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American Science And The Nazis

Much of Albert Einstein's best-known work, including his famous formula, was conducted in Europe, but when the Nazis came to power, he and other famous scientists brought their talent to the U.S.
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Much of Albert Einstein's best-known work, including his famous formula, was conducted in Europe, but when the Nazis came to power, he and other famous scientists brought their talent to the U.S.

The horror of recent events was a wake-up call for many Americans about the rise of American groups dedicated to the tenets of fascism.

I was just coming out of the woods after seven days on the Appalachian Trail when I got a text from someone asking: "Did you hear about the Nazis?" This was not what I was hoping for on my return to civilization. The blatant, naked display of hatred, intolerance and violence in Charlottesville, Va., was both stomach-turning and shocking.

In the face of this real and present danger, we all should stop for a moment and reflect on our history and the way the fight against fascism has shaped our nation. It may come as a surprise to some, but one powerful chapter in that story is the effect the Nazis had on American science.

Before World War II, Europe was the pivot point for scientific advances — particularly in my own field of physics. While the United States had developed a strong research enterprise, it was Europe that led the way in the two greatest advances of the century: quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. It was scientists from Germany, Italy, France and elsewhere that made the other side of the Atlantic the frontier of science.

Then the Nazis showed up.

As the tide of fascism swept across the continent, scientists — no matter how famous — were targets of terror and hatred. The principal victims were, of course, Jewish researchers who were summarily dismissed from positions and attacked. As the climate grew ever more perilous, many of these brilliant men and women knew they had a choice — leave or face death.

That was how the exodus began. That was how some of the greatest minds in human history became refugees, refugees in America.

The list begins with Albert Einstein, whose epoch-making relativity theory was called a "Jewish World-bluff" by the Nazis. Einstein was heroic in his condemnation of fascism, and the danger this raised soon became impossible to ignore. "Turn around," he told his wife in 1932 as they left their house for America. "You will never see it again."

Others followed Einstein's path to the U.S. as American academic institutions made room for the scientific refugees. There was Italian Nobel winner Enrico Fermi, builder of the first atomic reactor, whose wife, Rose, was subject to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's anti-Jewish laws. There was John von Neumann, the Hungarian-born physicist who was, among his many achievements, one of the creators of modern computing machines. There was James Franck, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1925 for his work on atomic structure. Other names fill the list: Hans Bethe, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Rudolf Peierls. The roster of scientists fleeing fascism to the U.S. was nothing less than a who's who of 20th century genius.

The scientists who came here did so because they believed America was a safe haven from the ignorance, blindness and terror of Nazism. They believed in our history of freedom from ethnic intolerance and our commitment to the role of open, honest scientific inquiry. That is why they came to the United States. This nation gave them a new home to flourish in.

And then they gave back.

America's paramount position in postwar scientific excellence is in no small part because of their influence. These refugees, fleeing the horror of the Nazis in their old homes, were instrumental in making their new home a world leader in science — and making us stronger and more prosperous than we could have been without them. A 2013 study by Stanford economist Petra Moser showed that U.S. patents increased by 31 percent in the fields these scientists represented after their arrival. "German Jewish émigrés had a huge effect on U.S. innovation," Moser told an interviewer. "They helped increase the quality of research by training a new generation of American scientists, who then became productive researchers in their own rights."

By standing strong against the Nazis and never equivocating in their repudiation, America became a beacon of hope to these men and women. They were the world's greatest scientists, but they were also refugees and immigrants fleeing persecution. The United States choose to take them in and gave them safety. The consequences of that choice led to a strength that made our nation exceptional.

So how can we honor that choice now?

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.