Born: October 18, 1916
Died: October 9, 2001
Károly Simonyi was a Hungarian professor of electrical engineering and physics known for his writings, which bridged the humanities and science.
Simonyi was born in 1916 in a small village in western Hungary to a large farming family. A local priest recognized his talent and introduced him to a distant relative who agreed to sponsor Simonyi’s education. Although his teachers expected him to become a mathematician, Simonyi was drawn to the study of history, literature, and languages. He qualified in law and the political sciences in addition to gaining a scientific education.
In 1940, Simonyi obtained an engineering diploma from the Technical University of Budapest and a law degree from the University of Pecs. He became assistant professor of the newly-created Department of Atomic Physics at the Technical University of Budapest. During the war, he research quantum mechanics, atomic physics, and electromagnetics at the Tungsram Laboratory. After being called into service, he was captured and spent the rest of the war in Russian and Polish prisoner of war camps.
Following the war, he returned to Tungsram, where he did fundamental research on the first radar-astronomy Moon Echo Detection experiment. In 1948, he became professor of electrical engineering at the University of Sopron. There, he built a nuclear particle accelerator. He returned to Budapest in 1952 to assume a new chair in physics at the Technical University. He became a founder of the National Research Institute for Physics and led experiments in nuclear physics, including supervising the first team to study a “star-like fusion reactor.”
As revolution swept Hungary in 1956, Simonyi was thrust into the leadership of the Revolutionary Council of the National Research Institute for Physics. He hoped to protect the Institute from extremists on either side of the revolutionary divide. Once the Soviet Army crushed the rebellion, Simonyi lost his position at the Institute and many of his writings were suppressed, and he was pushed out of his chair at the Technical University. Nevertheless, his students pressed him to continue teaching and publishing, and hosted him as he gave lectures at their dormitories.
By the 1970s, Simonyi had begun to develop an interdisciplinary and historical approach to understanding modern physics. He published The Cultural History of Physics in 1976. His belief was that “we are part of a material and intellectual world, and our environment includes the exploding of stars of distant galaxies, as much as the Odyssey of Homer.”