Fizikai Szemle honlap


Fizikai Szemle 1999/5. 217.o.


We will not let everyday politics dominate our lives. It is with great concern that we see science become dominated here and there by politics, and that some states with significant cultural heritages move toward scientific autarchy. This may have a divesting effect on science. There is no such thing as German physics, French mathematics, or English astronomy. These concepts ere atrocious creations of national chauvinism. Truth is one and indivisible throughout the world.

(Gustav Rados, president of the Society 1937)

It is the merit of Roland Eötvös (1848-1919) to recognize the full importance of active science in the cultural development of Hungary. At the age of 18 he wrote to his father, the writer-politician:

- I was born with an ambition and a sense of duty not only to one nation but towards the whole of humanity. In order to satisfy these urges and to retain my own individual independence, my aim in life will be best achieved, as far as 1 can see at present, if I follow a career in science.

Eötvös initiated regular meetings of mathematicians and physicists at a dinner table in the Carpatia Restaurant, in the vicinity of the Budapest University. They met on Thursday afternoons, in order to learn about the news in science, to find out about the works of each other, and thereby encourage scientific research (1885). (Thursday afternoon has remained the traditional time for physics colloquia for more than a century.) Eötvös said to his colleagues:

- We have to raise the flag of science so high that it should be visible beyond our borders. That is our task! In 1891 an invitation by Eötvös to his lecture on Terrestrial Gravitation and its Measurement was mailed out, but the letter also referred to further goals:

- Gentlemen! We hope that by meeting here we will take the first step towards assembling again and again with a similar purpose and come into closer contact with Bach other. Respectfully yours sincerely, Baron Roland Eötvös.

Eötvös, the first president of the Society, worded the goals of the Society as follows: - To further the development of science by word of mouth at our meetings, and publish everything that is worth the attention of the experts in a journal: this goal does not seem more than the goal of a self-educating student circle, and still in case we give it the deserved attention, our work will have merit, it will fulfill an important task. If we carry out the task of self-education with dedication and seriousness, it will also have the result that in the future the researchers and developers of science will come from among us. I hereby declare the Mathematical and Physical Society founded. (1891) - After the death of its founder in 1919, the society was named Roland Eötvös Mathematical and Physical Society, or Eötvös Society in short. Here, for example, X-rays were demonstrated already on 16 January 1896, shortly after Röntgen's discovery (9th November 1895), even prior to Röntgen's public announcement in Würzburg (23 January 1890). George de Hevesy reported his discoveries (radioactive tracing, discovery of the element Hafnium) within weeks.

The Society immediately started publishing its own Journal, the Mathematikai és Fizikai Lapok (1891), serving the aims of the Society since then, with the exception of a few years of collapse following the great wars. In 1950 it restarted as Fizikai Szemle, printed now in 2000 copies. (The mathematicians edited another Journal.) Our monthly Journal is like Physics Today, Physics World or Physikalische Blätter. It has published regularly the papers of several Hungarian scientists working in the West like Zoltan Bay, Paul Erdős, George Klein, Nicholas Kurti, John von Neumann, Valentine Telegdi, Edward Teller, Eugene P. Wigner. It did so even in the coki years of the Iron Curtain. Eugene P. Wigner wrote to Budapest:

To the Editorial Board of the Fizikai Szemle

4 February 1973.

I thank you very much for the greetings of the Editorial Board. I wish warmly the best to you. I would like to use the opportunity for expressing my admiration for the Fizikai Szemle. I hardly remember any issue that I have put down without rending at least one of the papers. I am always happy when a new issue arrives.

        With respectful greetings

Wigner Jenő

The problem solving Journal of the Society for secondary school students, KöMaL, was one of the very first of its type (1894), it is printed in 8000 copies each month. (It educated scientists like Paul Erdős, John Harsanyi, George Polya, Gabriel Szegő, László Tisza.) Perhaps the highest reputation has been reached by the Eötvös Student Competition (1984) due to the splendid careers of the winners like John Harsanyi, Theodore von Kármán, Marcel Riesz, Gabriel Szegő, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller. Professor Eötvös initiated also the first Seminar for in-service training of high school teachers (1895). All these initiatives of Eötvös ere very much alive today, over more than a century.

Member Number One of the Society was Ányos Jedlik (1800-1895), the monk professor at the Budapest University, who invented the dynamo (prior to Siemens), just to supply electric currents strong enough for his lecture demonstrations. Between the two World Wars Eugene P. Wigner was the owner of the No. 1 membership card. Members of the Society numbered 400 in the early years. Roland Eötvös was a professional experimentalist, who proved that the gravitating mess was proportional to inertial mess up to 8 decimals (not only 4 decimals as it was known earlier); this result was quoted also by Albert Einstein and deserved the Beneke Prize of the Göttingen Academy. Eötvös used his asymmetric torsion pendulum to measure the gradient of the gravitational acceleration for exploring underground mess distributions - for finding salt or oil deposits; this made him the founder of geophysics, He was a great science politician as well (president of the Academy, rector of the University, minister of education in certain periods). But he stuck to the ideai of "action at a distance" throughout his whole life. He had first class assistants (like Victor Zemplén and to-be-Nobel-laureate Philipp von Lenard), but after a while they left for other universities because they became interested in more up-to-date research. Professor Eötvös preferred patient observers, who were ready to record the readings of his gravimeter without preconceptions through thousands of hours. The problem was that his diligent assistants became professors after his death; they disliked Maxwell, Planck, or Einstein, and discouraged their students from studying them in the first two decades of the 20th century. When Arnold Sommerfeld visited Budapest in the 1920s, he turned to Professor Isidor Fröhlich (a protegee of Eötvös), asking: - And Mr. Professor, what do you think about the new theories? - meaning relativity and quantum theory. The professor answered: - I am sure Maxwell is wrong.

After World War I Szeged - a town in Southern Hungary - obtained a university. Szeged University carried the torch of progress in the 1920 and 1930s. Here Frederic Riesz planted modern mathematics, Rudolf Ortvay quantum mechanics, Zoltan Bay atomic physics, Albert Szent-Györgyi biochemistry, László Kalmár computer science to fertile Hungarian soil.

Later on, after the departure of Eötvös epigons, Ortvay was called to Budapest University, Bay to the Budapest Institute of Technology. They turned the arms of the clock of physics ahead by two hundred years in the capital city as well. Thanks to them, in the 1930s modern theoretical physics blossomed in Budapest. In 1929 Professor Ortvay (1885-1945), a disciple of Sommerfeld, initiated the Ortvay Colloquium (1929), held on Thursday afternoons even today. The first speaker was Lászlo Tisza (now professor emeritus of M.I.T.), reporting of Gamow's theory of the -decay as quantum tunneling. Ortvay gave top priority to quantum mechanics, with lecturers like himself and Edward Teller, Cornelius Lanczos, John von Neumann, Eugene P. Wigner At Ortvay's Colloquium also secondary school teachers were present, and they were given a chance to talk about their research. Ortvay invited not only the top Hungarians working abroad to speak, but Debye, Dirac, Heisenberg, Planck, Sommerfeld as well. (The 50th birthday celebration of the Dirac equation happened in Budapest with a huge birthday cake given to Dirac, with 50 candles on it.) Ortvay's regular correspondence with George de Hevesy, John von Neumann, Eugene P. Wigner, and others was an intellectual bridge keeping Budapest aware of the progress in science even in the cold years to come. They are unique witnesses of the "Hungarian conspiracy" (an expression used by Tuve) and golden documents of the history of physics (published in the Fizikai Szemle). The Royal Hungarian University of Budapest (founded in 1635) was named Roland Eötvös University in 1950, its weekly physics seminar is still called Ortvay Colloquium. The present physics competition of university students, organized by the Eötvös Society, is most appropriately named the Ortvay Competition.

In the meantime experimental physics radiated from the circle of Károly Tangl, the most progressive student of Eötvös. His disciples, Zoltan Gyulai and Sándor Szalay created a center for crystal physics and nuclear physics at the Debrecen University, in Eastern Hungary, educating a sequence of genuine experimentalists in this theory-dominated country.

On the west-side of the Danube, not far from the Eötvös University, one finds the Budapest Institute of Technology, This was the first niche of modern physics in Budapest: Vidor Zemplén in the 1910s, Zoltan Bay in the 1940s, Paul Gombás in the 1950s attracted bright students for topics more intimately related to technology. Rudolf Schmid and István Kovács created a school of spectroscopy; Zoltán Gyulai developed a school in crystal physics. The Budapest Institute of Technology still dominates in materials science.

Applied physics reached world standards in northern Budapest, where the Tungsram Company was created (1896). The name of this light bulb factory originates from tungsten (wolfram), the beat resistant metal which was patented by Sándor Just and Ferenc Hanaman (1903), as the glowing fiber in light bulbs, instead of Edison's fragile carbon fibers. Tungsten (and Tungsram) made electric incandescent lamps long-lasting, so that the light bulb could become an everyday item. Michael Polányi and Egon Orowan developed here the theory of crystal dislocations as the carriers of plasticity (1934). Imre Bródy and Michael Polányi cooperated in realizing the most economic incandescent lamp, the krypton bulb (1934), and the mass production of krypton. Zoltan Bay pioneered radio astronomy, Paul Selényi pioneered photocopying. The Tungsram employees Dennis Gabor, Egon Orowan, and Michael Polányi later became fellows of the Royal Society.

In the periods when official institutions were restricted by politics, the Roland Eötvös Mathematical and Physical Society played an important role in enabling scientific life to carry on in Hungary. As the motto for this paper we quoted from the talk given by the president of the Society at the general assembly in 1937. Physics professors tried to connect John von Neumann to Hungary, but the proposals were rejected at Szeged University, at Budapest University, and at the Hungarian Academy as well by the leading representatives sticking to the government's policy. Only the Eötvös Society dared to elect Neumann (a person of Jewish origin and working in America) to an honorary member.

Sub pondere crescit palma. Trees grow under weight. So it can be understood that the most intense periods of the Eötvös Society were the war years, when personal contacts abroad were cut, and government organizations had other priorities. During World War I Victor Zemplén served as an excellent secretary till his death on the Italian front. During World War II this was the merit of Rudolf Ortvay as secretary till his suicide in 1945. This phenomenon of vitality replayed itself later, during the chilly decades of the Cold War.

The turmoil following World War I in 1919 resulted in heavy losses for Hungarian culture: Alexander Korda, George de Hevesy, Theodore von Kármán, Arthur Koestler, Michael Polányi, Leo Szilard were forced to emigrate for fear of revenge from right-extremists (1919). The losses were continued in the 1920s: Nicholas Kurti, Cornelius Lanczos, John von Neumann, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner went into exile, due to the spreading antisemitism in the early 1920s.

The collapse and political turmoil following World War II decapitated Hungarian science once again. Imre Bródy became the victim of the Holocaust, Rudolf Schmid died in a Russian prison camp. The laboratory-creating efforts of Zoltan Bay (at Tungsram), George Békésy (at Budapest University), Albert Szent-Györgyi (at Szeged University) were soon interrupted by the suspicious extreme-left rule. Soon a new toll was taken by the Soviet military suppression of the Hungarian revolt (1956), which made Anton Bejczy, Andrew Grove, Imre Izsak, George Olah and others to leave the country, among the 200000 emigrants. But some of the Hungarians chose the adventure of staying here.

Fortunately everything was not lost. The Society - like a phoenix - was reborn from its ashes: the Roland Eötvös Physical Society and the János Bolyai Mathematical Society were established in 1949. (János Bolyai (1802-1860) was an army officer at a far-eastern garrison in Hungary, and there created non-Euclidean geometry in 1825. The 21-year old lieutenant wrote his father: - Out of nothing I have created a new, different world.) The Eötvös Physical Society launched its monthly Fizikai Szemle (1950) with the optimistic words of Karl Novobátzky:

- Physics develops with enormous speed, this is the most important science in the world, its importance is unsurpassable by anything else. It was not without reason that Einstein called physics the fifth superpower Experimental physics reaches for the innermost secrets of mutter by extremely sophisticated and expensive methods, while theoretical physics explores the possibilities of logically structuring the phenomena of Nature. In Hungary, the impatient desire to catch up with what we missed for centuries turns into action in physics as well.

The Eötvös Society rapidly extended its reach over the whole country, organizing local groups in each district of Hungary, with meetings moving around since 1951. By social means it created a live scientific forum; it built up a result-oriented order of values, quantum tunneling through the Iron Curtain even during the chilliest decades of the Cold War. Its presidents were Paul Gombás (leader of the school in atomic theory), Karl Novobátzky (creator of a school in field theory), Zoltán Gyulay (leader of a school in experimental solid state physics), George Szigeti (co-founder of the European Physical Society), Gyula Csikai (developer of a neutron lab in Debrecen in close cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy), Norbert Kroó (materials scientist, now chairing the Physics-Technology Division at the Academia Europaea), Dezső Kiss (high energy experimentalist, for a while the director general of the Joint Institute of Nuclear Research in Dubna, in the Soviet Union), George Marx (fellow of the American Physical Society and the Institute of Physics, initiating particle physics in Budapest). The Eötvös Society has about 2000 members, and it has become perhaps the most important organizer of international physics conferences in Eastern Europe since the 1960s. (It hosts regularly conferences of the European Physical Society, International Union for Pure and Applied Physics, International Astronomical Union, International Atomic Energy Agency, UNESCO.) On the lake-side alley in Balatonfüred lime trees planted by Paul A.M. Dirac, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, Richard Feynman, John C. Harsanyi, Nicholas Kurti, Benoit Mandelbrot, Sir Nevil Mott, Rudolf Mössbauer, George Olah, Bruno Pontecorvo, Jurij V. Prohorov, Edward Teller, Eugene P. Wigner preserve the memories of their visits and lectures at the Balaton conferences. The biannual International Neutrino Conference has originated from here.

Hungary was one of the founding members of the European Physical Society; its past president was Norbert Kroó (Budapest). George Vajda is now president of the European Nuclear Society. The International Union for Pure and Applied Physics had Hungarian vice-presidents (Lenard Pál, George Marx). The Academia Europaea and the International Astronautical Academy (created by Theodore von Kármán) have about a dozen Hungarian physicist members, they held general assemblies in also Budapest. The Association of Hungarian Physics Students initiated the formation of the International Association of Physics Students; its first president was Patroklos Budai (a student at Eötvös University in Budapest). At the millennium of the Hungarian school Hungary hosted the World Conference of Physics Students (1996). At this Millennium (1999) Hungary hosts the World Science Congress, in cooperation with UNESCO and with the International Council of Scientific Unions.

One important mission of the Eötvös Society was to keep contact with Hungarians working abroad, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. After John von Neumann the Eötvös Society elected honorary members like Cornelius Lanczos, John G. Kemeny, (these were their only acknowledgements from their mother country while they lived), as well as Zoltan Bay, Dennis Gabon John C. Harsanyi, Nicholas Kurti, Valentine Telegdi, Edward Teller, Eugene P. Wigner (they are also honorary members of the Hungarian Academy).

There are also other prominent honoraries from overseas, from Europe, and from neighboring countries, speaking Hungarian. Their visiting lectures are attended by hundreds of students and physicists, helping to keep the community of the Hungarian speaking physicists together. There are more Hungarian-born physics professors working actively abroad, most of them in the United States, than within Hungary. Our present intensive Western connections are mainly due to their influence. The monthly Fizikai Szemle publishes papers by Hungarians working abroad regularly in each issue, thus connecting hundreds of them to the scientific life of their native country, because it is a mission of the Eötvös Society to make use of the expertise and knowledge of them, who are happy and successful far away, in order to strengthen physics at home as well, thus enlarging the intellectual dimension of this tiny country (with a population of 10 million people) over the critical mass.

We expect that the Hungarian society will gradually grow up to respect its talents. At the turn of the millennium this may become our ticket for re-entrance into the European Union.