The Manhattan Project gathered the best scientists in the United States to design and build the atom bomb. Among this group was a small cadre of Hungarian émigrés who all knew each other, spoke with thick Bela Lugosi accents, and were able to think circles around everyone they encountered. The most reasonable conclusion, the other scientists joked, was that these super-geniuses weren’t human at all: they were Martians.
The Martians were happy to take up the joke and cultivate the myth. When asked why humans hadn’t found intelligent life beyond Earth, Leo Szilard, who conceived of the nuclear chain reaction, said, “They are among us. They just call themselves Hungarians.”
In addition to Szilard there was Edward Teller, who would later invent the hydrogen bomb; Eugene Wigner, who would win the Nobel Prize in Physics; and of course John von Neumann, who did foundational work in just about everything, including mathematics, physics, computing, and economics, and about whom even Nobel laureates said things like, “I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann’s does not indicate a species superior to that of man.”
There were Martians outside of the Manhattan Project too, who had their own outstanding contributions, like Theodore von Kármán, George Pólya, and Paul Erdős.
The story of the Martians is even more remarkable upon closer look. The Martians didn’t merely come from Hungary. They were all born between 1880 and 1920, they were all Jewish, they all grew up in Budapest, and they all attended the same handful of high schools.
What’s going on here? What produced such concentrated genius? Shouldn’t we be poring over this and turning it into a template for every school in America?
Scott Alexander (the Dixie Limited of earnest blogging) finds that the phenomenon of the Martians is best explained by good genes. Setting aside the prickly question of how well IQ tests actually measure intelligence, Ashkenazi Jews score roughly one standard deviation higher than the European average. Geniuses tend to live way out in the right tail of the distribution, so just shifting it a little can explain why 27% of Nobel laureates and 50% of world chess champions have Jewish ancestry.
Why Budapest, and why 1880-1920? Jews were persecuted for a millennium across Europe, but the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 curbed anti-semitism in Hungary and afforded new opportunities to Jews, especially in Budapest, which was a capital of Central European Jewry. So for a few generations, while Jews in other cities like Warsaw and Kiev endured pogroms, the Jews of Central Europe were unique in that they enjoyed both high numbers and relatively unfettered opportunities to trade on their intellect. This liberal treatment lasted until World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved and anti-semitism began to resurge.
I find the genetic-historical hypothesis persuasive, as sad as the story is. But I also wonder if Alexander grabs ahold of it too tightly, and I want to offer three other explanations that I view as complementary, and which I think can be reasonably argued.
1. The Schools and Teachers Really Were Special
Seven Nobel laureates graduated from just five Budapest high schools.Albert Svent-Györgyi for Medicine in 1937, George de Hevesy for Chemistry in 1943, Wigner for Physics in 1963, Dennis Gabor for Physics in 1971, George Olah for Chemistry in 1994, John Harsanyi for Economics in 1994, Imre Kertész for Literature in 2002. “My memories of the secondary school are the best ever,” said Martian Dennis Gabor. As Alexander recounts, until the end of his life Wigner kept a photograph hanging in his office of László Rátz, his high school math teacher.
But the objection to this sort of explanation is a good one. As people like Freddie deBoer have pointed out, all the available data show that schools just don’t have transformative effects on student outcomes. Children have differing aptitudes, and what school they attend or teacher they have doesn’t make a dent in their future success or educational attainment. (These frustrating, counter-intuitive data are compiled in books like deBoer's The Cult of Smart and Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education.)
I think the statistics on American schooling are of limited use here, because the schools of 1900s Budapest are literally off the charts. Not that the statistics are wrong, mind you, but in our case they constitute only weak evidence. As Istvan Hargittai explains in Martians of Science:
The Hungarian gimnázium education at the beginning of the twentieth century was an elitist kind of education, rather broad based in its curriculum, with a select group of students, and highly educated and cultured teachers who were members of an appreciated and respected profession. The excellence of the Budapest high schools came partly from the fact that they catered to a small portion of the population—high school education at that time was not yet for everyone. To be a high school teacher meant prestige in society and life at a comfortable level.
I doubt that there’s a single public school in the U.S. that fits this description. “The past is a foreign country,” wrote Hartley, and the gimnáziumok of Budapest may as well have been Mars. Children were customarily homeschooled until age 10, and then sent to a gymnasium for eight years. Gymnasium instruction could be drill-like and intense, but good teachers worked hard to engage the curiosity of their students and keep even the most gifted pupils busy. Mathematics was taught “in conjunction with practical uses,” and students were often encouraged to derive rules from specific examples.
Hungary even had a monthly mathematical journal for secondary schools, the Középiskolai Matematikai Lapok, or KöMal, and to have your solution published in KöMal was a point of pride for students.
“Our gimnázium teachers had a vital presence,” recalled Wigner. “To kindle interest and spread knowledge among the young—this was what they truly loved.” Some teachers were mathematicians and physicists themselves.
Does any of this remotely align with the experience of anyone attending an American secondary school in the last 50 years? If you worry, like Alexander does, that the modern public school is a “child prison,” is it so outlandish to countenance that the gymnasiums of 1900s Budapest offered an experience categorically better than anything that can be measured in American schooling today?
2. Aristocratic Tutoring
“Where’s today’s Beethoven?” asks Holden Karnofsky. “Where are all the Einsteins?” asks Erik Hoel. We may know the answer, Hoel believes, but it’s an answer that’s “deeply unfair and privileges those at the very top of the socioeconomic ladder.” It doesn’t scale and doesn’t align with the public education bureaucracy. It’s an answer many find intolerable so we choose to ignore it: tutoring.
Seemingly contrary to the research cited in the last section, Bloom's 2 Sigma Problem was a research result finding that students who received dedicated, one-on-one tutoring performed a staggering two standard deviations better than other students (i.e., better than 98%).Artir Kel offers a systematic review of this research.
To distinguish this older form of one-on-one instruction from modern tiger parenting and remedial tutoring, Hoel calls it aristocratic tutoring. Aristocratic tutoring is sustained one-on-one instruction and intellectual engagement with an expert in the subject. It’s a useful term, but perhaps paints too idyllic a picture: young Beethoven, a beneficiary of aristocratic tutoring, was often dragged from his bed in the middle of the night and forced to practice.
Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, Hannah Arendt, John Stuart Mill, Mozart, Voltaire—all received some form of aristocratic tutoring. Marcus Aurelius was tutored. Alexander the Great was tutored (by Aristotle!). And every Martian received some form of aristocratic tutoring.
With the exception of von Neumann, the Martians didn’t come from aristocratic families, but they did come from Jewish families of means. Their parents were bankers, physicians, professors, and civil engineers, and all placed a high value on their children’s education. By age 10 every one of them had been privately tutored by governesses, university students, or their educated parents.
I think Hoel overstates the case for disappearing genius, but Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem is real (or as real as social science research can get), and there’s a stark difference between teaching today, even for the rich and talented, and the aristocratic tutoring of yore.I’ll note here that Hoel’s essay prompted a response from Alexander, which in turn prompted a response from Hoel.
3. Cultural Genius
In rare times and places great flourishings of human excellence will occur. Modern art and literature flourished in 1920s Paris. Political ideas flourished in the mid-18th-century Thirteen Colonies. The early Renaissance flourished in Florence under the Medici. The Golden Age of Athens lasted only 76 years, and yet was the Western watershed for history, philosophy, theater, sculpture, and rhetoric.
Brian Eno came up with the portmanteau scenius: “Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of genius.” Individuals caught up in a “productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work,” writes Kevin Kelly. “When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius.”
Fin de siècle Budapest was a place of wealth, modernity, and learning. It was home to 1 million souls on the eve of World War I, 20% of whom were Jewish. The Christian gentry in the city had jobs in government and law, but commerce, finance, and engineering were seen as beneath them, and therefore wide open to the Budapest Jews.
For the Jews there was a heavy cultural emphasis on scholarship. Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium, the school that both Wigner and von Neumann attended, charged Jews five times the tuition fee that Lutherans paid, and yet the Jews came anyways.
The power of these schools wasn’t merely a consequence of pedagogy or teachers, it was a product of the culture in which they were rooted. Gymnasium students formed "self-improvement circles” of their own volition, giving talks to each other on topics outside the curriculum.
“On Saturday afternoons,” wrote Wigner, the gymnasium teachers “often met at a coffeehouse to discuss their work with university colleagues.” Students were sometimes invited along to participate. Can you imagine that level of intellectual exchange today?
When von Neumann outpaced his peers, Rátz privately tutored him and connected him to luminaries he knew at the local university.
To the question of Jewish Hungarian brilliance, von Neumann's answer was that “it was a coincidence of some cultural factors… an external pressure on the whole society of this part of Central Europe, a feeling of extreme insecurity in the individuals, and the necessity to produce the unusual or else face extinction.” Hungarian-Swedish biologist George Klein put it more simply: “You either became successful or you were going to end up in the gutter.”
Cultural genius seems ephemeral, and likely contains the seeds of its own disintegration. "Although many have tried many times," writes Kelly, "it is not really possible to command scenius into being." Upon seeing it emerge, the best thing you can do is get out of the way. “When it pops up, don’t crush it. When it starts rolling, don’t formalize it. When it sparks, fan it.”
As stated at the outset, I don’t view any of these explanations as counter to the genetic-historical hypothesis. If anything they likely all correlate with good genes.
Most of the people we regard as geniuses were molded by more than just genetics. Sure, every once in awhile a genius is born fully formed, springing from the head of Zeus like Ramanujan, but given the available evidence I think the best conclusion is that all four explanations played some role in producing the Martians. If I had to guess their causal weight, I’d probably rank them 1) genetic-historical, 2) aristocratic tutoring, 3) cultural genius, and 4) exceptional schooling, but this is a weakly held opinion. There’s no control group for history.