The Universal Man Essay - Critical Essays

The Universal Man

Long credited for the rise of theoretical aeronautics in the United States during the interwar years, Theodore von Kármán was the first recipient of the National Medal of Science (1963). He has been studied before, but either in the context of his role in bringing the study of theoretical aeronautics to this country, as an institution builder, or as consultant for the Air Force. Gorn has taken a different tack. He has asked what enabled von Kármán to be so successful and influential in such a wide range of activities.

The answer, according to Gorn, was von Kármán’s personality, especially his sociability and sense of humor. Appropriately, the biography begins with the re-creation of a party at von Kármán’s house in Pasadena in 1936, while he was serving as director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. Time and again, Gorn demonstrates that von Kármán’s ultimate success in furthering his program depended upon his ability to charm. He was a superb fund-raiser and organizer.

As Gorn admits, this is not a full-scale biography, and many aspects of von Kármán’s career are lightly touched or ignored. Readers interested in the details of von Kármán’s scientific discoveries and their application to flight will be disappointed. However, for readers seeking a sense of the man behind the equations and the institutions, this is the place to turn.