Studying the rich history of interstellar concepts, I realized that I knew almost nothing about a figure who is always cited in the early days of beamed sail papers. Whereas Robert Forward is considered the source of so many sail concepts, the earliest follow-up to his 1962 paper on beamed sails for interstellar purposes is by one G. Marx. The paper is “Interstellar Vehicle Propelled by Terrestrial Laser Beam,” which ran in Nature on July 2, 1966. Who is this G. Marx?

My ever reliable sources quickly came through when I asked if any of them had known the man. None had, though all were familiar with the paper, but Al Jackson sent me a copy of it along with another by J. L. Redding (Bishop’s University, Canada), who published a correction to the Nature paper on February 11, 1967. It didn’t reduce my confusion that Redding’s short contribution bears the exact same title as Marx’s. My other contacts on Marx had no personal experience with him either but were curious to learn more.

Image: Astrophysicist and science historian György Marx. Credit: FOTO:Fortepan — ID 56238:Adományozó/Donor: Rádió és Televízió Újság. – This file has been extracted from another file, CC BY-SA 3.0.

This is worth digging into because it illustrates some useful facts about beamed propulsion. But first: György Marx (1927-2002) was Hungarian, an astrophysicist and historian of science who is evidently best known for his work on leptons, that class of subatomic particles that are not affected by the strong force and can carry electrical charge or be neutral (the charged leptons are the electrons, muons, and taus). As a science historian, Marx was clearly possessed of a sense of humor, authoring a study of Hungarian scientists in 2000 called The Voice of the Martians.

That title is itself worth unpacking. The reference is to that great influx of supremely gifted scientists and thinkers – among them Peter K. Goldmark, Nicholas Kaldor, Arthur Koestler, Nicholas Kurti, John von Neumann, Egon Orowan, Michael Polanyi, Leo Szilárd, Edward Teller, and Eugene P. Wigner – who were born between 1890 and 1910 and greatly influenced the growth of technology through their work in the U.S. Their gifts struck some as all but other-worldly. The Voice of the Martians has just been re-published in a new edition by Pallas Athéné Books. There’s a helpful review in The Budapest Times, available on Mary Murphy’s fine Unpacking My Bottom Drawer blog.

My friend Tibor Pacher and I joked about the extraterrestrial origin of Hungarians when we met up at a conference in Italy. Tibor is himself Hungarian, and he pointed to the old joke about the influx of Hungarian scientists being of off-planet origin. A Princeton professor upon learning that John Kemeny was Hungarian is said to have exclaimed about the mathematical prodigy “Not another one!” Leo Szilárd, asked about aliens, once quipped “They walk among us, but we call them Hungarians.” The fact that the Hungarian language is non-Indo European makes the joke even better.

Teller, by the way, when told of Szilárd’s statement, took on a worried mien and said, “Von Kármán must have been talking.” And Marx would push the notion even further, noting that Hungarians must have an extraterrestrial origin because the names of so many of them, like Szilárd, von Neumann, and Theodore von Kármán, show up on no maps of Budapest, but there is a Von Kármán crater on Mars, and another on the Moon, along with craters named for von Neumann and Szilárd. Case closed.

And then there is nuclear physicist Friedrich “Fritz” Houtermans, himself born near Danzig but knowledgeable about the Hungarian element, who opined:

“The galaxy of scientific minds, that worked on the liberation of nuclear power, were really visitors from Mars. They found it difficult to speak English without an alien accent, which would give them away, and therefore they chose to pretend to be Hungarian, whose inability to speak any language but Hungarian without a foreign accent is well known. It would be hard to check the above statement, because Hungary is so far away.”

What a fascinating bunch. Marx saw this bulge in the demographic of prodigies and scientific wizards known in Hungarian as a marslakók, the term for ‘Martians,’ as a cultural phenomenon. He interviews and writes about them with insight and affection. Here he is in The Voice of the Martians in conversation with Teller as the latter reminisces about Leo Szilárd. Marx as historian was clearly able to extract great anecdotes from very deep thinkers:

“[…] fortunately, there was a Hungarian in America, Leo Szilárd, who was a versatile person. He was even capable of explaining the concept of a nuclear chain reaction to the Americans! Yet there was one thing that even Szilárd could not do: drive a car. In the summer of 1939, I was working at Columbia University in New York, just like Szilárd. One day, he came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Teller, I am asking you to drive out with me to Einstein.’ […] So, out we drove on August 2. The only problem remaining was that Szilárd again did not know where Einstein was staying for the holidays. We started asking around but nobody knew. We asked an eight year–old girl—she had a nice ponytail—where Einstein was living. She did not know either. Finally, Szilárd said, ‘You know he is that old man with long, flowing white hair.’ Then the girl gave us the direction, ‘He’s staying in the second house!’ We entered; Einstein was cordial, offered tea to Szilárd, and—being democratic—he invited in the chauffeur as well. Szilárd pulled a letter from his pocket addressed to President Roosevelt […]”

Leo Szilárd’s own sense of humor was a kind of magic dust that affected other scientists working on nuclear topics. He once announced his intention to write down everything he remembered about working on nuclear fission, “not for anyone to read, just for God.” To which Hans Bethe replied, “Don’t you think God knows the facts?” And Szilárd replied, “Maybe he does, but he does not know my version of the facts.”

All this is fine stuff, and one reason why I wander off down sideroads when I start asking questions about scientists. But it’s time to get back to interstellar concepts, because György Marx had ideas about reaching other stars that helped to focus the attention of other scientists on what Forward had been saying for some time, that interstellar flight was possible at the extreme end of engineering, and that it behooved scientists to be studying the best ways to accomplish it. But Marx’s specific choices for beamed propulsion would turn out to be ill-advised, as we’ll see next time.