Immigration and Science

I just found the following short note in my drafts folder, dated 2021-11-22. I think I probably started thinking about this during the whole craziness with the Trump administration’s immigration rhetoric. It was more relevant back then, but I think it’s still worth posting now.

There’s an anecdote that’s sometimes told of David Hilbert, the famous nineteenth-century mathematician. Hilbert taught at the University of Göttingen in Germany. You may not have heard of Göttingen, but in its heyday it was perhaps the best place in the world to study mathematics and physics. On the mathematical side, the university was graced with the likes of Riemann, Dirichlet, von Neumann, and Gauss himself. The physics side is equally impressive—Planck and Heisenberg don’t even make the picture gallery on the Wikipedia page.

Yet nowadays, it is a little-known university, at least in America. What happened? Well, in the 1930s in Germany, the Nazi party came to power. One of the things they did was to expel all Jews from the university; the only Jewish professor who was allowed to stay was Edmund Landau,1 only because of his service during the First World War. This, along with the general difficulties of doing mathematics under the Nazi regime, led to a precipitous decline at the university. A visiting Nazi party official is said to have asked Hilbert: “How is the mathematics at Göttingen, now that it has been freed of the Jewish influence?” Hilbert simply replied: “There is no more mathematics at Göttingen.”

In fact, the United States benefited very greatly from this exodus of brilliant scientists from Germany (and the surrounding countries) in the 1930s. None less than Einstein himself fled to America at this time. Many of those who didn’t voluntarily leave Germany, like von Braun, were poached by the US after the war to work on the space program in Operation Paperclip. When scientists were fleeing other countries, we welcomed them with open arms, and we certainly reaped the benefits.

To be clear, I am not saying that what is currently going on in America is nearly so bad as what was going on in Germany in the 1930s. The point of the story is this: policy decisions can have real impacts on science, for better or for worse. The United States has enjoyed decades of unrivalled scientific dominance; let’s not throw it away with political choices.

  1. Incidentally, Landau gave us big-O notation. He’s also not to be confused with notable Russian physicist Lev Landau.↩︎