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.


Changing Planet

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