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Freedom and Scientific Progress – A Necessary Relationship

Sarah Chaffee

In a post on NPR’s “Cosmos and Culture” blog, astrophysicist Adam Frank writes about the impact on U.S. science of Jewish scientist refugees. Their contributions fueled major innovations. Frank pegs his article, “American Science and the Nazis,” to the recent incident in Charlottesville.

He writes, “As the tide of fascism swept across the [European] continent, scientists — no matter how famous — were targets of terror and hatred. The principal victims were, of course, Jewish researchers who were summarily dismissed from positions and attacked.”

While Jewish scientists were targeted, Germany’s scientific establishment went full steam ahead with plans for implementing ideas in what was then “consensus” science. As Discovery Institute Fellows have demonstrated, Nazi researchers and bureaucrats eagerly pursued some of this prevailing science, which was really pseudoscience, of the day – eugenics and euthanasia directed at unwanted “defective” human beings, a project tracing back to ideas advanced by Charles Darwin and Francis Galton. The techniques honed for these purposes would later be brought to bear on the most massive scale in the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, America and England welcomed the refugees with open arms. Frank refers to an article, “Scientific Exodus,” on the Atomic Heritage Foundation website. The page notes:


The first wave of refugees came in 1933, when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany.  Many physicists of Jewish descent fled to England to escape racial laws. These included Leo Szilard, who first devised the idea of a nuclear chain reaction; Otto Frisch, who helped explain the physics of nuclear fission; Rudolf Peierls, who worked with Frisch on the detonation mechanism of the bomb; and Hans Bethe, who calculated the critical mass needed for a nuclear chain reaction. Klaus Fuchs, a leftist physicist who later passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, also fled to England in 1933 after a violent encounter with the Nazis.

Albert Einstein had left Germany for the United States a year earlier, in anticipation of Hitler’s election. Although Einstein did not contribute directly to the bomb effort, his letter to President Roosevelt about the threat of a German atomic bomb helped jump-start the Manhattan Project.


Axis expansion brought a second wave of immigrants to the Allies and ultimately to the Manhattan Project. Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws, passed in 1938, drove the physicists Emilio Segre (a Jew) and Enrico Fermi (whose wife Laura was Jewish) to America. At the Chicago Met Lab, Fermi’s nuclear pile produced the world’s first man-made nuclear chain reaction. Bohr fled his native land in 1943, mere days before he was to be arrested by the Nazis, and served as a consultant on the Manhattan Project.

A familiar talking point holds that a rigid attitude to science along Darwinist lines is indispensable to technological advance, while academic freedom impedes it. As we noted here just the other day, with reference to science education in Louisiana, the opposite may be true.

Indeed, a researcher at Stanford has found that following Jewish scientists’ arrival in America, U.S. patents increased 31 percent in their fields. The Atomic Heritage Foundation notes, “Many think that Hitler sowed the seeds of Germany’s defeat when he introduced the laws barring Jewish individuals from [Gottingen] university teaching posts.”

The past and the present teach the same lesson. The real progress of science goes hand in hand not with fealty to the “survival of the fittest,” but with a recognition of the importance of freedom.

Photo: Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls (center) with William Penney and John Cockcroft, by Los Alamos National Laboratory [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.