The Schmooze

Hans Bethe: Great Scientist and Mensch

Must a great scientist also be a mensch?

The historian of science, Silvan Schweber, who teaches at Harvard and Brandeis, has offered some ideal examples in such previous books as “Einstein and Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius” from Harvard University Press and “In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist” from Princeton University Press. Schweber’s “Nuclear Forces: The Making of the Physicist Hans Bethe” was published by Harvard University Press, praising a physicist for whom, according to Schweber, “Judaism certainly played a role in his moral development.”

Reflecting on the prewar years of Fascism in his native Germany, Bethe, who died in 2005 at age 98, told Schweber: “I am grateful to my Jewish mother that her ancestry made it perfectly clear to me that I should emigrate.” In 1933, Bethe fled his homeland after being fired from his university job when anti-Semitic laws were passed. Bethe would develop into a great physicist, and eventually a Nobel-prizewinner, a mainstay of the faculty at Cornell University. In 1933, Bethe wrote to one of his professors, wisely postulating, ‘It is presumably not to be assumed that [German] anti-Semitism will become weakened in the foreseeable future, or that the definition of Aryan will change. For better or worse, I must draw the consequences and try to find a place somewhere in a foreign country.”

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Hans Bethe: Great Scientist and Mensch

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