, the
book begins with a joke about Hungarian aristocrats:

Two Hungarian aristocrats decided to play a game to see who
could say the highest number. After some thought, one of them
said "one".  After even more thought, the other said, "Okay, you

I had no idea why there were jokes about "Hungarian aristocrats"
until I read Richard Rhodes' very wonderful book "The Making of the
Atomic Bomb".  He described how during the 30's and 40's all the
incredibly brilliant Hungarian scientists recently fled to America were
called "the men from Mars" because of their phenomenal talents.

But Rhodes describes what the reality was. For many centuries
there had been on the slopes of the Carpathian mountains in Hungary
a large set of very small Orthodox Jewish villages. Evidently, a strong
eugenics program had (unintentionally) occurred. E.g., the Rabbi's
sons who were the best at remembering all the arcane items
in the Torah and being able to clearly reason about them and 
articulate them were the most desirable mates and had the largest
families.  This went on for hundreds and hundreds of years.

The Hungarian government---really the fine Austro-Hungarian government
of the Empire---was remarkably forward looking (especially in education),
but they had not an ounce, it would appear, of anti-Semitism.  In the mid-
1800s, the Jews came down from the hills and found that they could do
extremely well in goy society, and many (like Von Neumann's father)
excelled at banking and business, and became very rich. They were not
especially discriminated against---on the contrary, the government
"ennobled" many of them, hence the names like "Von Neumann"
and so on.

Hence the jokes about "Hungarian aristocrats", a.k.a. the men from Mars.

I wonder how many of this kind of Jew still lives in Hungary, and
to what extent they still contribute heavily to Hungarian science.
The Nazis probably did in their demographics, would be my guess.

A friend of mine tells a funny story. He went to Berkeley in the 1950's,
and afterwards was in an elevator and was shocked that this lowly
elevator operator had a Hungarian accent.  The only Hungarian accents
he'd ever heard were from incredibly accomplished and brilliant scientists  :-)

The lesson is that until you learn the finer details, in this case, and as often
the ethnic details, social phenomena can remain pretty obscure.


P.S.  More about some Hungarian scientists and the bomb:


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