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Hans Bethe and the Problem of “Jewish Genius”

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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S W on October 15, 2012 at 6:10 am (Reply)
An interesting and problematic article, for its identification of religion, culture, race and genetics as contributing factors, none of which can be singled out. Why? As some modern day philosphers note, these are not identical categories nor do they share enough agreed-upon markers to be shared in a self-evident manner. To be sure, genius might be validated in groupings as some articles on the cluster of Jewish Nobel Prize winners but, as Joffe correctly notes, Jews in politics and social dominance within a collective group are rather less statistically represented. Among the markers for genius is what a teacher long ago taught me: To be truly genius, an intellect must evidence itself in its productivity and not in some question-tested measure. To accept all the above categories, one must agree that to be Jewish is to be part of a 1) race, 2) religion, 3) culture and carry genetic coding which scientific investigation might probe. For this Murray seems no contributor to the discussion in the long run, for genetic markers have not be rigorously subject to examination. I suggest a nexus between these difficult-to-define categories, all of which might contribute but none of which is wholly necessary. Such seems the gathering conclusion of brain sciences the the separable modules of mind which can connect, yet some be missing and an adequate life -- even genius -- survive. What is certain is that among other cultures and religions than our own, evidence of genius is less evident. Perhaps this also suggests that freedom of thought is a vital component in the mix. Joffe is correct to note that genius remains a rarity, because a population group is made of many levels of intellect, drive and work ethics -- and their absences. The world seems poised on a cusp in which we must choose to move forward with such proven genius in evidence and not backward as we see in some areas of the world where museums are being decimated, libraries destroyed and cultures pressured to submit to others by brute force. Therefore freedom remains for me a large portion of that mental process which allows genius to gather and evidence itself in contributions to our world. I note that among the various veiws Joffe summarizes, freedom as an expression and concept seems to play little role. But what are "a “skeptical animus” and a “release from the dead hand of conventional finality” if not evidence also a freedom from prior constructs and conventions? Whatever position one might take as regards genius, it certainly include the breaking away from convention to see that next positive and productive window into the future. I would note also that genius seems far more an individual instance and not something which a constructed collective might birth. Thank you for the article.
Jake40 on October 15, 2012 at 8:07 am (Reply)
Both Article and first comment are besides the great question of genius as an Over Talented Brain? for Mathematics,Music (composing and or playing, all neurological ununderstood phenomenonS) or painting (Cave Humans? 40.000 years ago? hadn't any expensive Julliard School to learn anything like it...)
As Wittgenstein wrote: "about what you ignore eveything, you just have to keep silent"
Spinoza adventure doesn't seem to me an example of tolerance, openness and unconventional genral attitude among Jews and Judaism...Nor Maimonides escape from Languedoc when the conservative Rabbisdenunciated him tio the Catholic Inquisition...was a proof of such Jewish typical behavior...
Genetics aren't yet developped enough to understand how and why, some are exceptionnal mathematicians and others aren't, despite hard working...
BUT, in the case of the Jews, something is sure: the best adapted and smart, usually survived and got through an exceptionnal social pressure, when the weaks converted or died.(A Priest of the Renaissance times complained about the stupidest Jews converting meanwhile the others (smarter)were unreachable competitors...
The focusing on the "cultural investment" in Judaism is a false question as you can ask WHY and WHO INVENTED that attitude FIRST? Making that part of the Jewish Mind?
Big Bang? then where was God before it? No God? = no question but Ignorance we cannot overcome as an individual anyway....?(Even if science should answer it once...)
God, as an Answer? Then the question is just put forward in an eternal serie of questions without any definitive intelligible answer..
Identity questioning is a failure, and has no real answer: It is at work....till death.
A matter of fact, IQ is better, culture also in average (i know Jews who are idiots and know nothing: Schlemiel and Wasse Träger aren't what we had of the best in the Schtettl...
Excuse me for a "gallicismic" English
Michael Santomauro on October 15, 2012 at 8:35 am (Reply)
Western Civilization is a European-white accomplishment and Judaism has always been an appendage. Not the other way around.

We are a better world today because Western Civilization took the road to Athens over the road to Jerusalem.
    Marco44 on October 15, 2012 at 3:27 pm (Reply)
    White ? Did the writer mean 'Caucasian' ? Jews / Israelites are certainly 'whites' ( i.e. Caucasians ) as are Arabs, Persians, Turks and many other Mideast natives. Or was the writer applying some 'Aryan' or neo-Nazi designation of 'white' ?
    Rather than an appendage, Judaism and the Bible are at the CORE of all Western civilization, even after being altered and diluted by contact with the Roman and Greek barbarian empires.
    Due in part to those deviations, 'Western civilization' was responsible for many historic tragedies ( including Roman barbarism, Spanish and Portuguese despoilation and enslavement of colonies in the Americas and Africa, the Nazi genocide, Soviet Communist tyranny and more too numerous to mention.
    Taking the 'Road to Athens' resulted in horrible bloodshed and inhumanity, and was certainly not the best possible choice...
Robert Abrams on October 15, 2012 at 10:13 am (Reply)
I wonder whether the strong representation of Jews in the upper echelons of science and the arts will continue since for all intents and purposes roadblocks towards Jewish success have been removed. There may be some anti-Semitism in academia but from I can tell it is not endemic. If the number of Jews (or those that can trace a direct Jewish lineage) starts to decline, I would think that that would disprove the genetic theory.
    David Z on November 13, 2012 at 7:07 pm (Reply)
    I don't get it. Why would a decline in Jewish population disprove a genetic theory? Religious Jews understand the energy The energy the author speaks of as our spiritual drive to G-d that G-d placed in each of us. When it isn't guided toward G-d for whatever reason, it will still be guided somewhere...
S W on October 15, 2012 at 12:03 pm (Reply)
To correct or challenge some comments and assertions:

1) The expulsion order against Jews in the Languedoc region of France came in 1306, though our Rambam who was born in the area of modern Spain died in North Africa in 1204. The Spanish Inquisition's tribunal was first established in 1480, almost three centuries later. Throughout these centuries one made no distinction about "conservative" rabbis.

2) Wittenstein's quote from 1922 is properly "Was sich überhaupt sagen lässt, lässt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muss man schweigen." What can be said should be said clearly; and when one cannot converse [in this way] one should remain silent." It seems rather apt in the moment.

3) One cannot adequately inquire as to who first "invented" any human attitude. If the individual assering this can point to a sourced, accepted methodology which can, I would stand corrected.

4) Whether one speaks of the big bang or other similar modern propositions to include the contemporary atheist's unsupportable proposition, it remains from the time of Aristotle forward the same "first cause" cosmological argument in varying guises. From the standpoint of brain science and artificial intelligence research all belief propositions are by definition unsupportable by factual knowledge, because belief is belief. It is therefore not open to factual disputation, just as facts need not believed to be factual.

5) The question proposed in this article is not "are there fools in the Jewish demographic" but to explore why seemingly there is a high preponderance of genius among us. There are fools enough in every generalized demographic.

6) Western civilization is not "white" unless one ascribes to rather overt racial theories, which I do not. Judaism in not an "appendage" to Western civilization but an integral part of it. To suggest it is merely an appendage is a slur, inappropriate to this article and site.
    Michael Santomauro on October 15, 2012 at 2:20 pm (Reply)
    Dear SW:

    After your statement numbered 5 you have the audacity to respond the way you did in statement 6 about chutzpah--!!!

    As long as we're playing with racism and stereotypes, where do Jews rank in the greed and power scale? Or the bad landlord scale? Or the cause of social inequality, war and exploitation of lesser people scale?

    The implication here for your readers misunderstanding is that anti-Semitism is the result of Jewish intellect. Historically it has been as a result of resource competition, belief in a moral and intellectual superiority and a fierce policy of non assimilation with the host countries which initially offered you admittance with friendliness. Anti-Semitism is not in any way a mental illness.
      S W on October 16, 2012 at 2:05 am (Reply)
      Jake40 commented "(i know Jews who are idiots and know nothing: Schlemiel and Wasse Träger aren't what we had of the best in the Schtettl..." My response number 5 refers to this. My response number six specifically states "Western civilization is not "white" unless one ascribes to rather overt racial theories, which I do not," whereas your first post specifically identifies European civilization as "white." The notion of racism stems from the article's citation of Murray and from your own words. I make no statement that "anti-Semitism is the result of Jewish intellect." You have written this to interpret my critique of your race-defined proposition, in order to escape your own words. Your interpretation of mine is incorrect, as I wrote clearly. On a site named Jewish Ideas Daily, which upstanding Jewish ideas do you represent in posing questions as you have just written? Bad landlord? Greed? Power? A "cause of social injustice?" As to your phrase "belief in a moral and intellectual superiority," you evidence this for your ardent attack on simple statements in basic grammar. I was not playing with racial stereotypes, but you certainly have. Schande.
    Patrick on October 17, 2012 at 6:38 am (Reply)
    A serious question - when Susan Sontag wrote something like "the white race is a cancer on the face of the earth", adding when it was suggested that she should apologise "that it was an insult to cancer sufferers" was she being a self loathing white person, or a Jew attacking the "other"?
      jacob arnon on October 17, 2012 at 1:07 pm (Reply)
      "when Susan Sontag wrote something like "the white race is a cancer on the face of the earth", adding when it was suggested that she should apologise "that it was an insult to cancer sufferers" was she being a self loathing white person, or a Jew attacking the "other"?"

      It was s stupid remark which like so much of what she wrote wasn't original. She got it from French radicals like Sartre who (was a cousin of Albert Schweitzer, btw) said many dumb things when he attacked European colonialism.

      In any case, the silly comment (which few took seriously) can't be both "self hating" as well as an "attack on the other."

      Sontag was a white women as well as Jewish, but here she spoke as a white women and not as a Jew. She did not utter these dumb words as a Jew. I believe she included herself when she called white race "a cancer."

      Bottom line though is that there is no such thing as a "white race" except in the fevered imagination of Nazis, nor is there a "Black race."

      There are great differences among ehite people even in Europe: Basques, Swedes, peoples in the Balkans, Georgians, Armenians, etc don't constitute a single race.

      Nor do Blacks in Africa, not to mention the Indian subcontinent, Aborigines in Australia, etc. also don't constitute a single race.

      At this late date even Patrick should know better than use Nazi inspired racialist language.
        Patrick on October 18, 2012 at 1:39 am (Reply)
        I am no expert on race, think it is a word that should be deleted because of all the trouble it causes, but have been curious about the Sontag remarks.
        It was actually the Jewish Sontag who used the racist language, not me - but don't let that stop the vilification and guilt by association because I quoted words of a Jew!
        You mentioned Australia - in view of your comments I am sure you will be intrigued by the jailing of a man for three years under "Racial Vilification" laws, for insulting Jews.
          jacob arnon on October 18, 2012 at 11:05 am
          Patrick, you are obsessed with Jews. I don't intend to reply to you anymore.
Jake40 on October 15, 2012 at 1:34 pm (Reply)
Right. Inquisition as such was created later than Rambam death time but the mood in France in late 12th century, when he got through there for a while, wasn't the best a Jew could hope neither; and the hostility of the normal usual rabbis... was a model of our Conservative ones till now...They were, against a mathematician philosopher and rationalist they hatred enough until to initiate a claim against him by making eventually intervene the already almighty Church! Think about the heretics ! A Jew remaining just a Jew couldn't be persecuted by the Inquisition as he wasn't heretic (he could just be robbed and expulsed..!!if not killed and robbed by the usual crazy Mob..) but if he had Philosophical controversial theories about God and so on, or if he had converted and further pracicized judaism, he was then an Heretic and punisqhable by death penalty...Maimonides came before Spinoza... and had to be ten times more prudent...So, like Montaigne, you can read him in a way.. and conclude on the "politically correct reverse sense"...The way to say something and to be free from accusation of atheism or heresia...
jacob arnon on October 15, 2012 at 7:28 pm (Reply)
Children will very often resemble their parents in abilities.

It is well known and superbly argued by Dara Horn in an earlier article
“More Expensive by the Dozen” by Dara Horn that children resemble their parents in the main.

This being the case, if the parents are brilliant and talented their children will also be talented. Not all children of course, nor will the children pursue exactly the same profession or even life style that their parents did. However they will show promise in whatever they choose to do.

The parent may be well to do business people and their children may decide to become revolutionaries, (Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg) nevertheless he or she will be an exceptional revolutionary.

Why is it then that while people of all nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds take pride in their communities accomplishment Jews alone tend to be embarrassed by this fact?

This to me is a sign that Jews even in America far from having overcome centuries of prejudices still act as if those prejudices are still with us. Their behavior than expresses their fear that if they prove superior in some endeavor they will be resented and hated for it.

It may well be that they are right, but if so this is what we should be talking about and not merely the fact of Jewish genius.
Mildred Bilt on October 15, 2012 at 9:15 pm (Reply)
Michael-whew! you really let it all go. This is not a venue for you. May I suggest CNN? You will be joined there with many who will add to your comments and support you in the same vein. Just a note: for some reason I have been very interested in the reception of immigrants to this country once the doors opened in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Your forebears had a terrible time and the discrimination (including race and religion) extended for a number of generations. A lot of the easing was helped considerably by the recognition of remarkable genuises in the arts and sciences that were able to flourish in this country with surnames just like yours. In the old days when we were all poor and lived on the lower East Side of New York we were neighbors helping each other out to survive. Maybe those were really "the good old days".
S W on October 16, 2012 at 1:55 am (Reply)
It seems Jake40 has forgotten his "gallicisme" problem of the first post, and writes English in a very idiomatic modern manner. Our Rambam was not "more prudent" than Spinoza, as a reading of and review of his magnificent Jewish texts shows, while Spinoza's "Ethics" draws from many non-Jewish streams of thought. As to Conservative rabbis and the Conservative movement, this appeared in the mid 1800s in Germany and formed as a movement mostly in the United States and Great Britain after 1900. Your Gallic side should know that the Conservative Judaism has a very small following in France as it does in Germany today.
Jankel on October 16, 2012 at 3:07 am (Reply)
My Gallicism is probably responsible for our misunderstanding: the notion of Liberal and Conservative is not exactly the same in Europe and in the USA...Reformed Judaism neither, all along the 19th and 20th centuries...
In the reigious themes these words don't fit in reality all along the History we are considering right now...
I supposed since the late 50ies when I was taught about Rambam, that this guy was a bit too rationalist to be a true believer and a truth believer...But who could say at these times, that he was an Atheist and that this way of thinking was more "Monotheistic Jewish" tazn any one else....?
When Rambam wrote about Faith he didn't it like he was writing about Mathematics and Logic...
We can talk about facts not about faith. But the idolatry way isn't only the way of non believers : right now, orthodoxy, by its dogmatic ways seems the less Jewish one can imagine...That paradox is the most amazing one in our modern world...
Jews in France were either (Very) Orthodox or were mostly Atheistic-Marxist, so German Conservative style hadn't any future before WW II...
We cannot talk limitless online (too much work!) and I stop it here now.
Warmest regards
D C on October 16, 2012 at 11:21 am (Reply)
Hans Bethe was my physics professor freshman year at Cornell in 1966-7. I struggled mightily to get a C first semester and a B second, because his course was several weeks ahead of the calculus course we needed in order to do the problems. He showed us that math and physics were beautiful.
As I remember it he quite openly identified as Jewish.
None of the people commenting mention the factors that I think explain Jewish genius: parents who encourage their kids to do well in schools, early instruction in a second language with six days of school rather than 5 for the purpose, music lessons, parental models of serious reading...
One would have to do a study controlling for those variables to discover whether there is a difference to explain.
I wonder whether Bethe learned Hebrew? Must read this biography.
Anna on October 17, 2012 at 5:15 am (Reply)
S W said "As to Conservative rabbis and the Conservative movement, this appeared in the mid 1800s in Germany and formed as a movement mostly in the United States and Great Britain after 1900. Your Gallic side should know that the Conservative Judaism has a very small following in France as it does in Germany today."

I think a little more care needs to be taken here. There is no "Conservative" movement in the UK. There is a movement called "Masorti" inspired by the approach of the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs, but he always considered himself to be "Orthodox." As a movement they have only developed after his death in 2006. The "Liberale" communities of Germany and their equivalent in France and Holland are not as Americans often think, the equivalent of liberal that is to say "Reform" communities. In style they are closer although not identical to conservative judaism even though they tend to affiliate to the "World Union for Progressive Judaism." There is often a presumption about the style of worship and outlook judged by the label that a community may use based on experiences and expectations elsewhere that are not applicable or accurate in reality.
S W on October 17, 2012 at 12:14 pm (Reply)
Dear Anna, thank you for your clarifications. Generally they are correct, but I have davened with two congregations in the UK, and one of the rabbis specifically referred to his congregation "much as the Americans think of the Conservative movement" as well as the UK moniker adopted since the late 50s. One style of worship and specifically some of the nusach were happy surprises, as were mine to them. Women were seated with the men in one, and not in another. To both I had brought different tropes from different traditions, of which there are many. As to German congregations, I am also aware because I live in Germany and have davened at some smaller shuls here, as a sidelight to my work. Because of my travels, I make little presumption as to local habits and styles of worship, for they are many from place to place. That is a part of the wide and wonderful experience of it all. As to Rabbi Jacobs, whether he saw himself as orthodox with a lower case "o" or with an upper case "O," the Orthodox community of the UK did not. This is one reason why monikers like (L)liberal, (C)conservative and (O)orthodox as well as the Reform in the United States can be inexact and not applicable from nation to nation. My earlier point was to speak to another about the use of the adjective, conservative, as related to the 13th century. Our terminology does indeed fail us from time to time.
eliezer moshech bagezer on October 20, 2012 at 12:06 am (Reply)
Dear Community, It would need to be acknowledged that the Jewish minority within their
hosting countryman have had an acrimonious relationship for many centuries, which was cultivated mainly by the church. But the two entities have had to interact in spite of the hate machine churning limitless antisemitism. This interaction intensified once Jews were allowed to roam the big cities freely. This new-found freedom has created a hybrid of intellect that benefited their country and beyond.
It's this symbiotic relationship that fermented this Jewish and non-Jewish geniuses.
There is no magic to any of this and it would take much more than a marginalized
minority to produce geniuses. An open, curious,imaginative and tolerant society are the basic ingredients for a healthy ingenious society...

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