Prof. Behram Kursunoglu
One of the walls of my office is graced with the pictures of Atatürk, Beethoven, and Einstein placed side by side. Occasionally visitors, when they enter, inquire about this triad of immortality in statesmanship, in classical music, and in physics. The fundamental premise for this inspiring portrait was based on the common qualities of the three giants of all time who have either changed the world or made profound impacts on the lives of people everywhere and on science. It was Beethoven who composed the Emperor Concerto which of course transcends politics and science. However, there is also the physics of music where sound waves with a certain spectrum of frequencies and amplitudes, when superposed together constitute information to be processed by the brain and then perceived as music. There would, of course, be no music if the brain was to process only the frequencies of sound separately. Beethoven did not know physics, but he composed, for example, the opera Fidelio. It must, of course, be realized that one could also mention the politics of music when one hears the national anthem or a martial music. Einstein disliked military solutions for national and international disputes and was quite emotional for choosing peaceful solutions of problems between nations.
It was Einstein who changed the world and physics with his theory of relativity and his famous E = mC2 equation, while Atatürk as a super statesman transformed Turkey, at the time described as the “sick man of Europe”, into a dynamic society commensurable with contemporary progressive countries’ standards of a democratic and secular system of government. Atatürk laid the foun-dations of a democratic system which would include multi-party structure after the consolidation of the revolution so that the country is not taken over by the old establishment. His laicism has, in its contents and applications, far exceeded the secularism of the member nations of today’s European union which, ab initio, do not admit Turkey to their economic and political orga-nization. The pre-medieval era of the cru-sader’s spirit is still well-placed not to include a secular country with Islamic religion like Turkey in a Christian club. Atatürk’s political doctrine states that “sovereignty belongs, uncon-ditionally, to the people of a nation” which was further enhanced by his profound desire for “peace at home, peace in the World.” He removed women’s veils and men’s fezzes and declared total suffrage to include women of Turkey to vote and to be equal to men in every way including employment by all organizations, be it social, economic, or political positions. He further decreed to change from an Arabic to a Latin alphabet to use a different parity of writing (i.e., from left to right rather than from right to left). Atatürk, as a man of great vision, initiated a new system of education throughout the country, brought in Western art and music, opened conser-vatories for state opera and theater. He declared a national mobilization on modern education in all fields of human endeavor. He was not a scientist, but he told his nation, “Real enlightenment can only come from science and learning.” He dedicated the destiny and the future of the republic when he said, “Turkish youth, your primary duty is ever to preserve and defend the national independence of the Turkish Republic. That is the only basis of your existence and your future.”
Atatürk was, inter alia, a great soldier. For example, a page from history reads as follows: Winston Churchill, as the First Lord of the British Admiralty, was the principal architect who proposed and organized a joint attack by military and naval forces on Gallipoli and Dardanelles. The 1915 combatants included (besides the British) the French, Indians, Australians, and New Zealanders. Churchill had often argued that the best means of defense was offense. His Dardanelles proposal was given greater urgency by a message received from the Grand Duke Nicholas, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces, appealing for a demonstration against Turkey to relieve the pressure of the Turkish army in Caucasus. The Turks fought with great heroism to defend not only the Gallipoli and Dardanelles but Istanbul itself, then the capital city of the Ottoman Empire. The Commander-in-Chief of the Turkish Forces Mustafa Kemal Pasa (later renamed as Atatürk) gave to his soldiers the order, “I am not asking you just to attack but I am asking you to die.” The entire 1915 Churchill’s Dadanelles project failed miserably. The more than five hundred thousand allied naval and land forces were decisively defeated. Most of the areas in Dardanelles and Gallipoli were converted to cemeteries for the fallen tens of thousands of soldiers of mostly Australians followed by the Indians, French, and British. There were also many thousands of fallen Turkish soldiers. Many of the Allied ships were sunk and the remaining Allied forces were withdrawn expediently. Churchill lost the war in Dardanelles and resigned his post at the Admiralty. The Turkish victory in Gallipoli was not enough, as just one battle, to win the war.
When my train entered Syria from Southern Turkey on May 4, 1945, just four days before the end of the Second World War in Europe, on my way to England for study abroad, I felt a transition from 20th century of Atatürk’s Turkey to a distant past in history. This was my feeling about the Syrian city of Halab where people were wearing fez and here was an air of backwardness in the city environment. It was then that a young Turk witnessed the vindication of the great Atatürk Revolution in Turkey. I often wondered what would have been my future if I were born in a country without Atatürk. Surely, I would not have been on my way to England for higher education in the field of Physics. In the same way I say, “What would the world be like without Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or Einstein’s Relativity Theory of Gravitation?” I am of course, cognizant of the fact that the 9th Symphony has only been composed by Beethoven, but it was quite possible that general relativity may have been discovered much later by another physicist. But the fundamental fact remains –neither was the Symphony composed by several composers nor was the relativity theory discovered by several physicists. They were the creations of individuals just as Atatürk’s Revolution was the result of his statesmanship, genius, devotion, and dedication to his country, which will be propagated from generation to generation to span all of time and it will continue to impact other countries who aspire to reach economic and political standards of contemporary civilization.
I had no opportunity or was too young to have met Atatürk. While Beethoven’s music enriched my soul, I was very lucky to have met Einstein in his home in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1953. After a few hours of conversation, on his and my versions of the unified field theories, the subject was changed and he asked me about my plans when I returned to Turkey in 1955. I explained that after doing my military service, which is obligatory for all male Turks, Atatürk’s Turkey would afford me a fertile environment for continuing my research efforts in one of the universities and looking for oppor-tunities to travel to international meetings on subjects of interest to my field. Einstein agreed. It was nearly six o’clock in the evening and Einstein wanted to listen to the United Nations’ discussions of the new State of Israel, even though he refused the offer from Israel to serve as its President.
I bade good-bye and left Princeton for Cornell University where I was a research associate. Terminal aspects of these conversations with Einstein will appear in my book “THE ASCENT OF GRAVITY: Einstein’s Triumph, Paradigms, and Contemporary Physicists,” which will be published in 1997.
I have tried to convert, to some extent, my own thoughts on how to portray the impact of one great individual on one’s life as compared to the impacts of two others, even though they share immortality only as their common sublime quality.