- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

The cover of Hitler's Gift: The True Story of the Scientists Expelled by the Nazi Regime (Arcade, $25.95, 288 pages, illus.), taken from one of the book's 24 illustrations, is a photograph of the participants in the 1927 Solvay Conference in Brussels, one of a series of conclaves that brought together leading physicists of the stature of Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger. After Adolf Hitler's accession to power so many of these men were driven out of Germany and, later, continental Europe altogether, that the center of gravity of world science moved across the Atlantic.
Jean Medawar and David Pyke tell the stories of many of these refugee scientists, both the superstars in the photograph and many of their younger colleagues who went on the become distinguished scientists in their adopted countries. Twenty-seven of them either had already won Nobel prizes or went on to win them.The refugees were key figures in the World War II Manhattan Project, both in inspiring it and carrying it out, and were instrumental in building the postwar scientific infrastruture in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Jean Medawar is the widow of Sir Peter Medawar, who won the 1960 Nobel Prize for Medicine, and David Pyke is the son of Geoffery Pyke, one of Winston Churchill's favorite scientific advisers.Their entree into the British scientific establishment has given them access to many colorful stories. For example, one notable ingrate was the non-Jewish Erwin Schrodinger, an anti-Nazi who voluntarily left his prestigious position in Berlin to go to Oxford shortly after Hitler's election. The university had even hired his assistant, requested by Schrodinger so he could continue his affair with the assistant's wife, but he grew increasingly dissatisfied for various reasons and moved back to his native Austria, where he wrote a fawning letter to Hitler expressing his joy after Germany absorbed Austria.
Shortly thereafter, Schrodinger was fired by the Nazis for "political unreliability." His British colleagues, despite their distaste for his character and conduct, were instrumental in finding him a new refuge in Dublin.
By contrast, the overwhelming majority of the exiles were thankful to their new homelands. Many found that the change of atmosphere from the hidebound regimentation of the German universities to the more open and innovative spirit in England and America enabled them to flourish intellectualy and achieve results they could have never dreamnt of in Germany.Their overwhelming gratitude is expressed in an introduction by Max Perutz, writing from Cambridge, who notes, in his adopted nation's tradition of understatement, that "… scientists, musicians, artists, and academics of all kinds found Britian a good country to live and work in." The initials following Mr. Perutz's name (indicating award of the Order of Merit and being a Fellow of the Royal Society) testify to his acceptance by the British establishment, as do the knighthoods awarded to the former refugees.
For American readers, the British emphasis may provide a new perspective. The author points out, for example, that in 1939, while Britian took in 10,000 child refugees, a bill to admit 20,000 children to the United States failed to make it to the floor of Congress. By contrast, the willingness of the academic community to take in refugee colleagues was a bright spot in the overwhelming picture of apathy in the face of the tragedy of the European Jews. The Jewish scientists were highly assimilated, and they fitted easily into the scientific community. The authors do not reflect on the fate of 6 million murdered Jews who did not possess those qualifications.

The international nature of science — or, in this case, mathematical statistics — is a major theme of David Salsburg's The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century ( W.H. Freeman, $ 23.95, 320 pages). Mr. Salsburg's book combines a host of fascinating stories of 20th-century statisticians with an account of the contributions they made to the advance of the subject. One story, alluded to in the book's title, concerns a tea party in Cambridge in 1926, when the eponymous lady asserted that tea tasted differently depending on wheather the milk was poured before or after the tea. Also at the party was the statistician R.A. Fisher, who later discussed how to test this claim rigorously in his classic book on the experimental design.
Fisher, a mathematical genius whose brilliant career was somewhat smudged by an enthusiasm for eugenics during the prime of his life and a vigorous refusal to accept the idea that smoking is a cause of lung cancer in his twilight years, held a chair at University College, London. One of his colleagues there was Karl Pearson, 33 years his senior, who controlled the leading statistical journal Biometrik and refused to publish Fisher's sophisticated mathematical papers there.The two men communicated via an intermediary, William Sealy Gossett, another statistical thinker, whose seminal works were published under the nom de plume "Student," because the Guinness brewing company, where he worked as a senior manager, did not want its employees to moonlight.
When University College recognized and sent the septuagenarian Pearson to an out-of-the-way office, he was left with one assistant, a lively young graduate student, F.N. David (the initials stand for Florence Nightingale). Mr. Salsburg quotes her recollection many years later of how Pearson, leaving the office at 6 p.m, asked her to perform a complicated caculation for use the next day. "I hadn't the nerve to tell him that I was going off with a boyfriend to the Chelsea Arts Ball … I came home at four to five in the morning, had a bath, went to the University, and then had it ready when he came in at nine. One's silly when one's young."
Fisher also had strained relations with Pearson's less aggressive son Egon and the latter's collaborator Jerzy Neyman, the brilliant Polish-born statistician. Neyman encouraged F.N. David to submit some of her papers as a Ph.D. dissertation, and she eventually succeeded him as chair of the statistics department of the University of Calafornia, Berkeley.
Mr. Salsburg has an encyclopedic command of the anecdotes about statisticians, which he weaves into his discussion of their work. Without using any mathematical notation, he describes the changing concepts they introduced as statistics became an ever more abstract and mathematically rigorous subject, and how statistical thinking became ominpresent in every field of science and engineering. He concludes by discussing some fundamental philosophical problems that continue to dog the concept of probability, and notes how the omnipresence of statistical terms in the media and in popular discourse masks the fact that many who use them do not really understand what they are talking about.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.


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