Hans Bethe and the Problem of “Jewish Genius”

By Alex Joffe
Monday, October 15, 2012

Few topics make Jews more uncomfortable than the question of “Jewish genius.”  While Jews happily point to the extraordinary scientific accomplishments of their co-religionists, discussion of the genetic or cultural basis of these achievements causes squirming and denials.  What can the story of a half-Jewish genius, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans Bethe, contribute to this debate?

Nuclear Forces: The Making of the Physicist Hans Bethe, a new biography by Silvan Schweber, makes Bethe’s genius more accessible.  Born in 1906 in Strasbourg to a German scientist father and a Jewish mother who had converted, Bethe was a mathematical prodigy who co-authored his first scientific paper at 17.  He belonged to the heroic era of subatomic physics, with scientific interests ranging from large to small, from astrophysics to particle and quantum physics.

Educated in Germany, he was teaching at the University of Tübingen when the Nazis came to power and he lost his job.  He came to America in 1935 and joined the faculty of Cornell University, where he stayed until his death in 2005.  In 1967 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his fundamental work in understanding energy production in stars.

Bethe’s contribution to the Manhattan Project was critical.  Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard had warned Franklin Roosevelt that the Nazis could develop an atomic bomb; at Los Alamos, the greatest minds in physics, including Jews like J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Richard Feynman, Rudolph Peierls, Isidor Rabi, Victor Weisskopf, Stanislaw Ulam, and John von Neumann, worked feverishly to get there first.  Bethe, as head of the Los Alamos Theoretical Division, was responsible for calculating the amount of nuclear material necessary to create the bomb. “Jewish physics,” reviled and driven out of Germany, had triumphed over its “Aryan” counterpart.

After the war, Bethe remained a government consultant.  But, along with many Los Alamos veterans, he opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb and became devoted to the cause of world peace and nuclear disarmament. In contrast with most physicists or “geniuses,” he remained incredibly productive well into his eighties.

As Schweber makes clear, Bethe did not think of himself as Jewish but gravitated towards Jews as friends and associates and married a woman of Jewish descent.  Schweber attributes this affinity to the attraction, for Bethe, of a “family climate of warmth, openness and liberality”—as well as sense of German-ness.  For decades, Germany’s Jews had cultivated a liberal and intellectual German-ness, even as Germany defined the nation increasingly in racial terms.  Jews and part-Jews like Bethe scaled Germany’s intellectual heights before their own society repudiated them, then exterminated the vast majority who could not escape.

Does any of this inform the debate about Jewish genius?  Statistically, the evidence is undeniable. In a famous Commentary article, Charles Murray noted Ashkenazi Jews’ disproportionate intellectual accomplishments over the past two centuries.  Murray’s explanation was ultimately genetic: occupational restrictions and a culture valuing education channeled Jews into skilled urban professions and created a population selected for verbal and quantitative skills.  But recent genetic analyses by Harry Ostrer and others have been equivocal regarding the genetics of Jewish intelligence, much less genius.  There is more obvious evidence for genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs, breast cancer, and depression.

Bethe had good genes.  He also came complete with a neurotic (ex-)Jewish mother, who complained constantly and thought his wife wasn’t good enough for him.  After escaping from Europe she lived with the couple in Ithaca, making everyone’s life a living hell until she was packed off to stay with a German couple in Long Island.  Discussions of Jewish genius do not usually refer to such familial dynamics.  Perhaps they should.

But there is also the matter of culture.  Bethe and other Manhattan Project Jews and half-Jews were geniuses in the true sense of the word, intellects far above the norm.  But whatever their genes, they also emerged from broadly similar environments: families that were emancipated in the 19th century in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became partly or wholly assimilated.  Two centuries earlier, their genius would have gone unnoticed in the larger world.  But it flourished in the first half of the 20th century, in a new international scientific culture of physics that developed in the rarefied environment of a handful of research institutions and university departments.

On this point Schweber cites Thorstein Veblen, who in 1919 had already noted the “intellectual pre-eminence of Jews in modern Europe” (the title of his article on the subject).  Veblen developed a theory of Jewish marginality, suggesting that exclusion had produced a “skeptical animus” and a “release from the dead hand of conventional finality.”

The skeptical animus might also be defined simply as energy.  The Emancipation liberated Jews from both external and internal restrictions. Immense—perhaps unique—physical and intellectual energies poured from the ghettos into businesses, professions, and the arts and sciences.  Jews, in effect, immigrated, first to the European continent in which they had lived as a despised minority, next toward varying degrees of integration, then to the New World.  Historian of science Daniel Kevles, in his study of American physicists, also cites Veblen, emphasizing how Jews’ intellectualism (rather than genius) and their desire to “make it” spurred their outsized role in science.  Genius flourished, even as it became less specifically Jewish.

This process also accelerated the self-dissolution of German Jewry as Jews, long before the rise of fascism.  Following the Federal Law of Personal Status and Marriage Certification of 1875, which mandated civil marriages and removed obstacles to intermarriage, the number of Jewish marriages lagged, while both Jewish men and women intermarried at increasing rates. Combined with baptisms, intermarriage rates were so high as to produce fears that Jews would become extinct in Germany.  That matter was soon taken out of their hands.

Bethe’s story suggests that genius, Jewish or otherwise, is always a rarity. Perhaps with Jews there was, at best, some minor selection for quantitative reasoning and quick thinking. Certainly no Jewish genius for politics is evident, or—given Jewish reproductive rates—much instinct for collective survival.

Yet, if culture is the primary variable and energy a particular trait, perhaps Jews do form a unique case, at least under certain cultural conditions.  The American Jewish experience suggests that marginality induced a striving in which genius was more easily recognized, though at the price of assimilation.  If so, the diminution of Jewish marginality and Jewish genius may be inevitably twinned.


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