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Eugene Wigner
Hungarian physicist and Nobel Prize winner
Budapest, Hungary, 17 November 1902 – Princeton, NJ, USA, 1 January 1995

Wigner spent a happy childhood in a cohesive family. At the age of 11, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, after which he spent a few weeks with his mother in the Alps. 

He pursued his secondary school studies at the Fasor Grammar School, where he attended classes together with John von Neumann. 

He began his university studies as a student of chemical engineering at the Technical University of Budapest (1919), then after one year continued studying at the University of Berlin, Germany. He was thrilled by new discoveries in physics. He began attending the events of the German Physical Society, where he was able to meet such great scientists as Albert Einstein, Leó Szilárd, with whom he made friends within a short time, and Wolfgang Pauli. 

After completing his studies, he returned to Hungary in 1925, where he found a job as an engineer along with his father at the Újpest Leather Factory in Budapest. Later, he could not resist an offer from the Crystal Research Institute of Berlin and he returned to the city.

Discussing the formation of the hydrogen molecule, his doctoral thesis can be regarded as the first work in quantum chemistry, with which he drew the attention of the physicists’ community to himself. He recognised the role of space and time symmetry in quantum mechanics (1929).

Wigner moved to the United States of America in 1930 and received a teaching position at Princeton University, where his career again met with that of John von Neumann.

In 1934, he considered the idea of Leó Szilárd on a chain reaction that can be triggered by using neutrons was good, and they jointly worked out the essence of the theory. Wigner, Leó Szilárd and Edward Teller convinced Einstein to write his famous letter addressed to President Roosevelt. Wigner also participated in nuclear research begun as a result of the letter under the Manhattan Project, where he did research together with Szilárd, von Neumann, Teller and Enrico Fermi.

At beginning of the 1940s, he became a pioneer in using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. In 1941 it was Wigner who designed the first experimental nuclear reactor, and proposed the use of water for slowing down neutrons.

Wigner assumed a significant role in the development of the first nuclear reactor and in its launch on 2 December 1942.

He designed the first high-performance reactors, in the case of which water cooling was used. These reactors cooled by flowing water are the safe reactor types used in 80% of currently operational nuclear power plants. In this type, the cooling water is, at the same time, a neutron-slowing medium (moderator), so if cooling stops, the number of slow neutrons also decreases in the reactor and the chain reaction ceases. 

In 1963 Wigner was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for his life’s work, which he received for his contribution to the theory of the nucleus and elementary particles, primarily by the discovery and application of the fundamental symmetry principles.

In 1983 he visited the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. In 1987 an honorary doctoral degree was conferred on him by ELTE University, Budapest, then he was elected an honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Wigner died in 1995 in Princeton, NJ, the United States of America.


Leó Szilárd
Hungarian physicist
 Budapest, Hungary, 11 February 1898 – La Jolla, CA, USA, 30 May 1964

After attending a private primary school, he went to the Kemény Zsigmond Grammar School Specialising in Sciences, Budapest, where his interest in physics was aroused by experiments performed in class. 

In 1916 Szilárd enrolled at the Technical University of Budapest, then at the end of 1919 he continued his studies in the subject of physics at the Technical University of Berlin. He obtained his PhD degree in 1925; with which he obtained recognition by Albert Einstein and Max von Laue. During this period he also became acquainted with Eugene Wigner. 

Between 1925 and 1933 he worked at the University of Berlin, first as a university instructor, later as a private instructor. During this time he took out several patents, eight of them jointly with Albert Einstein. His most famous patent application is the one filed in December 1927 for a refrigerator without any moving parts. This principle is used today for the liquid metal cooling of breeding reactors.

In 1933 Szilárd moved to the United Kingdom and obtained a job as an experimental researcher at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.

He heard at one of the lectures given by Rutherford that it was impossible to use nuclear energy in practice. After this, he worked out the principle of nuclear chain reaction and introduced the concept of critical mass. He also applied for a patent for this process (1934), but immediately had it declared a military secret.

Between 1935 and 1938, Szilárd worked as a staff member of the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford.

In the spring of 1935 he tried to ensure that nuclear scientists and researchers would not publish their results in order to prevent Germany from also becoming aware of them. This can be regarded as the first attempt at nuclear arms control.

On 2 January 1938 Szilárd moved to the United States of America, where he began working at Columbia University in New York.

In 1939 he heard about the success of nuclear fission experiments in Germany. He examined uranium and demonstrated that neutron multiplication takes place in uranium. He wanted to prevent the publication of the discovery (with regard to the war situation), but the news came to light in the autumn of 1939. Fearing that the Germans would soon be able to produce a nuclear bomb, with the help of Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller he convinced Einstein about the reality of the risk and they wrote a letter to President Roosevelt. As a result, nuclear bomb research was launched in the US under the Manhattan Project, in which Szilárd held the position of Chief Physicist between 1942 and 1946. He worked there together with Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi.

On 2 December 1942, the first nuclear reactor designed jointly with Fermi was commissioned.

On 10 August 1944, Szilárd recommended international control over nuclear energy in order to prevent an arms race. Since the defeat of Germany was already certain, he organised resolute activity to prevent the deployment of the nuclear bomb.

The Atomic Energy Commission was established later on the basis of his recommendation. Subsequently, he did everything to stop the Soviet-American arms race. The American secret police was monitoring him regularly and wrote reports about him. His influence started to dwindle and he was relegated to the background, so he was compelled to make a change. 

In the summer of 1946 Szilárd resigned from the Metallurgy Laboratory and became a part-time biology professor at the Faculty of Radiobiology and Biophysiology at the University of Chicago. At the same time, he worked part time as an adviser at the university’s Department of Social Sciences, researching the social considerations of nuclear energy.

On 18 May 1955 he and Fermi were jointly granted a patent for the nuclear reactor.

Later, he actively participated in the Pugwash movement, in which American and Soviet scientists discussed issues of peace and disarmament.

Szilárd was diagnosed with bladder cancer in the autumn of 1959. He planned and directed his own radiation treatment in person, as a result of which he recovered from his disease.

On 18 May 1960 he was awarded the Atoms for Peace Award of the USA.

Later, he obtained consent from Soviet leader Khrushchev for a ‘hotline’ between Moscow and Washington.

From February 1964 he worked at the Salk Institute. Biophysics was established on the basis of his research.

Szilárd died of a heart attack on 30 May 1964.




Edward Teller
Hungarian phycist
Budapest, Hungary, 15 January 1908 – Stanford, CA, USA, 9 September 2003 

Teller completed his primary classes at a private school and later graduated from the Model Grammar School in Trefort Street in Budapest. 

In 1925 he enrolled in the subject of chemistry at the Technical University of Budapest, similarly to Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann. After a few months, he continued his studies in Karlsruhe, Germany, where he became acquainted with quantum mechanics. After studying chemistry for two years, he changed course and definitely committed himself to physics.

In 1928 Teller continued his studies under Arnold Sommerfeld in the subject of physics at the University of Munich. He was involved in an accident with a tram there, as a result of which he lost his right foot. Following his recovery, since he did not like the lectures given by Sommerfeld, one of the last great figures of classical physics, he continued the next academic year in Leipzig, where Werner Karl Heisenberg was lecturing.

Teller earned his doctoral degree in physics in 1930, then obtained a research position in Göttingen, where he was able to work with leading figures such as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Heisenberg.

After a change in the political situation, in 1934 he joined Niels Bohr’s research team in Denmark, where he became acquainted with George Gamow.

In 1935 Teller emigrated to the United States of America where, at the invitation of Gamow, he began to teach at George Washington University.

In 1938 Gamow and Teller jointly explained the energy production in stars with nuclear fusion, i.e. thermonuclear reaction.

In 1939 they jointly organised a conference where they heard about the results of Otto Hahn’s work in Germany, nuclear fission, from Niels Bohr, who arrived there as an invitee.

At that point, Teller recognised the risk involved with the discovery of nuclear fission by German scientists. Together with Wigner and Szilárd, he convinced Einstein to write his famous letter to President Roosevelt.

Teller also played a significant role in the Manhattan Project. Later he worked in Los Alamos on nuclear bomb research, but from 1942 he really concentrated his attention on the hydrogen bomb.

He also dealt with nuclear reactors a lot. He recognised the source of hazard of uranium-graphite-water reactors (Teller effect) and managed to have the operation of the graphite reactors type – like the one built later in Chernobyl – stopped in the USA. He was Chairman of the Reactor Safety Council in the United States.

President Truman ordered the development of a fusion weapon in Los Alamos, and the first American hydrogen bomb was successfully tested in 1952. After becoming aware that the scientists in Los Alamos were not clearly in favour of the development of the next weapon generation, he fought with great energy for the establishment of a new laboratory.

The Atomic Energy Commission established the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Northern California. Teller became an adviser there, then its Deputy Director and finally its Director.

Starting in 1990, he visited his home country, Hungary, every year. In 1990 he became an honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, then one year later an honorary doctor of the Technical University of Budapest. In 1994 he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary.

Teller died in Stanford in 2003, at the age of 95.


John von Neumann
Hungarian mathematician
Budapest, Hungary, 28 December 1903 – Washington, D.C., USA, 8 February 1957

In his childhood, von Neumann showed abilities exceeding those of his peers. He was fluent in French and German, his memory was almost photographic and he also proved to be unbeatable in mental arithmetic. After completing primary school, he continued his studies from 1913 at the Fasor Grammar School in Budapest, where he became acquainted with Eugene Wigner. 

In 1921 von Neumann enrolled at the Department of Humanities at the Science University of Budapest, where his main subject was mathematics, but physics and chemistry were also among his interests. He received his doctoral degree in 1926. In 1921 he also enrolled at the University of Berlin, where he obtained a degree in chemical engineering also in 1926. He began teaching at Friedrich Wilhelm University, in Berlin, from 1927.

In 1929 Princeton University invited him to the United States to be a guest professor.

Between 1930 and 1933, he spent one semester teaching in Princeton and one in Europe by turns. After a change in the political situation in Germany, in 1933 he settled in Princeton. He participated in nuclear bomb research in the USA. The extremely complex equations obtained in studying impact waves required a lot of numerical calculations. As a result, he started to feel a strong need for computers.

From 1945 to 1957, von Neumann was Project Director of the Electronic Computer Project in Princeton. He will be remembered for his contributions to the development of the operation of the first completely electronic computers (e.g. ENIAC, Electronic Integrator And Computer).

In 1955 he received the highest appointment from the Government: he was appointed a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, where altogether five people worked. In his remaining years, von Neumann suffered from serious cancer. He died in February 1957.


Dr. András Lévai
Hungarian professor in energy science
Oravița, Romania, 22 December 1908 – Budapest, Hungary, 23 April 2003

András Lévai pursued his secondary school studies at the Piarist Grammar School in Timișoara, then continued his university studies at the Technical Universities of Graz and Vienna. He obtained his degree in mechanical engineering in 1931.

Lévai began his engineering career at Romanian and Hungarian industrial establishments. He designed the refurbishment of the Csepel Power Plant, to which he applied a pioneering solution.

Between 1945 and 1950, he was Head of Department then Executive Manager of the Heavy Industry Centre, and organised the restoration of power plants after the war and the establishment of the collaborative power plant system.

In 1950 he established the Power Plant Design Office and was its CEO for more than a decade.

Between 1962 and 1967, he directed the design of Hungarian power plants as Deputy Minister for Heavy Industry. All of Hungary’s coal-fired power plants were built under his direction, with units ranging from 20 MW to 215 MW.

In connection with the establishment of the collaborative power plant system, he had indisputable merits in exploring system effects.

Lévai launched the Hungarian nuclear energy programme. As early as after the Geneva Conference in 1955 and 1956, he designated the expected role of nuclear energy and the direction to be followed in a number of presentations and studies. As the responsible Deputy Minister, he prepared the contract for the construction of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant.

In possession of extensive professional experience, he also engaged in outstanding teaching activities. In 1953 he established the Department of Thermal Power Plants at the Technical University of Budapest, which he led until his retirement. He developed a syllabus for thermal power plants and nuclear power plants. Practical training formed a very integral part of the syllabus; thus he also initiated the establishment of a number of laboratories and accessory units (e.g. the Training Reactor at the BME).

Lévai received a number of state decorations for his outstanding activities: Medal of Merit of the Republic of Hungary (1948), Kossuth Award (1949), Medal of Merit for Socialist Labour (1957), Order of Merit for Labour (1968), Medal of Merit for Socialist Hungary (1978), Order of Stars of the Socialist Republic of Hungary (1988) and Széchenyi Award. He was an Honorary Doctor of the Energy Institute of Moscow (1975) and the Technical University of  Budapest, where he was also a Professor Emeritus.

The project established for the expansion works of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant with new units launched on 8 July 2009 was named after him.


György Hevesy
Hungarian chemist and Nobel Prize winner
Budapest, Hungary, 1 August 1885 – Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, 5 July 1966

Hevesy spent his childhood in Budapest. He graduated from the Piarist Grammar School in 1903. He began his university studies at the Science University of Budapest, then continued in Berlin after one year. He earned his doctoral degree in physics in Freiburg, in 1908. He started to show an interest in chemistry. As a result, he worked in Zurich and gained a position as Richard Lorenz’s instructing assistant. He was shuttling between laboratories in Manchester, Vienna and Budapest. As his father was well-to-do, he did not ask for a salary anywhere.

The Government of Austro-Hungary donated 100 kg of radiolead to Rutherford in 1912, using which he would have liked to examine component D of radium. However, the large quantity of lead thwarted this effort. At Rutherford’s request, Hevesy tried to separate the RaD atoms from the lead atoms, but did not succeed. This ‘inseparableness’ led him to discover radioactive tracing.

According to oral tradition, the concept of radioactive tracing was formulated in Hevesy as follows. He heard that their housekeeper collected leftovers, would prepare meatballs using them and would serve them as such on later days. To test this, he deliberately left a slice of roast on his plate after injecting it with a weak radioisotope. He put a Geiger counter next to the meatballs served at a lunch a few days later. It started to crackle.

The organisation of chemical elements into a table began in the 19th century. The table was continuously filled up, but element No. 72 was not found until 1923. Returning to Copenhagen, Hevesy came to the conclusion on the basis of Bohr’s atomic model that the missing element must come from the titanium group. Accordingly, he procured zircon-containing minerals, from which he eluted soluble substances, then examined their X-ray spectra. The results confirmed the assumption and the new element was named hafnium after the Latin name of Copenhagen.

For political reasons, in 1943 Hevesy moved with his family to Stockholm, where he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in the same year ‘for the application of radioactive isotopes as indicators in chemical research’.

A number of universities across the world conferred honorary doctorates on him. He received the Copley Medal and was elected a member of the Royal Society.

Hevesy died in Freiburg in 1966 at the age of 80.



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John G. Kemeny
Hungarian mathematician and computer scientist
Budapest, Hungary, 31 May 1926 – New Hampshire, USA, 26 December 1992


During his childhood, Kemeny lived in Budapest with his family. He attended the Rácz Private Primary school in Vilmos császár Road, where for years he shared a desk with Nándor Balázs. He continued his studies at the Berzsenyi Dániel Grammar School.

In 1940, Kemeny left Hungary with his family. He completed his secondary school studies in New York, graduated from Princeton University and earned his doctoral degree in logic in 1949. He did his military service in Los Alamos and under the Manhattan Project he was a colleague of later Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman. During this period he met Hungarian physicists working in the US: Edward Teller, Leó Szilárd and Eugene Wigner.

In 1947 he was discharged from service as a conscript. After that, he graduated from Princeton University, then became Albert Einstein’s instructing assistant. At that time, they were researching the unified space theory together. Kemeny earned his doctoral degree in 1949, then worked at the Princeton Research Institute of the Navy, later at the Department of Philosophy of the University. In addition to John von Neumann, his work was also greatly influenced by Bertrand Russell. Later, he started to work at the University of Kent. At the age of 27 he was invited as professor of mathematics to Dartmouth College, where he led the Institute of Mathematics two years later. In 1962 he recommended the construction of a computer centre for the University. In 1963, jointly with Thomas Kurtz, he devised the first time share computer system, which increased the utilisation rate of processors and thereby also their system performance. For this work, in 1990 he was awarded the first Louis Robinson award of IBM. The programming language BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), which became the ‘built-in’ language of several computers in the 1980s, was also created as a result of the joint work of Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz.

Today’s popular electronic mail (email) is also linked with Kemeny’s name. His wife worked at a college 200 kilometres away. By connecting the central computers of the two colleges, the first ‘Internet’ was created, by means of which they could exchange letters.

In 1970 Kemeny became President of the college and held this position until 1981. At the college he introduced several innovations. For example, he made it possible for black people, women and native Americans to enrol at the college, which previously had been hindered by extremely conservative traditions. Even as President, he gave lectures at Dartmouth and not only to students in mathematics.

After the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, he was asked to lead the Government investigation.

Kemeny made a short visit to Hungary once in his life, in 1964.

Valentine Telegdi
Experimental particle physicist, Hungarian Wolf Award winner​   
Budapest, 11 January 1922 – Pasadena, CA, USA, 8 April 2006

Valentine Telegdi had a childhood rich in experience. He lived ‘shuttling’ between south-east European countries since the age of one month with his father, who was a shipping entrepreneur. In 1928 and 1929, they returned to Budapest for two years, where he went to school and learned Hungarian. He attended secondary school in Vienna, then fleeing German occupation, they moved to Italy in 1938. He pursued his university studies in Switzerland. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in Lausanne (his undergraduate thesis was about studying the dead time of the Geiger-Mueller counter), then earned his doctoral degree in physics at the Technical University of Zurich. From 1951 to 1976 he taught at the University of Chicago near Enrico Fermi. His wife was Leó Szilárd’s secretary. In Chicago he experimented with the decay of muons. Between 1978 and 1992 he was a professor at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He was honoured with the Wolf Award in 1991. From 1976 to 1989, until his retirement, he was a professor at the Federal Technical University of Zurich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule). After his retirement, he worked at CERN (European Nuclear Research Centre).