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Chapter 1: Wartime Laboratory

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Who can enter a revolving door behind you and exit it before you? A Hungarian!

This complimentary joke referred to the band of scientifically gifted Hungarians who came to America during the Great Depression of the 1930s looking for freedom and opportunity. Among them, Edward Teller is best known as the "father of the hydrogen bomb" and an advocate of the "Star Wars" defense strategy. Leo Szilard, remembered for his whimsical ingenuity, envisioned the nuclear chain reaction and conceived a cyclotron; he also held a joint patent with Albert Einstein for a refrigerator cooled by liquid metal. John von Neumann's mathematical wizardry aided the development of mathematical theory and early computers. Least known of the group was Eugene Wigner, a chemical engineer and physicist who was an instrumental figure in the Manhattan Project and in the Laboratory's formative years.

All four scientists were from Budapest. In fact, von Neumann and Wigner attended the same high school and were inspired by the same teacher, Laszlo Ratz, who opened the doors to science and mathematics for them. For the brilliant von Neumann, Ratz created a special class of one, possibly explaining why von Neumann, as an adult, seemed aloof. Wigner remained with the other students, but when Ratz asked the class questions, he often told Wigner to be quiet to give the others a chance to respond. Wigner was quiet by nature—shy and so slight that his classmates dubbed him "Little Gene." Impeccably dressed, usually in gray, he blended unnoticed into crowds.

Wigner came to America with his friend von Neumann in 1930. He played a pivotal role in the development of the atomic bomb and in the design of nuclear reactors that produced weapon materials and electrical power. After World War II, he became the Laboratory's research director. His career took him back and forth from what he described as "monastic" university life at Princeton University to the turmoil of industrial-strength science, including many visits and three lengthy stays at the Laboratory. He was in Oak Ridge in 1963 when news came that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics.

Like Wigner's Hungarian school-mates, his friends at Oak Ridge learned to admire his steadfast passion for perfection in both science and his personal life. Although unassuming, Wigner's Hungarian accent, singular style, and unmatched scientific ability made him a rare personality. To Wigner, a piece of work was "amusing" if right and symmetrical but "interesting" if disorderly and wrong. People at Oak Ridge, as elsewhere, found it impossible to enter a doorway after him, because he always opened doors for them, holding the portal ajar for others to emerge triumphant. Widely admired and loved, Wigner was a scientific genius of rare human kindness.

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