The Atomic Bomb as a Hungarian High School Science Fair Project? Hardly

Scott’s latest article, The Atomic Bomb Considered as Hungarian High School Science Fair Project, went viral, as most of his articles do.

It’s as interesting dissecting why an article goes viral, than studying the content of the article itself. The title and the premise invokes mental imagery of a renegade band of Hungarian scientists working assiduously in secrecy to retaliate against their Nazi tormentors/bullies–a sort of ‘revenge of the nerds’ archetype. Similar to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers [1], Scott, to great success, uses a combination of imagery and generalizations to tell a story that almost confirms the preexisting biases of the reader. It’s not a bad essay, and storytelling is an essential component of writing, but in the process the truth may be embellished.

When one thinks of the Manhattan Project, what comes to mind is the photo below–a small group of scientists presumably working in a classroom setting, to design what would become the atomic bombs used win the second world war.

Given how few people are in the photo, it almost seems plausible that the Manhattan Project is ostensibly a ‘Hungarian-Jewish Project’, and Scott cites “Manhattan Project founder Leo Szilard, H-bomb creator Edward Teller, Nobel-Prize-winning quantum physicist Eugene Wigner, and legendary polymath John von Neumann,” all Hungarian Jews.

The article hits its high-note here:

The coincidences actually pile up beyond this. Von Neumann, Wigner, and possibly Teller all went to the same central Budapest high school at about the same time, leading a friend to joke about the atomic bomb being basically a Hungarian high school science fair project.

But that’s just four people, although when you list them in succession and hyperlink their names to Wikipedia, it seems more substantive and authoritative. This is Similar to Outliers in which Gladwell lists Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Bill Joy as evidence of ‘all successful computer scientists being born in the early 50’s,’ and although three examples is hardly a robust data set, to most readers it’s good enough to be sufficiently persuaded to go along with the author’s words.

Far from being a insular classroom of Hungarian scientists, in reality, the Manhattan Protect was a massive bureaucratic undertaking, costing $27 billion in 2016 dollars and employing 130,000 people from all over the world.

For example: From 1942 to 1946, the Manhattan Project was directed by Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The nuclear division of Manhattan Project at Los Alamos Laboratory was led by theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer, born in NY and arguably the most important person of the project. Nuclear fission was discovered by German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, in 1938. Otto Robert Frisch, an Austrian-British physicist, and Lise Meitner, an Austrian-Swedish physicist, developed the theoretical implementation of a nuclear bomb. The Chief of Engineers, Major General Eugene Reybold and Colonel James C. Marshall, were both Americans. Enrico Fermi, the creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1, was from Italy. Rudolf Ernst Peierls, a German-born British physicist, in 1939 made a breakthrough investigating the critical mass of uranium-235, and Ernest Lawrence, an American nuclear scientist, in 1939 developed the cyclotron. Of all the major theoretical physicists involved in the development of the hydrogen bomb–the much more powerful successor to the atomic bomb–Hans Bethe (Germany), John Van Vleck (America), Edward Teller (Hungary), Emil Konopinski (Poland), Robert Serber (America), Stan Frankel (America), and Eldred C. Nelson (America), and experimental physicists Emilio Segrè (Italy), Felix Bloch (Switzerland), Franco Rasetti (Italy), John Henry Manley (America), and Edwin McMillan (America)–Edward Teller is the lone Hungarian Jew. And on and on…as it turns out, very few of the important people involved were Hungarian Jews.

Scott lists 15 important Jewish scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, broken down by the following countries:

Hungary: 4
Germany: 2
Poland: 2
Austria: 2
Italy: 1
Netherlands: 1
Switzerland: 1

However, according to Wikipedia, there were a total of 60 important scientists and administrators, so although 25% may be significant in terms of being over-represented by proportion of population, it’s small in terms of the overall size of the Manhattan Project. So even the notion of the Manhattan Project being a Jewish project, let alone a Hungarian Jewish one, is debatable.

I guess there is a ‘grain’ of truth that the Manhattan Project is Hungarian-Jewish Project, in the same vein that Apple is a Homestead High School-company because Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak both coincidentally went to the same high school.

The rest of Scott’s article discusses explanations for Ashkenazi Jews being over-represented in the sciences, although I have never considered this to be significant despite all the controversy and hysteria this issue gets.

Muslims total have won three non – peace Nobel prizes – the ones that count this despite them being twenty percent of the worlds population. Jews have won in excess of one hundred and thirty nine peace Nobel prizes representing some thirty percent of all of them despite being 0.2% of the worlds population. So far in the twenty first century some THIRTY FIVE percent of all Nobel prizes have been won by Jews. Forty percent of all Jews reside in Israel. Forty percent reside in the USA and twenty percent reside in all other countries combined….

It’s like saying that because the Saudis are over-represented in the oil business, all Muslims have a genetic propensity for dealing with oil, when it’s really just a single group. The Ashkenazi Jews that have have high IQs are a self-selected sub-group out of much larger, less intelligent one (general Semitic people). Average Israeli IQ, which is around 89-95, for example, is lower than, say, the Jews attending NYU. It does not imply ‘Jews are smarter than whites’, which is the most common misinterpretation, but rather a small population of Jews excel at math and science, just as a small population of Muslims excel at oil.

[1] Give how much Gladwell’s reputation has nosedived since writing Outliers, comparing anyone to him is fighting words, but Scott is obviously smarter and way more intellectually honest.