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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.



  1. Solmaz
    November 17, 2016, 5:30 pm

    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…

  2. Refik Kanjhan
    Brisbane, Australia
    December 22, 2015, 7:04 am

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

  3. Aziz Muhtaroglu
    October 22, 2015, 1:44 am

    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.

  4. Burak Nizamoğlu
    March 8, 2014, 11:38 am

    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

  5. Selin V. Sogutlugil Tutuncu
    London/ UK
    March 7, 2014, 6:34 pm

    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

  6. Kerem Zorlu
    Istanbul Turkey
    March 7, 2014, 2:38 pm

    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

  7. Elizabeth A.Kolat
    March 6, 2014, 8:30 pm

    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.

  8. Elizabeth A.Kolat
    March 6, 2014, 8:16 pm

    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

  9. Fatma Nur Çalışıcı
    December 21, 2013, 10:55 am

    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..

  10. Bulent Atalay
    December 19, 2013, 1:31 pm

    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.

  11. Garen K
    December 18, 2013, 6:06 pm

    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.

    July 16, 2013, 7:27 pm


    • Bulent Atalay
      July 16, 2013, 10:41 pm

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

      • Bulent Atalay
        November 17, 2016, 9:56 pm

        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

  13. Betula Nelson
    May 25, 2012, 7:11 am

    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.

  14. Jack Calvert
    Florida, California
    May 20, 2012, 3:53 am

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

  15. documama
    May 18, 2012, 10:32 pm

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

  16. David de Hilster
    Long Beach California
    May 17, 2012, 9:08 am

    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 http://www.worldnpa.org and http://www.worldsci.org.