Telling the story of émigré scientists: An interview with Istvan Hargittai#

In this interview conducted by the Cardiff Knowledge Hub, Professor Istvan Hargittai, member of the Chemical Sciences section since 1994, discusses his motivation for writing his latest book ‘Brilliance in Exile,’ which explores the lives of Hungarian émigré scientists who have made significant contributions to science after leaving their country of birth.

Professor Istvan Hargittai
Professor Istvan Hargittai (Photo by Klara Lang)

About Istvan Hargittai MAE#

Professor Istvan Hargittai MAE is a physical chemist and professor emeritus (active) at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. He is a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Academia Europaea, and a foreign member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. He has been Founding Editor-in-Chief of the international periodical Structural Chemistry (Springer Nature) since 1989. He has published over three hundred research papers and reviews and has published hundreds of other papers, in particular in science dissemination and popularisation. He has authored and edited over fifty books, including the recently published ‘Brilliance in Exile.’

The interview#

Professor Hargittai, congratulations on the publication of your new book. What was your motivation in writing it?

“Thank you very much. Over fifty Hungarian émigré scientists are presented in this book, all having contributed significantly to science after leaving their country of birth. I have always been interested in the nature of scientific discovery and in what makes a scientist a discoverer. I wrote a book about the Nobel Prize (The Road to Stockholm) for Oxford University Press. Soon after, they invited me to write a book about the five famous Hungarian scientists, the so-called Martians, who had to flee Hungary and then Europe, and went on to contribute greatly to the defence of the United States and the Free World in WWII and the Cold War. The book, titled The Martians of Science, was also well received. I then expanded my interest to a broader circle of émigré scientists, working with my son, Balazs. There have been several waves of scientists leaving Hungary over the past century and a quarter. The motivation behind this new book, Brilliance in Exile, was to show the contrast between two kinds of society. One, that pushes away its gifted by intolerance, neglect, even persecution, and the other that is receptive, tolerant and welcoming.”

What have been the main reasons behind the waves of emigration by scientists, that you describe in your book? Is there some underlying reason that they share?

“First let’s take stock of the five waves of emigration:

1: Early 1920s: Fleeing from a virulently antisemitic regime

2: Late 1930s: Last-minute escapes from the approaching Nazi threat

3: 1945‒1947: The post-war trauma of WWII and the approaching Soviet-style dictatorship

4: 1956: A brutally suppressed anti-Soviet revolution

5: 1957‒1989: Escape from the confined and restrictive communist “Paradise.”

During the past three decades this exodus has continued and the only reason we don’t call it emigration is because now travel is not restricted, so return is possible.

The shared feature of the five-plus waves of emigration has been the desire to live in an open, democratic society where one can think and work freely. For Jewish scientists, it also often meant, literally, survival.”

How did these emigrant scientists adapt to their new destinations, and ultimately succeed?

“Of course, we are more aware of the success stories than of the failures. They adapted well and outperformed their prior achievements. It was not only that the open, democratic society stimulated them, but also that the new environment made them feel that they had to prove themselves. The new environment in the United States and Britain tested them, but the Hungarian émigré scientists had an advantage over other immigrants in that they had already gone through a similar process when they left Hungary and started a new life in Germany (under the democratic Weimar Republic). Among the Hungarian émigré scientists, the Jewish scientists had an additional “advantage” as far as prior experience is concerned, as back in Hungary, they were often made to feel like immigrants in their own home country.”

How would you characterise the relationship between the members of the scientific diaspora and their home nation of Hungary? Did they maintain a strong sense of cultural identity and belonging, despite being away?

“Most émigré scientists felt Hungarian, maintained their language and interest in Hungarian literature, and when conditions became favourable, they enjoyed visiting their birth country. They related to Hungary better than Hungary related to them. Often, émigré scientists became ‘non-persons’ in Hungary. However, if they became hugely successful, for example, received a Nobel Prize, Hungary then treated them with pride and showered them with recognition.”

What has been their position with regards to a possible return to their native country? Has there been, historically, a desire to return and introduce changes to the conditions that initially caused them to leave?

“None of the great scientists returned to Hungary and no changes were introduced to the conditions that initially caused the scientists to leave. Rather, they had become rooted in their new home country, where they were treated well, with dignity, and where they were provided with close to ideal conditions for research. Also, they must have realised that returning and attempting to induce change would be an exercise in futility.”

Take a look at other books by Istvan Hargittai.

Posted 3rd May 2023. For further information please contact

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