Changing Planet


This story represents the intersection in the lives of two of my lifelong heroes. First there is Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist since Isaac Newton, and Time Magazine’s choice for “The Individual of the 20th Century.” As a professor of physics for four decades I have been intimately involved with almost every component of his work — the photoelectric effect, the special and general theories of relativity, his contributions to statistical mechanics, and much more. And I have had several stints at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, walking the hallways that Einstein traipsed the last third of his life. My first stint came during the summer of 1974, 19 years after he passed away. But then I’ve known three individuals well, who knew Einstein well. I’ve already written a pair of blogs about Einstein for the National Geographic News Watch series, and in the future will write another two or three more.

Eugene Wigner (1902-1995) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Professor Wigner, the 1963 Nobel Laureate in Physics, was one of Princeton University’s many Nobel Prize Winners. He had first met Einstein while attending physics seminars as a graduate student in Berlin in the early 1920s, and always regarded himself as one of Einstein’s “younger friends.” I was always flattered when Wigner referred to me as one of his “younger friends.” Ink sketch by the author.

Then there is Kemal Atatürk, military hero of the Gallipoli Campaign of WWI, who went on to establish the Republic of Turkey. His creation replaced a lethargic and largely illiterate Ottoman Empire, a Caliphate at the brink of disintegration, with a Western-leaning, progressive secular nation. He was driven by a dictum of “… science and reason over superstition and dogma, and diligence and merit over ethnicity and religion.” In 2002, when Arnold Ludwig, a professor of psychiatry, released his book, King of the Mountain, examining the nature of political leadership, he compared and ranked all known national leaders of the 20th century. The ranking is based on the Political Greatness Scale, PGS, that Dr. Ludwig had formulated by distilling the attributes of individuals whose names have come down through the ages as synonymous with leadership — Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Washington… Among the criteria are attributes such as military prowess; the nature, number and lasting power of the reforms; the length of tenure; the size of the population…. (Moreover, since one nation’s hero is frequently another nation’s scourge, Ludwig, made every attempt to filter out “the evil factor.”) On the PGS a perfect score is 37 points, but not one — including those leaders that define the standards — could possibly have scored a perfect 37.  FDR and Mao Zedong, both immensely effective in changing the fabric of their nations, are tied for 2nd place among the 2000+ leaders, each with a score of 30 points. Stalin and Lenin fall immediately behind them with 29 and 28 points, respectively. Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan also rank exceptionally high, with scores of 24, 23 and 22 points, respectively, all in the top 0.1%.

Finally, according to King of the Mountain, Atatürk, following his military victories against all odds, launched an extraordinary range of reforms. These reforms — social, legal, economic and educational in nature —  completely transformed his nation. His tally, a stratospheric score of 31 points, is the single highest score among all the leaders of Ludwig’s “baker’s century,” spanning 101 years. In short, Atatürk stands alone at the summit of Ludwig’s Mountain. Sadly, eight decades after the founding of his secular Republic, the political party AKP took over in 2002 and launched a program of counter revolution, systematically reversing Atatürk’s reforms. What the future holds is uncertain, but describing itself as “a Moderate Islamic Government,” it may well be emulating Iran, or trying to revive the old Ottoman Empire.

I was born in Ankara, Turkey, in a home where portraits of Ataturk hung prominently on walls, and books about Ataturk lined bookshelves. My father, a retired military officer and diplomat, harbored an almost idolatrous admiration and affection for “Great Atatürk”. Aside from his stature as an iconic national hero, Atatürk had lent a small but critical hand in the marriage of my parents. In April and May of 2011 I wrote a pair of blogs on ANZAC Day, in which Ataturk figured prominently.

Against this backdrop, it was just 2-3 years ago that I learned about a letter that Albert Einstein had written in 1933 to Kemal Ataturk.


Bulent Atalay, a scientist, artist and author, has been described by NPR, PBS and the Washington Post as a “Modern Renaissance Man.” He is the author of two successful books on the intersection of art, science and mathematics, with Leonardo, the pre-eminent Renaissance man, serving as the foil. His best selling book, "Math and the Mona Lisa," (Smithsonian Books, 2004) has appeared in 13 languages. Professor Atalay's academic background is in theoretical physics. He travels around the world lecturing at academic institutions and on cruise ships on the "A-subjects," art, archaeology, astrophysics, atomic physics and Ataturk, confessing that he knows much less about the "B-subjects," business, banking, biology and botany... He is the President of the Ataturk Society of America (ASA), dedicated to promoting Ataturk's ideals of science and reason over dogma and superstition, of a secular state with full equality of genders. For more details click on Bulent Atalay
  • David de Hilster

    Einstein is wrong and there is a growing group of professors, scientists, teachers, and layman who are showing this and who are truly advancing science. See and

  • documama

    I can’t wait to read the letter! You will share it won’t you!?

  • Jack Calvert

    Fascinating article! Am a great admirer of Ataturk. Looking forward to hearing more about the letter…

  • Betula Nelson

    Great article. It looks like we have to keep reminding people what an amazing man Ataturk was. There are many so called neo -liberal commentators who write untruths and fabrications and openly attack Ataturk in Turkey today. It is a shame that this has now spilled over to the UK and we can but only object to the speeches of people like Amberin Zaman and Hilal Kaplan. It was also very sad to hear that Prof. S Hanioglu could not appreciate Ataturk’s importance for Turkey and the Republic and was critical of his National Independence struggle.



    • 1974-1982 yillari arasinda Einstein’in eski sekreteri, Helen Dukas, evimize sik sik gelirdi. O da mesur patronu’nun Ataturk’e hayran oldugundan bahsetmisti.

      • Ozur dilerim, Sadik bey, sizin Helen Dukas hakkinda yazdiginiz notu simdi goruyorum. Benim cevabim uc yildan fazla gecikmis. Helen Dukas bana da mesur patronun Ataturk’un hayrani oldugunu soylerdi. I see your letter in English below. I’ll continue in English. I am currently working on a new book on the rarified class of “transformative geniuses.” These are Leonardo, Shakespeare, Newton, Beethoven, and Einstein. Of course, no national leader is in this class, but I mention Arnold Ludwig’s book, “The King of the Mountain.” Out of 1341 leaders between 1900-2000, Ludwig actually rates Ataturk as #1, edging out Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Mao Zedong, tied for #2. In discussing Einstein, I mention Helen Dukas’s story of Einstein and Ataturk. Regards, Bulent

    • Globe_Globus

      Ne sandin gerzek? Senin fetullahina hayran olacak degildi ya? Sen git fetonun burnunu sildigi mendili kapma yarisina gir ondan anlarsin

    • Globe_Globus
  • Garen K

    Ataturk did great many things for Turkey. Turks are called Turks because of Ataturk! Ataturk was also a Freemason and there are many scorces that state that he was Jewish. In addition; he was responsible for crimes on humanity by exterminating the Armenian people which started on April 24, 1915.

    • Globe_Globus

      What do you drink or eat? Are you enemy of Jewis? Atatürk was not a Jewis or Freemason But Sure you are the dog of Fetullah Gülen with the english nickname.. You hate makes Atatürk BIGGER..

  • Regarding the note from Garen K. I am approving for publication the note you’ve written, but I disagree completely with your narration of facts in this case. In 1915 there was a forced march of Armenians, and in the dead of winter many people perished. It was the relocation of people much as the United States had done with the Cherokees from North Carolina and other states to Oklahoma (see “Trail of Tears”). However, this was performed by the Ottoman Army, and I have no doubt there were individual atrocities along the way. As for Ataturk, he spent 1915 fighting against the invading ANZAC Troops. The date you give April 24, 1915 is just a day before ANZAC Day commemorated in Australia and New Zealand, as the date of the troops’ landing, and where Ataturk and his unit were defending the peninsula. I’ve also heard claims of Ataturk being a Freemason, or of being an Jewish. There does not seem to be any evidence, but neither claim would be discredit him.

  • Fatma Nur Çalışıcı

    As a young Turkish woman who has been battling ignorance in many phases of my life, I would like to present my sincerest gratitude for your effort of enlightening others who are stuck with stereotypes and taking from your time to write these two articles. I am sure it will be of great help for those that are raised with hatred and enemiousity. It couldn’t have been explained and described with better words. Thank you..

  • Elizabeth A.Kolat

    I would like to share a vey short story with Garen.My great grandfather killed by Armenians.In our village in 1915 villagers hear that horsmen of the Armenians getting closer our village.Everyone escape to mountines to hide.My great grandfather sands his family with all other villagers and himself check out the animals and than the houses to make sure no one left behind.But when he comeout

  • Elizabeth A.Kolat

    My great grand father killed by Armenian horsemen in 1915 in Erzurum,Turkey.They put him on the a flat marble stone which stil there in my village front of the house as a bitter memorial artifact from the past.As an Alevi my family never fed us with hatret or they never tought us to hate Armenians.Ottoman killed Alevis every century even 1970’s,80’s,90′.Bu Ataturk never. responsible from genocide never.

  • Kerem Zorlu

    As I read the article and the comments once again I felt pround to be a follower of Ataturk. Despite all the efforts of the currently ruling party AKP Turkish republic will surrive. WE WILL SURVIVE

  • Selin V. Sogutlugil Tutuncu

    Sayin Atalay,
    Onderimiz M.Kemal Ataturk’e ait bu hikayeyi sizden ogrenmis olmak hepimizi heyecanlandirdi…Bu mektubu sabirsizlikla bekliyoruz…Tarih, tecrubelerin bir urunudur, ve Atamizin ulkemiz ve bizler icin essiz bir gayretle olusturdugu maddi ve manevi eserler ,tarihe altin harflerle yazilarak bir Ulusun yeniden piril piril dogusunu hazirlamistir…
    Bu liderlik vasiflari , bu olaganustu karma;Tarih’e o yillarda atilan bu muhtesem imzanin ardinda sakli, sanki bin yillik bir tecrubeyi isaret etmektedir…
    Einstein in bu isigi kolayca yakalayip ,Ataturke gelistirdigi hayranligini hakli buluyorum…
    Amcasinin(Kirmizi Hafiz- Vusat Erbatur) torunu olarak tasidigim onurun hissiyati icinde , bizleri aydinlatmis oldugunuz bu guzel bilgiden oturu size tesekkur ediyorum…
    Selin Vusat S.Tutuncu

  • Burak Nizamoğlu

    Ataturk is son of highly conservative muslim parents and he is not freemason nor jewish. As it mentioned above, there is not such evidence. Also, he is the leader who said “peace in the country, peace in the world”. All nations in peninsula started to live in peace and harmony during his duty. Regards

  • Aziz Muhtaroglu

    It is so funny to read people’s comment that actually has no idea what they comment about. Garden K. Türk’e are not named or called Turks because of Atatürk. History of Turks is much older than him. There are Turkish nations lived 1500 years ago in Asia. We called him Atatürk because we wanted to remember him as a true leader as always. As it was written in the article he is the leader of leaders.
    Before commenting about him for genocide, remember what Americans did to native Americans.

  • Refik Kanjhan

    Only the greatest leaders in their fields, like Mustafa Kemal and Einstein, survive the extremely tough tests of time (future).

  • Solmaz

    Dear Mr. Atalay,

    It is a pleasure to read such informations in a international area. I owe you gratitude. Besides, there isn’t any information about this relationship in Turkish history courses. I think that If this kind of informations is given by lecturers especially at high school history lessons, perspective and interest of students are going to increase, surely. The depths of history is always interesting. Regards…

  • Ahmet Tepiroğlu

    I am thankful for all who contributed to this historical information that has been made available to interested people.
    I think, historical realities are not for admiration and show respect only but,first of all, to be learnt and to try to reach and understand reasons that create these realities.
    Both Einstein and Atatürk were extremely hardworking persons highly aware of their responsibilities.

  • mike

    Ataturk is a great man no doubt, like Mozart, or Da Vinci.
    Not sure about Einstein. Some people say all his works are stolen from others. Historians should check those claims.

  • Mustafa Kemal Öztürk

    Bülent Bey,
    Yazınızı geçikerek okudum. Umarım, devamınıda okuruz. Teşekkür ederiz. Saygılar.

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