Sébastien Balibar

A Tormented Scientist Publication date : January 9, 2019

Sébastien Balibar, physicist and member of the Académie des sciences, is the author of many scientific books for the general public.
Science threatened by totalitarianism
The Hungarian physicist Laszlo Tisza (1907-2009) was an illustrious unknown (who nonetheless ended up a professor at MIT) until this work by Sébastien Balibar, who uses him as a guide in his exploration of a little-documented period: the flight of Jewish scientists at the advent of Nazism. Granted, we know that Einstein was welcomed at Princeton, and that in Los Alamos General Groves, the patron of the Manhattan Project where the Hungarians Leo Szilard, John von Neumann, and Eugene Wigner were working, had to prohibit them from speaking Hungarian during sessions when they were perfecting the atomic bomb, but the extent of scientific emigration in the 1930s and 40s, and even more so its organization, are largely unknown.

This tragic and novelistic story portrays the astonishing journeys (the German physicist Fritz London welcomed at the Palais de la Découverte; the brilliant Russian Lev Landau languishing in Stalin’s prisons); and the heroes in the shadows, such as the physiologist Henri Laugier or the Pasturian microbiologist Louis Rapkine (1904-1948), who organized and managed to finance the exile of numerous scientists to the United States. Thanks to them, in 1942 a “Free School of Higher Learning” was established in New York bringing together, among others, Jacques Maritain, Alexandre Koyré, and Claude Lévi Strauss.

Blending personal narratives, the history of high thermal conductivity (a research subject of Tisza and of the author), and that of scientific politics under the Vichy regime, this fascinating text is a major contribution to the history of science in the last century.