Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly from the Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is Friday, April 11, 2014, and I have with me William Lanouette who is going to be talking about Leo Szilard. Why don’t you start by actually saying your full name and spelling it?
Bill Lanouette: I’m William Lanouette, L-A-N-O-U-E-T-T-E.
Kelly: Tell us about Szilard. Who was he? What’s his background?
Lanouette: Leo Szilard was born Leo Spitz, S-P-I-T-Z, on February 11, 1898 in Budapest, Hungary to an assimilated middle class Jewish family in the garden district of Budapest. In the year 1900, the family changed its name under the Magyarization to make things more Hungarian to Szilard, S-Z-I-L-A-R-D, which means “strong or stout,” or something like that. The FBI, which kept an eye on Szilard, always referred to him as “Leo Spitz,” because that was the first name that they had.
He was born to a family that eventually had two other kids. He had a younger sister and brother, and he grew up in a household that I think was more like a colony than a household. It was three generations all living in a huge villa, which one of his uncles had designed. He had cousins and he had grandparents and they could all run around this marvelous art nouveau villa, so he was very well socialized at an early age. Szilard was also educated at home until high school through tutors. I think that’s what gave him his independence of thinking and the freedom to just put things together in his own sweet way.
Kelly: In your book, it talked about how he had an intense and exuberant childhood that enabled him to become a pioneer in science and politics.
Lanouette: His father was an engineer, so there was a technical side to the discussions. He was very practical with his brother, Bela, designing and building different things. They built a radio telegraph to communicate between rooms. They made some batteries. They wired up an old urn to try to make it into a tea kettle or a samovar. They had a practical bent and both of them studied engineering. Only later did Leo switch to physics. They loved just tinkering and playing around.
He had cousins to play with in the back yard and he usually ended up being the bossy one who supervised them because he was thinking of the implications. They were digging a hole at one point in the back yard and he started worrying, “If they did get to China, would they fall out the other side?”
Kelly: Sometimes people talk about Szilard as one of the “Martians.” Who came up with that term and what does it mean?
Lanouette: That term came up during the Manhattan Project. There were four Hungarians, John von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and Leo Szilard, who picked up that nickname because of a story that came from a session with Fermi. Fermi was describing in one of their Chicago brainstorming sessions, “If there are so many millions and millions of galaxies and planets, there must certainly be some planet somewhere that’s much like ours and it would support life. And over the years there must have been some life and there must have been some intelligent life. We can’t be the only planet that developed such things. They must have already explored and they may already be here, but where are they?”
At the seminar Szilard said, “They’re here, but they’re called Hungarians.”
The nickname of the “Martians” grew from that. It was also suspected that they were Martians because they were superhumanly intelligent and spoke an unearthly language.
Kelly: You talked about Szilard’s education and the anti-Jewish decrees in Germany under Hitler in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
Lanouette: Under Horthy in the ‘20s and Hitler in the ‘30s, Szilard began attending a technical high school in Budapest after eight years of tutoring at home. It was called a “real school,” because they taught math and science and other practical things. Just down the street from Szilard’s residence was the Lutheran Gymnasium where they taught a more classical education. And it was in that place that both Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann studied. Edward Teller studied in a school called the “Minta,” which was an experimental school elsewhere in Budapest. So it’s not true that the four Martians all went to the same high school.
Szilard excelled in science and in math, and he was very bright. Then he started to study engineering at the Technical Institute. I think it’s now called the Technical University in Budapest. Then World War II [misspoke: World War I] began and he was conscripted into the Army and served in an artillery unit. There’s a picture of his unit standing in front of a caisson. Leo is leaning against the wheel looking totally uninterested in what happened. He contracted Spanish Flu just before the end of the War and that brought him back to Budapest at a time when the rest of his unit was still fighting on the Italian front and was totally wiped out. So if it hadn’t been for Spanish Flu there would be no Leo Szilard and his legacy.
He returned to Budapest at the end of the war in November of 1918, and he went back to the Technical University to study. In the spring of 1919 Bela Kun established a Communist Republic. And at that point some of his studies were interrupted, but he kept at it. He and Bela founded the Hungarian Socialist Student Association to be a mediator between the Royalist and the Communist. They handed out leaflets and they tried to organize discussions.
The Bela Kun Government eventually fell and a Fascist Miklos Horthy took over. At that point he imposed a restriction that no Jews could study in any of the universities. So both Bela and Leo were denied an education and they changed their [religious] affiliation to be Calvinist. That didn’t help. The secret police were then following them because they had been associated with a Socialist Institution. They were on a short list for student activists who were supposed to be rounded up.
Once Szilard tried to leave Hungary to study in Berlin and they wouldn’t give him a visa. So it was only towards the end of the year, 1919, that his father bribed somebody to get him an exit visa. But even then he was afraid of what the secret police were doing. He had Bela’s help and instead of going to Berlin via train where he thought the secret police agents would be watching, he dragged his trunk full of books and other things down to the Danube and caught an excursion steamer like any other tourist might do. And that’s how he got out of the country. He didn’t return for about three years because of his fear of Horthy’s secret police. He went to Vienna then and then from there he went to Berlin, arriving in January of 1920.
Lanouette: Szilard, when he landed in Berlin, began studies of engineering at the Technische Hochschule. And after a few months he was clearly becoming bored. It wasn’t really what he wanted. He heard about the revolution in quantum physics, which was personified by a number of Nobel Laureates at the University of Berlin. This included Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Francis Simon, Walter Nernst, and Max von Laue among other people. So Szilard started attending a seminar. There was a weekly colloquium of all of these people who sat in the front row of this big amphitheater. He started attending this and found it much more fascinating than his engineering work.
At the Technische Hochschule a couple of months after Szilard arrived, his brother Bela, who’s two years younger than him, arrived. The two of them pretty well roomed together for the next several years at rooming houses where there was a landlady who prepared their meals, or at other places where they just rented a room and either ate out or cooked their own basic meals. Bela continued to study engineering and became an electrical engineer and later in his career made many inventions in that field. He retired to Pleasantville, New York. He had been living in Manhattan. When I began work on the book I very luckily, through Bela’s son [John Silard], discovered that he was around and he was very eager to help me and did a wonderful job, which is why the book is said to be “with Bela Silard.”
In Berlin at the University, it was then customary for a student to meet with the professor and have him sign a record book and agreed to have him in the course. So Szilard called on Max Planck, who is the father of the quantum theory and physics, and wanted to take his course. He was then a twenty-two year old kid talking to a Nobel Laureate and he said, “Professor Planck, I want to learn the facts of physics. I’ll make up the theories myself.” Planck let him into the course and pretty soon I would say Szilard was confident enough to start moving down the rows of this colloquium, and pretty soon he was sitting in the front row with some of these other people.
There he struck up a friendship with Albert Einstein. They lived in the same neighborhood in Berlin in Charlottenberg, so he took to walking Einstein home after the seminars. They became very good friends and were both lateral thinkers who loved to just sit and brainstorm. They would think and talk about religion. In some correspondence they were sharing ideas about [Baruch] Spinoza. They both had Jewish backgrounds and Spinoza was a brilliant and legendary philosopher who had synthesized a Jewish and scientific thought. They would talk about all sorts of different things. But Szilard was also comfortable enough to tell Einstein he was wrong about certain things. Even in the middle of a lecture he once said, “That makes no sense,” or, “That’s wrong.” Einstein would modestly agree.
When they were together at the colloquium or on their walks, they grew to like and trust each other. So in the fall of 1920 when Szilard had transferred to the University of Berlin and had Max von Laue as his thesis advisor, he was assigned a problem. Von Laue was then the main interpreter of the relativity theory. He assigned Szilard a project. Szilard worked on it and worked on it and he just couldn’t seem to get it and he found something wrong. So instead of pursuing von Laue’s question, he started thinking in another way about another thing that might work.
One thing that had puzzled people called “Maxwell’s demon” after James Clerk Maxwell, who posed a particular problem in thermodynamics and von Laue had also taught thermodynamics, but he hadn’t approved of Szilard doing anything in this field. Szilard thought up something that actually became the basis for information theory by applying the concept of entropy to information in a thermodynamic equation. But he was afraid to go to von Laue and tell him he had not finished his project. So instead he went to Einstein and said, “Would you look this over and see if this is okay?”
Einstein looked at it and he said, “That’s impossible.” And then he looked and he studied and after five minutes Einstein said, “Yes, that’s right.”
So with the confidence of Einstein behind his back he went to von Laue and he presented this paper. The next day von Laue said it was accepted as his thesis.
So Szilard was quite cocky and freewheeling in his thinking. At one point he asked Einstein if he would teach statistical mechanics to a few friends from Budapest. The friends included Eugene Wigner, who was later a Nobel Laureate, John von Neumann, who was the developer of game theory and early computing, Dennis Gabor, who won the Nobel Prize for holography, and Leo Szilard. The four of them would sit around with Einstein and would learn statistical mechanics. It must have been quite a session with all those brains in the same room. But Szilard would have the freedom to do this sort of thing and he did it freely and often.
Lanouette: Szilard had a rather unusual career. He didn’t want to be a professor. In fact, after he did his doctoral thesis in physics, he said he wanted to do a second doctoral thesis in economics. He was very politically astute and he loved reading the papers. At that point Germany was undergoing excessive inflation.
He thought, “Maybe it would be possible to figure out something if I were an economist.”
The University told him, “You can’t really do another degree. When we give you a PhD we certify that you are qualified and proficient in knowledge or science, and another degree is something that we don’t do.”
But he didn’t want to be a professor; he became instead a Privatdozent, which is like a tutor or what we call today a teaching assistant, and he was a Privatdozent under Max von Laue. He gave talks and lectures. He also teamed up to do some seminars with John von Neumann on new development in physics and with Erwin Schrodinger also talking at the time about physics. He was about to teach a course with Lise Meitner early in 1933. Meitner later went on to be the person who recognized that nuclear fission, the splitting of the heavy uranium atom, was a phenomenon which became crucial to all atomic research after that. I often wonder what would have happened if Szilard and Meitner had taught that course and had brainstormed the way he had brainstormed with Schrodinger and with John von Neumann, but instead Szilard was banging around Berlin. He liked to travel. He liked to hike in the Alps and he frequently went to London.
From the time Szilard was ten years-old, he thought that it was his responsibility to save the world. He said at a too early age he read The Tragedy of Man, which is an epic poem by Imre Madach, the well-known Hungarian poet. In this they have Michelangelo, an archangel, philosophers, a trollop, a circus performer, and all sorts of people interacting in pretty amazing ways of essentially assessing the human condition. In the end of this epic poem, the Earth is cooling and life is being destroyed and only the Eskimos, who are already prepared for such, are able to survive the very cold weather. Then they start running out of food and they too start to perish. The message of The Tragedy of Man is that there was a hope even among the Eskimos.
The “narrow margin of hope” was something that Szilard picked up on at the very early age of ten for solving any unsolvable problems. It gave him an optimism and a sense of hope that really informed his whole life. So in the mid-1920s, when the German economy was really in the trash bin and when inflation was rampart, Szilard started trying to think of a way to save the Weimar Republic. And he did it with an idea called “Der Bund,” where you get the best of the brightest from several countries and you educate them and they in turn inform one another. Then they move on in some unexplained way to give advice to the governments that need help about how to solve the world’s problems. This idea took him several times to London, where he tried to meet with scientists, and he actually met H.G. Wells there, which got him thinking for the first time about atomic energy and about atomic bombs.
In the spring of 1933, when Hitler took power and the Reichstag capitol building was burned, he packed two bags at the faculty club and he said as soon as things get too bad he was going to leave. At the end of March in 1933 he said, “Things are getting too bad,” and he caught the night train to Vienna. The next night that same train was stopped and non-Aryans were frisked and sent back and their possessions were stolen. This led Szilard to say that, “In this world to get ahead you don’t have to be much cleverer than other people. You just have to be one day earlier.”
In Vienna, through some economists he had known in Berlin, he met William Beveridge, who was the Director of the London School of Economics. Beveridge was in Vienna for a conference and Szilard was then worried about other refugees and how they could be settled. Beveridge and a couple of other economists were thinking about this and he met with them. Beveridge said, “Why don’t you come to London and then you can help me?”
He was soon on a train to London and landed in a big hotel in Russell Square, not far from the London School of Economics, and walked down Southampton Road frequently to bend Beveridge’s ear about “How we can solve the problem of the refugee scholars coming from Nazi Germany.” What he did was, he called on Harold Laski, who was a famous political scientist and also a leader in the Labour Party. And together with just prodding these people and coming up with ideas and racing around Europe to Belgium to France to Switzerland, to try to find out who could settle these refugees, he helped to found the Academic Assistance Council, which is now CARA, the Council for the Assistance of Refugee Academics, and which to this day thrives and helps people who are displaced by hostile governments.
He worked on that refugee settlement, but he also wanted to become a biologist. He had met Max Delbruck in Berlin, who was a physicist who started to study biology before he left Germany. It put in Szilard’s mind the idea that biology might be the next theoretical field after physics. As far as he was concerned there wasn’t much more to know about physics, he had solved the concept of information theory and his mind was moving in other directions. In the summer of 1933 his hotel was across from the University of London and he called on A. V. Hill, who was also a physicist turned biologist, who would win the Nobel Prize in Biology, and said, “I’d like to learn biology.”
Hill said, “If you become a demonstrator in physiology, you can learn day by day what you’re supposed to know and then that way you’ll start to learn biology.” In September of 1933 Szilard was all set to start to be a demonstrator in physiology at the University of London.
And then an idea hit him and it changed his life and really changed the world.
Lord [Ernest] Rutherford, who had a Nobel Prize and was running the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, had given a speech early in September in which he said almost as an aside, “Anyone who thinks you can get useful energy from the atom is talking moonshine.”
Szilard didn’t know what moonshine was, but he did know as he said, “An expert is someone who tells you what can’t be done.” He said that it really annoyed him that Rutherford would say something like this, because how do you know what someone could think up? On this he pondered. And this is where science and science fiction come together, because at one of his earlier meetings with H.G. Wells they talked about the need for atomic energy as a power source if humans were to explore other planets or other galaxies.
He had in mind that atomic energy was something special. He also read a book that Wells wrote in 1913 before the First World War called “The World Set Free,” in which in the 1950s there was a world-wide atomic war and all of the major cities are destroyed. So Szilard had that image from science fiction that the atom was not only something that could liberate man for travel into space, it was also something that could destroy humanity. In 1932, the year before Szilard started thinking about things like Rutherford’s challenge on moonshine, the neutron was discovered. The neutron that was discovered is a subatomic particle. The proton is positively charged, and the electron is negatively charged. But here was something new. The neutron, because it had no charge at all, could freely interact among other atoms.
So thinking about Rutherford’s challenge on moonshine, he walked around the parks and the squares of the Bloomsbury neighborhood. Finally, he said, after a week or two, he was standing at a traffic light in Southampton Row, which is probably right in front of his hotel on Russell Square, and as the light changed it came to him how a neutron could enter the nucleus or core of an atom and how it could make it unstable and release [energy]. I think personally, having lived in London a number of years, that the pattern of the traffic lights had something to do with this, because unlike American traffic lights where its red and then green and then yellow and then red again, the pattern in the traffic lights in England blended. Red and yellow were on at the same time and then yellow and green, as if these colors were blending with one another and not just ticking off. That’s my own conjecture as to why he saw that pattern.
What he thought up were two essential concepts, the chain reaction and the critical mass. In the chain reaction that he thought about, a neutron with no charge would be fired to enter the nucleus of an atom, and he didn’t know which one. And then it would make it unstable, and then if two neutrons were released and they met other atoms, two, four, eight, sixteen, exponentially, eventually all of this energy would be released. And he also thought that you need a critical mass in order to make sure that there are enough atoms around to absorb these flying neutrons, or else they’ll just go off into space. So you had to assemble some element in enough of a compact area so that once the chain started, it would be sustained. At that point his first reaction was, “H. G. Wells, here we come.”
He was thinking then of both atomic energy and of atomic weapons. He was trying to figure out in the fall of 1933 what element might in fact sustain a chain reaction. The following spring he patented the chain reaction and he mentioned indium and beryllium and uranium as possible elements to sustain his nuclear chain reaction. He then went to the head of General Electric in the UK and said, “I have a power source that will make coal and oil obsolete.”
They said, “Thank you very much, Doctor.”
Then he went to the Army and he said, “I have a weapon that will make warfare obsolete.”
The Army said, “Thank you very much, Doctor.”
In a couple of years he had made acquaintance with F. A. Lindemann, a physicist at Oxford. F. A. Lindemann, when he heard this, agreed almost as a courtesy to make the chain reaction patent secret to the military, but he did that in the Admiralty, not in the Army. So starting about 1936, Szilard’s chain reaction patent became a military secret. Szilard was fearful from the beginning that if he, with little training, could think up this, then certainly the German scientists who were behind him could be on the same track to nuclear weapons.
Are there any other details of the story so far that you want me to elaborate on that you can tuck in?
Kelly: I don’t think so. This is really nice.
Lanouette: After Szilard patented the chain reaction, he then tried to find which element might sustain it. He was a refugee, he had some savings, and he had no job. So he poked around and he went to Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital, where they were using some radioactive materials for medical purposes. He teamed up with a fellow named [Thomas A.] Chalmers, and together in the course of their research he didn’t actually bombard any elements to find out what would happen, but he did inadvertently create the Szilard-Chalmers effect, which is a chemical way of separating isotopes. He published this, and this is well recognized as being one of the early methods of isotope separation.
I learned through my research that Maurice Goldhaber, also a German refugee ending up in England, he ended up in Cambridge and knew Szilard in the 1930s and knew about his work. Goldhaber later became the Director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York State. During their interactions in the ‘30s, Goldhaber said he had nominated Szilard for the Nobel Prize for the Szilard-Chalmers effect. At the time it was really the only easy way to separate isotopes and it was something that really impressed Goldhaber.
Szilard then came to New York a couple of times. He went to NYU and tried to talk to the physicists there. He also applied early for immigration, and he went back and forth. He found a part-time position at Oxford under his friend Lindemann, and he walked around with little [elemental] samples and was trying to get a neutron source; and then tried to find which element would work. He wanted to get, I think, two thousand pounds, which was an awful lot of money, to test systematically each element in the periodic table to bombard it with neutrons and see what would happen.
At the same time, Enrico Fermi in Rome was bombarding uranium with neutrons. He didn’t realize he was getting nuclear fission; he was getting what he called “transuranic elements.” These elements would absorb a neutron and become transuranic, or heavier than uranium. And there were other things, some of them very short-lived, lasting only a few seconds, others lasting much longer. The transuranic element later in the careers of Szilard and Fermi that became very important was plutonium, which is spun from a heavier form of uranium.
Szilard met Fermi in 1934 at a conference in London and warned him about the potential of transuranic elements and Fermi didn’t seem to think much of it. In ’35 and ’36 he wrote to Fermi and he said, “The two of us are working in an area which is potentially very dangerous if it becomes a military application.” He urged that Fermi and the other scientists in Rome, and anyone else outside Germany, not publish the results of their research because he thought he knew that the chain reaction was something that might in fact have military applications.
Fermi didn’t like that idea at all. It was just anti-scientific not to publish what you did, and Fermi had little interest in creating some corporation, which Szilard also wanted to do to raise money to do this research, but to do it in secret.
Szilard was always an outlier in the sense that he saw years ahead of everybody else, the need to do certain things and with a political aspect also, as well as the scientific aspect. It was the way that Szilard combined science and politics along with his incredible foresight, I think, that made him a special pioneer in the field, but also a bit of an outsider because nobody really understood the implications that he saw and feared.
I want to read a quote by Hans Bethe about this business of Szilard, because I think it’s very telling. Hans Bethe knew Leo Szilard in London in 1933 and in 1934. He admired Szilard for racing around to one country, to another, up to Cambridge, up to different places to raise money for the Academic Refugees. He joked later that they thought that Szilard was like a new modern particle that could be in two places at the same time. When Szilard’s ashes were interred in 1998, the centennial of his birth, half the ashes went to Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest and half the ashes went to Lakeview Cemetery in Ithaca, New York, where Szilard’s wife’s family was buried.
Hans Bethe attended the interment in Ithaca and he said, “In the 1930s we suspected that Szilard running around could be in two places at once, and now we know it’s true.” Hans Bethe was a great admirer of Leo Szilard. Hans Bethe is the physicist who won the Nobel Prize for explaining the carbon cycle and how the sun works.
He said, “Leo Szilard was a very complex personality. He was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. His mind worked quickly and profoundly, and he was able to come to ideas that most of us appreciated only after many hours of talk. This was his strength and of course also his weakness. He was always ahead of his time. His ideas often were expressed in paradoxes, and the paradoxes were not always understood.”
I think this is probably the greatest detriment to Szilard, that he was so foresighted. And you may be able to trace it to that early education where he had governesses and he had tutors and he could really just be freewheeling and put any ideas together at any time. It ultimately made him quite a misfit in the scientific community. It also prevented him from wanting a full-time academic job. And so this I think explains why Szilard was a special individual in the whole scientific field.
His sister-in-law, Francis Racker, once said, “Leo wasn’t a person. He was a phenomenon.” And in a way I think he spent most of his life trying to catch up with all the bright ideas that kept popping into his head. Szilard worked at Oxford, but he kept in touch with scientists in London and in Cambridge. He said that he was conducting something, and he was almost afraid to describe what it was because of the potential. He said he wanted to get different samples and he wanted to get a neutron source and he wanted to mess around. Nobody really understood what he was about.
He didn’t have a laboratory of his own. So he met with his friend Maurice Goldhaber in London and he said, “I’ve been over to NYU a couple of times and I’m doing some research,” and Goldhaber admired him for the Szilard-Chalmers effect, but didn’t really know what was going on at the moment. Leo said, “I’m going to go to the United States.” It was a year before the War. He could see the war coming. So in 1938 Szilard sailed for New York and landed in New York City where he had some other contacts at New York University, but where he ultimately settled as a guest scholar at Columbia University. He chased around throughout most of 1938. He went to Rochester. He went to the University of Illinois.
He was trying to find some element and trying to find some lab that would run these different experiments. He never could do it. He never really put it all together. In December 1938 he sat down frustrated and he wrote a letter to the Admiralty and he said, “The idea of a nuclear chain reaction won’t work. There’s no need to keep this patent secret, and indeed there’s no need to keep this patent too. It won’t work.”
The very same day in Berlin, Hahn and Strassmann split the uranium atom and it was soon discovered that this was the element Szilard was looking for. When Niels Bohr, who had heard about nuclear fission through Lise Meitner, arrived in January in New York City and the word spread that uranium had been split or fissioned, Szilard was shocked and scared. He shot off a telegram to the Admiralty saying, “Ignore my previous letter. Keep the chain reaction secret.” At that point he was really then, he thought, in a race with time. The Germans, the people he feared, had split the uranium atom; surely they’re going to see what’s happening. He then tried to enlist Eugene Wigner, who was at Princeton, and other scientists to conduct research.
He worked with Walter Zinn and he worked with Enrico Fermi at Columbia, and he also worked with Herbert Anderson, who was a colleague of Enrico Fermi. Together they started testing, “Is an extra neutron released? If it is, then there is this potential for the chain reaction to develop energy and perhaps also will lead to an explosion.” By the spring of 1939, they discovered indeed an extra neutron was coming out of any bombardment of uranium.
Szilard and Zinn ran an experiment that he later described where they had something like a TV screen to track the path of the subatomic elements. So they started to work with the bombardment from their radiation source and they saw nothing. Szilard said that he was relieved, “The chain reaction doesn’t work after all, and I don’t have to worry about a bomb.” And then Zinn discovered they hadn’t turned on the screen. So they turned on the screen and they discovered in fact that extra neutrons were released, and he called his friend Edward Teller, who was then at George Washington University and he said, “We found the extra neutrons.”
From then on he was really racing to keep all the research in the United States secret. He went to Fermi who hated this idea, that you not publish what you’re actually finding. But he finally persuaded Fermi not to publish the research that he and Zinn and Anderson were doing at Columbia University.
With this knowledge in mind he started to think, “How could you design a reactor that would in fact sustain the chain reaction and produce heat?” which is something they were interested in. They thought, “If you produce heat, you might be able to power a ship.” So he sent Fermi down to the Navy to describe the fact that there is now this potential for atomic energy and it might in fact be useful in ships, especially submarines because it wouldn’t need oxygen and you wouldn’t have to have a snorkel to run a diesel engine. You could have an atomic engine in your ships. The Navy missed the point entirely. They ridiculed him for his accent and they said, “Thank you very much.”
So Fermi went back to Columbia and reported, “There’s just no interest in this at all,” which only drove Szilard to be madder and more determined to find ways to understand the nuclear chain reaction. That summer Fermi went off to Ann Arbor to study cosmic rays. When they discussed things Fermi said, “Chain reaction might be useful in twenty-five or fifty years.” And Szilard was afraid that it was something that could be useful right away.
So he hounded Fermi with a series of airmail letters back and forth in July of 1939, and Fermi responded with a particular design. Szilard said, “No, you need another design.” And eventually over an exchange of five or six letters the two of them co-designed the world’s first nuclear reactor. Fermi first thought that you need layers of uranium surrounded by graphite, which was going to slow down or moderate the reaction. Szilard said, “No that wouldn’t work. What you have to do is have spheres of uranium embedded in a three-dimensional lattice array.” Fermi reluctantly agreed and they drew up plans and that became the first nuclear reactor design.
Having this now certified, Szilard was really scared of what would happen with a nuclear chain reaction in the wrong hands. So he went out to Long Island to track down his old friend Albert Einstein, who was staying in a cottage there and generally relaxing. Szilard never drove a car, so his chauffer the first time he visited Einstein was Eugene Wigner. They went out and they explained to Einstein that “There is this incredible concept which we’ve tested which is a nuclear chain reaction. It’s E = MC^2 realized. Energy is produced from mass.”
Einstein’s first reaction, “I haven’t thought of that at all.” And of course he hadn’t. He was working for his unified field theory and he was very much more theoretical. But Einstein was surprised and even shocked by the explanation.
He soon realized that this is something that would really change the world. It was also Einstein’s reaction, Szilard remembered, that he thought, “This is the only power source that I can think of that doesn’t depend on the sun.” You have of course solar energy, which we know today, but also through photosynthesis all of the fossil fuels depend on the power of the sun being trapped in these plants. So Einstein realized just how special the nuclear chain reaction and the release of the energy in an atom would be.
Then they were quite concerned and said, “We have to warn the Belgians, because they control the largest stock of uranium in the world.” Einstein had known the Royal Family from Belgium. They had put him up when he left Germany. He used to call them “The Kings,” as a nickname.
So they started to draft a letter to the Belgian Royal Family, to the King of Belgium, warning him about this strategic importance of all the uranium in the Belgian Congo. Then they messed around with some drafts and realized, “It’s more important than this. We really should warn the U.S. Government.” First they thought of warning the State Department and finally they said, “No, we need to warn the President.” So they drafted a second set of letters in drafts to the President of the United States, warning him about nuclear chain reactions and their military potential.
When the draft was finished it was Edward Teller, his [Szilard’s] other Hungarian friend, who was the chauffer to take him out to meet Einstein. Edward Teller is reported to have said, “I entered the nuclear age as Leo Szilard’s chauffer.”
Once Szilard and Einstein had agreed on a draft, it was Szilard’s task to arrange for the letter to be typed up. So he called in Janet Coatsworth, who worked and lived near Columbia University. He invited Coatsworth to his room at the King’s Crown Hotel. The place, she remembered, was littered with papers and he was rushing around trying to dictate this letter. So he says, “Take a letter to the President of the United States.” She looked at him. She didn’t know what was going on. Then he says, “There’s this new and powerful bomb, which is something that might destroy a whole harbor and a whole city.” And she looks at him again, “Now sign it ‘Albert Einstein.’” She knew he was nuts, but she did type it up.
Then Szilard enlisted Edward Teller to drive him out to Long Island, where they could review the letter. Einstein signed that letter, and then Szilard was faced with the idea of how to get it to the President. He knew, through an economist, whose name was [Wolfgang] Stolper, that there were some businessmen and investors who knew FDR, President Roosevelt, and who in fact had been advisors to the New Deal of FDR. So he tried to enlist their help, and one person was Alexander Sachs, who had frequent visits to the White House and claimed that he could get this letter directly to the President. They weren’t just going to put it in the mail.
But then World War II began. The letter is dated August 2nd, and on September 1st World War II began when Germany invaded Poland. So the White House and of course the President were distracted. It wasn’t until early October on Columbus Day that Sachs finally got an appointment to meet with President Roosevelt. He came in and he had prepared his own big memo. He had the letter and he was fumbling, and he didn’t really make a very good impression. He didn’t really deliver the letter, and Roosevelt was either distracted or annoyed, and the meeting ended inconclusively, but Sachs asked if he could come back the next day.
The next day he actually did present and read the letter. Roosevelt’s reaction was, “Well Alex, I guess you want to be sure that the Germans don’t blow us up.”
He said, “That’s right. That’s what’s going to happen.”
He then picked up the phone to his assistant, [General Edwin] “Pa” Watson, and said, “Pa! This deserves action!”
Well unfortunately, the only action was to create a government committee. At the Bureau of Standards, Lyman Briggs, who was head of the Bureau of Standards, was asked to form a Uranium Committee.
At the time, and it must be remembered, before the war, the government had very little to do with scientific research. The Navy did some applied work, and there was some medical research going on, but essentially the Bureau of Standards was the most scientific center of the Federal Government at the time. So it was the logical place to put the Uranium Committee, but in fact they had few resources and really few interests in this kind of project.
The first meeting of the Uranium Committee was called, and Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller and Leo Szilard showed up. They started telling the Army about this incredible thing. One General I’m sure rolled his eyes and said, “Out at Aberdeen we have a goat stuck out in the field and we’re trying to get a death ray to kill the goat. Is this what you’re talking about, some kind of an X-ray or something like that?”
They just didn’t get it. But they somehow, in their Hungarian/German accents, made the point that this really deserves extra attention, that serious scientists here and in Germany are working on it.
One of the Generals said, “How much money do you want?”
And I think it was Teller who blurted out, “Six thousand dollars.”
They said, “Fine, we’ll get you your six thousand dollars.” So they were on their way.
But nothing happened. Fermi and Szilard were then building what they called exponential piles where they were taking graphite and stacking it with a little uranium inside to just see how the neutrons would move around, and how uranium might be absorbing neutrons and whether in fact it was setting off extra neutrons. They used graphite as a moderator to slow down the neutrons, because if the neutrons were realized at a regular speed, they might be repelled or they might miss or they might go right through an atom. But if you had a slow or moderated neutron to slow it down it gave it a better chance of going into that nucleus and making it unstable and splitting it. So the moderator was the secret. Today nuclear power plants use water as the moderator to slow down the neutrons in order to chain react.
At the time, they thought graphite was the best. But then Szilard realized that something wasn’t working quite right, and maybe there’s something wrong with graphite. The Germans, by the way, were also trying graphite. Szilard thought, “Maybe there are some impurities.” He and Fermi met with the U.S. Carbon Company people over lunch one day and he said, “Are there any impurities in the graphite that you sell?”
They said, “As a matter of fact there are. We use a certain process that involves boron.” And Szilard and Fermi saw right away that boron absorbs neutrons. Commercial graphite was too full of boron to allow the chain reaction to continue.
Szilard then ran around to the suppliers and got a ninety-nine percent pure graphite, and he and Fermi used that and it worked. So they knew that that was the key. The Germans did not figure this out. They used commercial graphite and it didn’t work, so they said, “We need another moderator.” They went to heavy water, which is made through electrochemistry. And the only source of the heavy water was in Norway at the time, at a hydroelectric facility, which the Norwegians and then the Allies destroyed. And so the Germans never had a chance to really set off a chain reaction either with graphite or with heavy water.
Hans Bethe said at the interment of Szilard’s ashes that, “All they really needed for the Manhattan Project was the ideas of Leo Szilard. If the Germans had Leo Szilard they would have had a bomb a lot sooner.” So Szilard was key to some of these essential steps: getting the government involved, discovering that you need pure graphite, and then eventually with designing and refining the design of the reactor.
They had met in the Uranium Committee in October of ’39. In 1940 there was still no money coming from the Uranium Committee for Fermi and Szilard. Szilard by this time had drafted an explanation of how the chain reaction could work. He sent it to the Physical Review but said, “Don’t publish it. Just hold it.” He wanted to be on record that this was the way a chain reaction would work.
He was getting more and more annoyed, and so he went back to Einstein and he said, “We need another letter to really warn these people that they’re sitting on something that’s very important.” So in effect they blackmailed the government. They sent what was now the third letter. The first letter warned about the bomb. The second letter was an acknowledgement of FDR’s reply. The third letter said that “Dr. Szilard is working on this particular project and he has a paper he wants to publish, but he doesn’t want to publish it. But he will publish it if the aid isn’t forthcoming.”
This apparently registered somewhere within the White House, because they then started running security clearances on Fermi and Szilard to see if they should be getting this money. They were both enemy aliens at that point. [Correction: Both men were not US citizens in 1940, but became enemy aliens only after the US declared war on German and Italy in December 1941. W.L.] The war was on. Italy and Germany were both battling the United States. At this point Szilard had a German passport. So the Army drew up a report on Fermi and Szilard. I’m paraphrasing here, but they said, “Fermi was undoubtedly a Fascist and he was distrustful of the government and he should not be trusted with the secret work. Szilard was clearly sympathetic with the Germans and that he should not be trusted with the secret work.” At the time, the only “secret work” was in the heads of Fermi and Szilard.
J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, was then enlisted to try to find a way to give these scientists the money they had asked for. And so then they sent FBI agents to Princeton to interview Albert Einstein. Einstein, who had just become a citizen himself, said, “Yes, they are trustworthy and they’re knowledgeable and they deserve the money.” And so it was Einstein, although he wasn’t directly involved, through all these things like a letter and an FBI interview, who actually kept the ball rolling.
The money finally came, and they were finally building their exponential piles, which are ways of discovering how particles work within a controlled moderated structure. At Columbia the graphite had to be stacked, and Fermi, who was quite practical both as an experimental scientist and a theorist, was in there with the other people getting their hands dirty with stacking this graphite.
Szilard refused to do this, and Fermi became quite annoyed with him over that. But eventually Dean [George] Pegram, who was head of the Physics Department, enlisted the football team of Columbia University to stack the graphite so that the scientists didn’t have to do it.
Early in 1942, after then most of a year of their work at Columbia, Szilard was thinking, “Where should they build the first reactor?” He found a blimp hangar in New Jersey and he found a polo club on Long Island and he found a golf course in Yonkers. They were always thinking that they wanted to stay around Columbia. So there were four or five sites that would have been the site for the first nuclear chain reaction and the first operating reactor, but for the further intervention of the U.S. Government.
Not only did they give the six thousand to Fermi and Szilard, but they were also creating another structure, which eventually became the Manhattan Project when the Army took it over in June of 1942.
Lanouette: In the spring of 1942, they were trying to decide where atomic research should be consolidated. They thought it might be in St. Louis. They weren’t sure whether it might be in another city. They didn’t want it to be on the coast because of the fear of German attacks. And so when James Conant and Vannevar Bush were looking at the situation as the civilian advisors on this program, Arthur Compton at the University of Chicago made a bid that “We should have the research focused there.” And in February of 1942, the Fermi and Szilard work was moved to Chicago under Compton, who also was a Nobel Laureate in Physics. That’s why the world’s first nuclear chain reaction occurred on the campus of the University of Chicago and not at a blimp hangar in New Jersey or a golf course in Yonkers.
As the work proceeded through the spring and summer of 1942 in Chicago, the design had been refined and they were actually building and stacking the graphite for this reactor. They had initially planned to build a reactor out of town. There was some concern as to what would actually happen in a chain reaction. And so they had found a place out of town which later on became the Argonne National Laboratory. But the trouble was, there was a carpenter strike at this time, so the carpenters weren’t building anything out there. They said, “We’re going to have to do it somewhere else,” and they found a vacant squash court under the abandoned stands of the football field.
The University of Chicago had given up football, and the west stands of Stagg Field were unused. So there was a squash court under the stands, and they decided that that’s where they had to build the first reaction, and they did. There was some concern that the reaction might run wild, so they enlisted Hans Bethe to come out and give some second calculations as to what a chain reaction would do, given this amount of graphite. He studied the calculations and concluded and told them he was pretty sure that it wouldn’t explode and it wouldn’t run wild and release radiation in any way. So they pretty much had the green light.
Szilard was still quite concerned. He said that the night before the first test, which was December 2, 1942, the evening of December 1, 1942, he went out and he had a second dinner. He told the person who he ate with the second time that night why he was having a second dinner. Szilard, who was always a voracious eater said, “We have an experiment that we’re going to run tomorrow. Chances are it won’t work at all, but there’s a remote chance it will work too well. And if it works too well, that’s why I’m having a second dinner tonight.” Well it turned out it worked brilliantly, and afterwards they cracked open a bottle of Chianti, which Wigner had arranged in Fermi’s honor. Later on they all signed the basket around the Chianti bottle. They were all really pretty pleased with themselves.
After the other scientists left the chamber, Szilard and Fermi found themselves standing together on the balcony that overlooked the squash court. And at that point Szilard turned and shook Fermi’s hand and congratulated him and then announced, “This day will go down as a black day in the history of mankind.” Again, Szilard was seeing what was coming.
In June of 1945 the Army was assigned what became the Manhattan Project, the research that was being conducted not only in Chicago, but increasingly in other sights. In September of that year, General Leslie R. Groves took charge of the Manhattan Project, and he paid a call on the scientists in Chicago and had his first of many run-ins with Leo Szilard. Szilard found his whole presentation to be pompous and rather imperialist. In turn, the questions that Szilard and others asked annoyed Groves, who later said, “Well if somebody just threw a bomb through that window, we wouldn’t have to worry about these scientists again.”
Szilard once said that his favorite hobby was “baiting brass hats,” by which he meant making fun of the military. He saw the military as being rigid and uninventive, and as far as he was concerned, much more restrictive than supportive throughout the whole Manhattan Project. The first encounter between General Leslie Groves, the Military Director of the Manhattan Project, and Szilard was remembered by many. I tried to capture the dynamics in the book, Genius in The Shadows. I will describe their first encounter.
General Groves first visited the Met Lab on Monday, October 5th. He wrote in his history of the Manhattan Project, he met Compton and his assistant Norman Hilberry, Fermi, James Franck, and the brilliant Hungarian physicists Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilard. After the meeting, Groves and Compton resumed a discussion we had begun earlier with Szilard on how to reduce the number of approaches, which were being explored for cooling the pile. “The pile” was the nickname for the pile of graphite, which was in fact the reactor.
Szilard had many ideas about the reactor design, and it was at this time that he actually thought up a name to the “nuclear breeder reactor,” which is supposed to make more fuel than it consumes by bombarding uranium-238, which does not fission, turning it into plutonium-239, which does fission. As Alvin Weinberg, later the Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory remembered, Wigner and Weinberg and Szilard were walking across the quadrangle at the University Chicago and said, “What are we going to call this thing?” Szilard said, “Let’s call it breeding. Let’s call it a breeder.”
So he not only thought it out and designed three breeders to make plutonium during the war, but he also named the breeder reactor. Szilard was just full of ideas throughout this process. “For months using helium, air, water, and heavy water were under active study,” Groves remembered. This is the only mention Groves made of Szilard in his book, perhaps because it recounted the only time when they were not in direct conflict with one another.
The two men took a quick dislike to each other and personified the Manhattan Project’s struggles between the scientist and the soldier. But it was more personal than that. Groves’ authoritarian, anti-Semitic views cast Szilard as a pushy, Jewish busybody. Szilard’s openness and glee at baiting brass hats casts Groves as a rigid militarist, who also seemed not too bright. Groves considered Szilard “the only villain in the Manhattan Project,” he later said, while Szilard considered Groves its biggest fool. The two of them really took to disliking one another.
“General, what would you think if someone threw a hand grenade through that window?” His aide said after the meeting with the scientists.
“It would be a damn good thing,” Groves snapped. “There’s too much hot air in there.”
Szilard at this point was still an enemy alien. He did not become a citizen until 1943. So in the fall of 1942, shortly after meeting for the first time with the Chicago scientists, Groves decided that Szilard was a real troublemaker and he wanted to have him locked up for the duration of the war as an enemy alien. He went as far the Secretary of War, to the Office of the Secretary of War, to ask that Szilard be interned.
The Secretary of War with the advice of Compton said, “No. You can’t do that.” But thereafter Szilard was under constant surveillance by the security people of the Manhattan Project.
Groves said, “Despite the barrenness of any results, you have to keep watching for Szilard in case he does something that we can catch him on.”
The two of them really disliked one another, as I say, for personal and for professional reasons. When Szilard couldn’t be interned, he still seemed to be a troublemaker to Groves.
This came up again with the Szilard [chain-reaction] patent, which had to be assigned to the Army. Groves wanted it to be signed over with no compensation. Szilard said, “I want compensation, but only for the money I’ve spent since 1934 developing this reaction.” It includes some supplies he had bought in England and in the United States, and the money he had borrowed for the Fermi/Szilard work at Columbia. Szilard came up with a rather small number of several thousand dollars that he thought he should be compensated for before he signed over his reactor patent. Groves would have none of this. So he assigned a lawyer, James Hume, who I had the good fortune of finding and interviewing, to represent Szilard in the negotiations with the Army. Hume had to be given a security clearance and he had to be educated in nuclear science. He had several very testy meetings with Groves over how this whole patent should be assigned.
At one the meetings, the last one, Szilard recounted that it was like meeting somebody with a raincoat who had a bulge in his pocket and you weren’t sure whether it was his fist or a gun. Groves was threatening, he thought, to somehow punish Szilard if he didn’t sign over the patent. During this dispute in 1943 into early 1944, Szilard was actually taken off the payroll of the Manhattan Project. He was still allowed to continue to work and he volunteered his time, but it was a very testy situation. Finally Szilard through the negotiations of James Hume got the Army to agree to cover his expenses, at which he signed over the chain reaction [patent]. It was shortly thereafter that the patent for the Fermi/Szilard reactor was applied for in secret. For several years it was referred to as “a reactor designed by E. Fermi, et al.,” the et al. being Leo Szilard, which is one of many reasons that he’s lost in the shadows of history.
Is that okay?
Kelly: Uh-huh. Yeah. Wow.
Lanouette: Beginning in 1944, Szilard became ambivalent about the bomb. They had no evidence at that point that the Germans were in fact building a bomb. And he was already concerned about the future – in this case a postwar nuclear arms race with Russia, which he was worried about in ’44. He thought the only solution should be international control, in which the allies create a world control system. Essentially first to control all of the uranium, but then also to regulate the technology and to share it under some agreed method.
He called Vannevar Bush. He called on James Conant and bent their ears about international control. We see in the record that a few days after Szilard had pressed the idea of international control on Bush and Conant, they in turn presented it to President Roosevelt. So Szilard’s ideas were getting through, but he was somebody who still felt he was a bit of an outcast.
Towards the end 1944, Szilard was so concerned about international control that he thought the only way that you could have it was to shock the world, and that after all you should use the bomb on cities so that it’s so horrible that mankind will recognize this and will finally control it. That thought lasted only a month or so. He then realized how horrible it would be to level cities the way they thought they could. So by the spring of 1945, he tried three ways to stop the bomb. He assumed that Germany was defeated and he wanted to be sure that it was not used on Japan, because he thought that would trigger an international arms race with the Soviet Union.
There’s something awfully ironic about June of 1942. That was the month that the Fermi/Szilard work, the work by Compton at Columbia, and other places were finally consolidated under the command of the U.S. Army where they then had a budget that they could conceal. The project was in the United States, scaled up until more than a 130,000 people at sites all over the country were building the bomb.
In Berlin in June of 1942 something quite different happened. Werner Heisenberg and the people who had been working on the bomb since the spring of 1939 called on Albert Speer, the Munitions Minister, and said, “It’s not likely that we’re going to have a workable weapon before we win the War.” They thought in ’42 that they were winning the war. Their lab in Berlin had been bombed once or twice. They were trying to find another [neutron-moderator] source. They made this crucial mistake of using graphite and deciding it wouldn’t work.
They couldn’t get the heavy water supplies that they needed, nor did they at that point even have a lab, so they essentially threw in the towel. They said, “There’s no point in spending money on this. It’s just not worth it.” So the very month we ramped up, they ramped down. We didn’t know that until several years later, but the fear that the Germans were still ahead of us, and for a while they had been, drove the Manhattan Project on and on and on.
By the spring of ’45, Szilard wanted to prevent the bombing of Japan, and if the weapon worked he wanted to put it under international control. He tried three ways. In March of 1945 he went to Princeton and he called on Einstein and got a fourth letter from Einstein to Roosevelt. After the war Einstein said his only role in this whole thing was as Leo Szilard’s mailbox. He drafted a letter saying that FDR or the Cabinet should meet with Szilard and talk about his ideas for what will happen after the War with the work. Einstein really didn’t know much about the work. He knew it had military implications, and he trusted Szilard implicitly.
The [Einstein] letter never reached Franklin Roosevelt before he died on April 12th of 1945. So in May Szilard took the letter and a memo he had made describing international control schemes to the Truman White House. They knew something about the previous contact, but not much. So Truman instead of meeting with Szilard said, “You should go to see James F. Byrnes in Spartanburg, South Carolina.”
Szilard didn’t know who James Byrnes was, but the President told him to take a trip and visit Byrnes. So he enlisted for this trip to Spartanburg, Harold Urey, who had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for isotope separation, in fact one of the processes we used to make the uranium for the Hiroshima bomb. By the spring of 1945 Urey was fed up with the secrecy. He too thought Germany was defeated and he quit the Manhattan Project. So he wasn’t even working on the Project officially when he joined Leo Szilard for an overnight train ride from Washington to Spartanburg, South Carolina. There they met in his home, James F. Byrnes.
Byrnes is an interesting character. He bragged about being in all three branches of government. Byrnes had been a Congressman from South Carolina. He had been a Senator from South Carolina. Franklin Roosevelt made him a Justice on the Supreme Court, and then took him off the Supreme Court to be what became “assistant president,” working in the White House to run War Mobilization Plans. He was called on the cover of Life Magazine, “The Assistant President.” He was a well-known public figure. In 1944 at the Chicago Democratic National Convention, Byrnes was expected to replace Henry Wallace as Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice President. He was the leading candidate to become the next Vice President. But Byrnes was a segregationist, he had anti-union attitudes. The Northerners in the Democratic Party didn’t like that. So instead they picked Harry Truman as a compromise, and Harry Truman in November of 1944 became the Vice President of the United States. Byrnes had been Truman’s mentor and looked over him, and Truman had looked up to Byrnes. So after Truman took Office, it was Byrnes who first briefed him about atomic weapons.
It was Byrnes who became Truman’s representative on what was called the Interim Committee, which was deciding within the Government how to use this new weapon. Szilard didn’t know that at the time. So he arrived in Spartanburg and was greeted by Byrnes and he has this memo of an international control [scheme], which Byrnes had received already from the White House. He saw what was coming, but he thought it was naïve and foolish to think that the Russians or even the British would cooperate with us. He thought that was pretty silly.
Besides, Byrnes had more in mind. He had attended with FDR the meeting in Yalta with Stalin, in which they were talking about post-war settlements in Eastern Europe. That was in February of 1945. In May of 1945, May 8th, the Germans surrendered. So on May 28th when Urey and Szilard call on Byrnes, we learn later Byrnes is really worried about what the Russians are doing in Eastern Europe. He told them that we had to use this bomb for two reasons. We had spent two billion dollars behind the backs of Congress, and if we didn’t use it there’d be all hell to pay and there would be endless hearings. Second, he wanted the bomb to make Russia “more manageable” in Eastern Europe. They were encroaching on the Eastern European countries in Hungary, in Poland they were affecting plans for elections.
Byrnes knew something that Szilard didn’t know, that he was about to be named Secretary of State. So he had big worries about Stalin and postwar antagonisms between the former allies. The two argued and they came to no conclusion at all. Byrnes thought they were naïve. Szilard and Byrnes have both written about this in their memoirs. They both discussed it in a 1960 interview in U.S. News and World Report. Based on that I was able in fact to coauthor a play about that meeting called “Uranium + Peaches.” When Szilard left for the train station he said, “I’ve never been as depressed in my life.” What would have happened had he been born in the United States and become influential in American politics, and had Byrnes been born in Hungary and become a physicist? He said, “In all likelihood there would be no atom bomb and there would be no nuclear arms race with Russia.” So his first attempt to stop the bomb had failed.
He went back to Chicago and there he worked with James Franck, who was a Nobel Laureate, and Eugene Rabinowitch and other scientists to draft at the request of the Secretary of War a report that became known as the Franck Report, which argued about postwar controls and also urged a demonstration of the bomb before it was used on cities. The Franck Report went to the Secretary of War and had little effect on the way the decision to use the bomb actually occurred.
In the third then desperate attempt to stop the bomb, Szilard remembered, “As an American citizen I have the right to petition the President.” And he drafted a petition to President Harry Truman in which he didn’t call for a demonstration as the Franck Report had, but just for moral consideration for using this weapon before you use it on cities. In all, 155 Manhattan Project scientists signed it at Chicago and at Oak Ridge.
Ralph Lapp took this petition to Los Alamos on one of his trips there and a copy was given to Edward Teller and other people. Teller went to Oppenheimer with the petition and said, “Szilard has sent me this petition, can we circulate it?”
And Oppenheimer said, “Absolutely not. It’s not our responsibility to be calling the shots in policy.” And so he banned the petition’s circulation at Los Alamos.
In the opera “Doctor Atomic,” it isn’t quite that way. Edward Teller is waving a petition that he received from his friend, Leo Szilard, the petition is passed around to all the scientists and they debate and they talk about it. Unfortunately, thanks to Oppenheimer, that never happened. The Army was suspicious. Szilard agreed the petition would go through the normal channels. He wouldn’t send a letter or have Einstein forward it.
It was going to go through the normal channels of the Army. First in Chicago and then at Oak Ridge, which was the intermediary step to the Pentagon, they [Army officials] were suspicious of what was in this petition. So they commissioned a poll. They said, “How many of you scientists really think we should demonstrate the bomb?” And to their chagrin they found eighty-three percent said some kind of a demonstration out of the five options they were given should be used. But that advice was ignored. As we know for lots of other reasons, the bomb had a life of its own. There was no real debated decision about the bomb. It was made available and it was used. And afterwards we’ve been debating ever since as to whether it should be used or not.
But Szilard at that point then knew he said that they were about to test the bomb. This would have been in mid-July when his petition was being prepared. He said he knew that because the phone connection to Los Alamos had been cut off, so something was going on. Sure enough, on the 16th of July the first bomb was tested in New Mexico.
The first bomb was dropped, the Hiroshima bomb, on August 6th, and the second bomb was dropped on August 9th. Szilard was asked later, “What was your reaction when Hiroshima was bombed?”
And he said, “I felt a great sense of relief,” because now he could finally talk about the bomb in public. He took the petition and he tried to have Science publish the petition to show that scientists were on record as saying that this should not be used against a non-atomic enemy as it had been planned to be used against an atomic enemy, Germany. It should not be used as an offensive, but only as a defensive weapon.
General Groves heard about this and he had already put some censorship controls in place. He told the editors at Science they could not publish the petition, because it was secret. But it wasn’t secret, so he stamped it SECRET. It was not declassified until 1961 and it was not published until 1963, a year before Szilard died. After the War Szilard said, “he most powerful weapon of the Manhattan Project was not the A-Bomb, it was the SECRET stamp.”
Kelly: That’s great.
Lanouette: Okay. Do you want to talk about the founding of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists or anything else?
Kelly: Yeah, sure. That would be great.
Lanouette: Beginning in the fall of 1945, the scientists in Chicago formed a Federation of Atomic Scientists. At Los Alamos there was a Federation of Los Alamos Scientists. There was a similar group at Oak Ridge. They eventually became the Federation of American Scientists, which is today still a powerful group of scientists in the whole public debate about arms control and other public issues. In Chicago a number of scientists said the public should be educated and they founded the monthly magazine the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which continues today. Not published but on websites with a very informative and effective website about science and world affairs.
Okay, we’re into the fall of 1945. During the war, General Groves tried to have Szilard locked up as an enemy alien and he failed. He next tried to get the Manhattan Project to have the chain reaction patent free of charge. Szilard extracted at least his expenses. After the War Szilard [misspoke: Groves] privately sent to his assistant, Colonel Nichols, instructions that Szilard should be fired from the project, and that his contract should not be renewed. In turn though, Szilard got a sort of revenge. I’m not sure he meant it to be personal, but it certainly destroyed Groves.
Right after the war there was an idea that the control of the A-Bomb should stay in the Army. A May-Johnson Bill was proposed that would make the Army the custodian of atomic energy and atomic energy research. Szilard rallied Harold Urey, Oppenheimer, and even Fermi and others to testify against this. They thought there should be civilian control of atomic energy. In fact, I think they wasted about a year over this particular issue.
But here’s why they wanted civilian control. At this point, they had shocked the world with two bombs. They knew they were in a nuclear arms race and they said, “Unless we have civilians and not the military controlling atomic technology, no other power will believe us and try to enter into any kind of an agreement.” So their first step was to take it out of the hands of the Army. Remember, during the war there was a time when Groves said the scientists all ought to wear uniforms, and that was a contentious issue. Remember also that from the very beginning, the scientists really were calling the shots. They knew much more than the Army or anybody else until the project developed. So here they were saying, “We now need civilian control for the reason it would affect our negotiation.” And they successfully beat the May-Johnson Bill. Groves of course was furious about this. He thought he was going to be a conquering hero.
The man who had made the bomb was now going to be running the atomic program after the War, and with the defeat of the May-Johnson Bill he was out of a job. You can imagine his hatred of Szilard at that point. It spilled out in interviews the following year. So then the next effort was to create a Civilian Atomic Energy Commission. And this was done under Senator Brien McMahon from Connecticut. They drew up plans, and Szilard helped negotiate, along with some lawyers in the White House, to create a Civilian Atomic Energy Commission. There were hearings held about this, and this eventually passed and became law. In the spring of 1945 [misspoke: 1946] a reporter for Time magazine on the same day interviewed Leo Szilard and General Groves. By this point the idea of a civilian Atomic Energy Commission was already in play and Groves was furious at what had happened to what he thought was going to be a capstone of his career.
Lanouette: On the 8th March in 1946, the Time reporter, Francis Henderson, interviewed both Groves and Szilard about the debate of whether there should be civilian control. Groves by this point was fuming with what had happened to Army control and ultimately to his career. “Do you know his background?” Groves asked, not waiting for her reply. “Well, Szilard was born in Hungary and served in the German Army, or rather the Austrian Army. After the First World War, he studied, he didn’t teach, didn’t so to speak earn his way. In this country he was at Columbia and there never teaching, never doing anything really you might say, but learn everywhere he went, from what I hear. He was hard to work with, the kind of man that any employer would have fired as a troublemaker — in the days before the Wagner Act,” which was a 1935 law granting minimal employee rights.
Henderson said, “It was Szilard who had initiated research that led to the Manhattan Project.”
And Groves had to say, “Yes, as a matter of fact I might even go so far as to say that if it hadn’t been for Szilard, it would never have reached the President.” Then realizing that he had complimented Szilard, Groves added, “Only a man with his brass would have pushed through to the President. Take Wigner or Fermi, they’re not Jewish. They’re quiet, shy, modest, and just interested in learning.”
“Then why was Szilard kept on the Project?” Henderson wondered.
“Well, he was already on it. He transferred from Columbia out to Chicago, and frankly, we would have let him go except we didn’t trust him loose.”
So you can see the suspicion. And then later in life Groves became so bitter that he actually wrote letters to encyclopedias saying that the entry that they had on Szilard was too big, that he was unimportant, and that he should not be remembered in history. The chapter in my book, “A Last Fight with the General,” is really sad reading because it shows how embittered Groves became about Szilard, almost obsessed about Szilard.
In fact, in 1954 when there was a security hearing on the security credentials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Groves was a witness. Groves was a witness in favor of Oppenheimer. If you read the transcript, and I found a copy of Szilard’s copy in which he marked it up, here in the middle of talking about this serious problem with Oppenheimer’s security clearances, Groves goes off on a soliloquy about troublesome scientists, and about troublemakers who he thought slowed down the project. It’s in the context where publically Szilard had said it was Groves’ compartmentalization that kept them from working together and doing things sooner. But Groves thought that that was the only way it would work.
So here in the middle of a very intense security hearing on Oppenheimer, Groves goes off for two and a half pages in this transcript about troublesome scientists, in which he says, “They were troublemakers and we should have fired them. If this were Germany, we would have just lined them up and shot them.” Groves couldn’t get Szilard out of his mind. It’s the classic science/military conflict that lives to this day.
Lanouette: Oppenheimer was charged in the security hearing, which was actually secret, in part because he had some Communist associations. But principally I think because Lewis Strauss, who was head of the Atomic Energy Commission, wanted his friend Edward Teller to be the new Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was quite controversial when he didn’t support the idea of a hydrogen bomb, and so he became a target for those who wanted to pursue the nuclear arms race with the new hydrogen weapon.
Szilard heard that his good friend Edward Teller was going to be called in to testify about Oppenheimer, and he feared that Teller would testify against Oppenheimer. And so the night before the hearing that Teller testified in, he [Szilard] flew down from New York to Washington and tried to find Teller to try to talk him out of testifying against Oppenheimer. Szilard didn’t particularly like Oppenheimer personally, but he did respect the notion that you should restrict thermonuclear weapons, hydrogen weapons. And so he admired him professionally.
Szilard and Oppenheimer had a run-in shortly after Szilard had met with James Byrnes. On the 28th of May in 1945, Szilard took a train back from Spartanburg, and in General Groves’ own office in Washington arranged a meeting with Oppenheimer. Now that day was one of the meeting days of the Interim Committee, and Oppenheimer was one of the scientists who was invited to give advice to the Interim Committee. In General Groves’ office, Oppenheimer and Szilard squared off. Szilard argued about a demonstration. Szilard argued about international control. Above all, Szilard argued that you shouldn’t use this weapon on civilians. He used some crass language, but Oppenheimer said in effect, “This is a useless weapon. It has no military value. It has only shock value.” He dismissed Szilard’s notion that it might somehow be negotiated or controlled. Oppenheimer, when he went into the Interim Committee and subsequent meetings, argued for using the bomb on cities. It was only after the month of September that Oppenheimer had second thoughts about this and came around to be known today as someone who criticized the use of the bomb.
So Szilard, at that crucial point when Oppenheimer might have made a difference, if anyone could have, Szilard felt he was betrayed by Oppenheimer and that the view of the scientists was really not represented in the Interim Committee. He had almost no other contact with Oppenheimer, but he did agree with his views on the hydrogen bomb, and so he didn’t want Teller testifying against Oppenheimer who he thought still should have a voice in public policy. He ran all over Washington, D.C. the night before Teller was going to testify trying to find him. It turned out that the lawyers for the AEC had Teller sequestered and he couldn’t have found him anyway. So he went back to the hotel room. His wife was with him at the time, and said, “I can’t find Teller. And if I can’t find Teller I’m going to have to defend Oppenheimer the rest of my life.”
But Teller did testify. He testified against Oppenheimer and became an outcast in the scientific community as a result. It was something that Szilard tried to prevent, in part not so much because he liked Oppenheimer, but he liked Teller. Teller was a good, dear personal friend. And in the years that followed, they disagreed bitterly over whether you could trust the Russians to control nuclear weapons, whether you could have test bans and other things. But they were always personal friends to the end. It was his personal concern for Teller that he wanted him not to testify against Oppenheimer.
Kelly: Do you want to talk about his dedication to arms control?
Lanouette: Sure. As we’ve seen even before the bomb was used, Szilard was worried about international control of atomic weapons, to try to stop nuclear proliferation. As soon as the bomb was used and he knew that the Allies were meeting in Moscow in December of 1945, he tried to arrange to have scientists from the Soviet Union and the U.S. and Britain sit in on those meetings. He always thought that scientists—not only in this case—knew more than anybody else about these weapons, but that they had reason and that reason would somehow inform the international scene. And that the reasonable advice of scientists would somehow control the nuclear arms race. That idea was dismissed.
Afterwards for several years he tried various informal ways of getting Russian and American scientists to talk behind the scenes. This eventually came to pass in 1957 when he helped set up and was the first participant in the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. It was Russians and Americans and Britons and people from several other countries met in Pugwash, Nova Scotia – which is why it has that distinctive title – and ever since have been working for scientists to meet among themselves and then to advise their governments on chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, health hazards, anything where science feels it has a voice in the public debate.
Szilard attended the first organizing meeting after the first Pugwash meeting. The meeting was in Pugwash that summer in Nova Scotia. That December, Bertrand Russell was one of the people who had organized what led to the Pugwash Conferences. They were having a planning meeting. Szilard happened to be in London, he sat in. I get this story from Joseph Rotblat, who was the leader of Pugwash for a long time. Bertrand Russell wanted to politicize Pugwash. He wanted to make it a public movement like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament where people were marching, in that case to the military bases. They were marching to Trafalgar Square. He wanted it to be public. Do you remember the peace symbol with the line in the circle? He wanted to politicize and publicize Pugwash. According to Joseph Rotblat at that meeting, Szilard was only sitting in but had attended the first Pugwash and then said, “No, you can’t do that. The only value of this is that it’s behind the scenes and that it be off the record.” He persuaded enough of the members who were deciding to talk Bertrand Russell out of making it public, and it remained to this day something that goes on behind the scenes. In 1995 on the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, Joseph Rotblat, the leader, and Pugwash received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Kelly: That’s good. One thing that would be good is if you can describe how Szilard in his efforts took over lobbying from the lobby, and kind of talk about his eccentricities about not liking to rent an apartment, but rather staying in a hotel.
Lanouette: After the war, Szilard as he had during the war, tried almost any way he could to influence controls over nuclear proliferation. In 1947 he wrote a political satire called “My Trial as a War Criminal.” It was published in 1949 in a University of Chicago publication. In this there’s a Third World War and Russia wins and they come to this country and they round up all of the people who had anything to do with the atomic bomb, because the U.S. was the only country to have used the atomic bomb on civilians. So Truman and Byrnes and Oppenheimer and Fermi and Szilard are all rounded up. I won’t spoil the story, it’s worth reading, as to why they were never tried as war criminals. But it was Szilard’s early effort to say that scientists have a responsibility for what they do. In 1961 a collection of Szilard’s short stories with the lead story, “The Voice of the Dolphins,” was published by Simon & Schuster, and it was a popular well-reviewed book. In that collection was, “My Trial as a War Criminal.”
In the Soviet Union at the secret city where they were making thermonuclear weapons, Victor Adamsky, a colleague of Andrei Sakharov, read that essay and thought enough to translate it and shared it with his colleague, Andrei Sakharov. And according to Richard Rhodes, Adamsky, for his book on the hydrogen bomb called, “Dark Sun,” Adamsky says that that story by Szilard got Sakharov thinking about his moral responsibilities and eventually drove him to the activism that led to the Nobel Peace Prize and his concern about arms control.
Victor Adamsky also read, “Genius in the Shadows” when it first came out and decided he would translate that. He wrote a wonderful new introduction about Szilard and how Szilard was an individual who, despite all the political structure, the military structure, managed to be effective. He was almost like a free neutron himself. He admired Szilard for being outside of power, but also still being able to mobilize power in a special way. There is now a Russian edition of “Genius in the Shadows,” which was translated by the very grateful Victor Adamsky.
Szilard never lived in a house. He never learned to drive. He always lived in hotels or faculty clubs. He always kept two bags packed as he had since Hitler took power, just in case. And he was always footloose. Victor Weisskopf, who knew him well in Berlin and later in the United States, said, “Leo Szilard was a man who had an office in Chicago, a wife in Denver, and lived in a hotel in New York.” I found instances when he was actually living in two hotels at once. He was still checked into the King’s Crown Hotel at Columbia, but in the early ‘50s he helped set up Brandeis University and was one of the first professors there, and he had a hotel in Boston the same day he had hotel rooms in a couple of cities. He was always very itinerant.
When I first worked on the Szilard biography, his papers had not yet been organized. So I found that the organization was by the color of the suitcase that they had been found in. The plaid bag from Mt. Vernon contained all of these documents. And then the blue bag from New York. He had stashed all these bags with other relatives and after his death they all came out of the closets, and that’s how we have the very rich Leo Szilard archive.
Incidentally, the National Archives has given a grant to the University of California, San Diego, to digitize all of Szilard’s papers. That project is going on right now and it will take close to a year. And then every document and picture in the Szilard archive will be available on the Internet.
Szilard never really liked living in a house. He didn’t know what a house was. He visited his brother-in-law in Boston one time and he wanted a tour. He wanted to know how the laundry was done. He wanted to know how the furnace worked, where did they get water pressure, where do they store their clothes. And he in effect got a tour of a typical American house, which was really quite strange to him. He lived beginning in 1961 in the DuPont Plaza Hotel, which is on Dupont Circle in Washington. He was here to lobby the new Kennedy Administration. He had some friends from Pugwash, including Jerome Wiesner, who was the President’s Science Advisor. And he wanted to come and bring the “sweet voice of reason” to Washington.
He did this by lobbying from the lobby. He didn’t want to arrange for an office, and he found his own hotel room too small. So he took over the desk in the lobby of the Dupont Plaza Hotel, which is normally reserved for visitors writing postcards, invited in a secretary, held interviews there, invited people to come and visit him. There’s a wonderful photograph in Life magazine of Szilard working away. There’s a doorman in the background and the front desk of the hotel and there’s Szilard working away at his desk in the lobby of the Dupont Plaza Hotel.
Szilard still kept trying after 1961 to influence policy. He was elected to be a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and within a week of being elected he wanted to have a petition by members of the National Academy of Sciences condemning President Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. He sent this around. He discovered very painfully that in fact petitions weren’t the way you should behave anymore, because he sent a copy to James Franck, who had been his colleague and his advisor and with whom he shared many things, and Franck wrote him a very touching but powerful letter saying that, “It’s not our right as scientists just because we’re scientists to intervene in all sorts of policy debate unless it’s specific to our own concern. And in this case, atomic scientists had nothing to do with the invasion by mercenaries in Cuba.” I think it really affected Szilard. And afterwards he realized petitions were really not the way to influence policy.
He thought instead he would buy politicians. In “The Voice of the Dolphins,” which is a tale about how the nuclear arms race ultimately ended in the 1980s, he wrote in the 1960s that there was a joint U.S.-Soviet study center in Vienna and that they enlisted dolphins, who had the biggest cranial capacity of any mammal, and they taught them language and they taught them math and the dolphins worked up all these wonderful solutions that won them Nobel Prizes.
They funneled the money from the Nobel Prizes into this foundation and they arranged to have a radio broadcast called, “The Voice of the Dolphins,” in which worldwide they gave sound advice, he thought reasonable advice, on how the world’s problems should be solved. But in “The Voice of the Dolphins,” there’s a second way of influencing policy, and that is to take these millions of dollars that the institute had and just bribe someone to do the right thing. Well Szilard didn’t quite do that with Congress, but he came close in the following way.
He said, “The only way we’re going to have arms control is if we have treaties.” They were Nonproliferation Treaties. They were Test Ban Treaties. Treaties are approved by the Senate. So if you can have enough sympathetic Senators for arms control in the Senate then you will pass treaties and the treaties will in effect at least begin to control the nuclear arms race. So he created something called the “Council to Abolish War,” in 1962, which quickly was renamed “The Council for a Livable World.”
And he said what they wanted to do was to bundle donations. So they would pick Senators and candidates for the Senate who were sympathetic to arms control, write to their members and say, “You should write a check to Senator So and So.” And then the Council would bundle this money and deliver it to the Senator. But he said, “There’s a certain calculus here. Every State has two Senators. So you don’t want to go to the large population states, you go to the small population states where for much less money you’re able to influence.” And for something like sixty thousand dollars, they influenced the [South Dakota] campaign of George McGovern, who became their first successful candidate in the U.S. Senate.
The Council for a Livable World continues. Every year they try to identify Senators and now Congressmen who are sympathetic to arms control and their issues, and then they tell their members to write checks to those particular people. This was Szilard’s final effect. He wasn’t going to affect public opinion with a petition. He was finally going to put people who cared about these issues in places where they could apply the pressure.
Szilard was living at the Dupont Plaza Hotel, trying to influence Congress through the Council for a Livable World and trying to influence the Kennedy Administration through the several scientists he knew in and around the White House. But when Kennedy was assassinated, he really lost heart. He had no contact with the Johnson White House, and by this time he was also concerned about an entirely different effort, namely biology.
As early as 1932 he met Max Delbruck, a physicist in Berlin and they talked about biology. Delbruck like many others was moving from physics to biology. Szilard saw biology as the next theoretical science after physics. He was about to become a biologist by working at the University of London in September 1933 when he thought up the chain reaction, and it wasn’t until 1946 after he was fired from the Manhattan Project that he took up biology again. But he did quite successfully and eventually proposed some ideas that won other people the Nobel Prize. He was interested in a critical mass of biologists.
For example, he became frustrated with the idea that you had to publish something, submit some paper, have it peer-reviewed, and then have it published in a journal and [only then] that other people might see it. So he convened in and around the University of Chicago what they called a “Molecular Biology Marching and Chowder Society.” He got Salvador Luria, later a Nobel Laureate, James Watson, later a Nobel Laureate, Joshua Lederberg [later a Nobel Laureate], and several other biologists: just meet for dinner once a month and share your ideas. That short-circuited by many months the exchange of ideas. Francois Jacob, who won a Nobel Prize with Szilard’s idea, later described him as being “An intellectual bumblebee.” And he loved to just cross pollinate ideas with ideas.
He’d go to a party and he’d take someone aside and he’d interrogate them in the bedroom, “You tell me this. So and so says that.” Then he flies to another city, “So and so says this. What are you doing?”
He arrived at the Pasteur Institute in the mid-1950s, and he heard that they were looking at a particular problem with enzyme control, whether it was a repressive or an anti-repressive trigger that set this off. In other words, something about the on/off switch of this enzyme regulation. Szilard thought that in fact it was anti-repression and not repression that was leading to this. Jacques Monod, who also won the Nobel Prize for this idea said despite his persistent belief that it wasn’t true he finally tested Szilard’s idea and it proved to be true. So in their speech in 1965, the year after Szilard died, both Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod acknowledged [at the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm] that it was Szilard who was behind this idea. And when they first published this idea not as an endnote but just as a final note was that “The visit of Dr. Szilard to the Pasteur Institute led us to do what we had done, which was a major discovery in biology.” So Szilard had these ideas, but again he didn’t have a lab of his own.
He didn’t really stick to it. He was just glad to get these ideas out.
But then he started thinking with William Doering, who was then a chemist at Yale and also a colleague on the Council for a Livable World later on, he thought, “You really should have a study institute that looks at the hard science and looks at the social implications.” At the time, Jonah Salk, who had developed a successful virus control for polio, was thinking of creating a biology study center in Pittsburgh where he had done his work in the polio virus. Szilard said to Salk, “No first-rate scientist is going to move to Pittsburgh. You should go to San Diego, California. Here’s why.” In the 1950s Szilard had been a consultant at General Atomics in San Diego. The new University of California, San Diego, campus was being created. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography was there, and Szilard saw this as a place where biology especially would find a new center. He said, “You should locate in San Diego, especially La Jolla, California.”
It helped because the mayor of San Diego had been a polio victim as a child and was very sympathetic to this idea and donated the [city’s] land. There was lots of public land available for what’s now the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Szilard was one of the first fellows of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and there he did some instrumental work in memory and recall with a paper that’s still respected.
Unfortunately, he died about four months after he moved to San Diego. So the Salk Institute continued without him. But that’s another one of his legacies, another institution he helped create, which to this day has become the focal point for biological and biotech research in San Diego. It’s become a cluster as Silicon Valley was and still is with other technology.
Kelly: Just thinking about how we want to close this. Do you want to go to the Ten Commandments?
Lanouette: That’s a good idea. Yeah. I could also describe how his ashes went up in balloons. Do you want to do that?
Lanouette: Let’s do the Ten Commandments first. The Einstein letter to FDR is dated April [misspoke: August] 2nd, and it’s the date that Szilard and Teller actually met with Einstein and agreed on the draft. On August 4th, Szilard had serious thoughts about what they were doing, so serious that they almost become cosmological. He thought that what they were doing was going to change the face of the world. With the Einstein drafts in the mail, he at last had a chance to pause to think about what he was doing to face the awesome and chilling consequences of his actions. This new collaboration with Einstein brought back Szilard’s earlier reflections with his mentor on the fate of humanity with questions of God.
Now Szilard felt compelled to make sense of this dreadful future they were about to create. What better expert to turn to than God himself. So Szilard decided to write his own Ten Commandments. For example, instead of “Honor thy Father and thy Mother,” Szilard says, “Honor Children. Listen reverently to their words and speak to them with infinite love.” Instead of “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness,” he says, “Do Not Lie Without Need.” And instead of “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” he says, “Do Not Destroy What You Cannot Create.” The Szilard Ten Commandments are very much more humanistic and very much more personal than the admonition that Moses had laid down on the human race.
In fact, I thought of a fun play called “The Big Ten,” about when Szilard dies and goes to heaven and at first Saint Peter doesn’t want to let him in because he’s a self-professed mass murderer. But finally he does and then God calls him in and he says, “Dr. Szilard, you wrote your own Ten Commandments,” and he calls in Moses. The play goes on with God and Moses and Szilard deciding which Ten Commandments are the best. This was something that he did that survives to this day; I think is a personal touch of Szilard’s own notion of man’s place in the world.
Szilard was very happy as one of the first fellows at the Salk Institute. He especially liked brainstorming with Jacob Bronowski and with Francis Crick. He was having the time of his life. Unfortunately, early in the morning of May 30, 1964, he died in his sleep of a massive heart attack. At the memorial service at the Salk Institute, Jonas Salk talked about how Szilard’s work in peace and in science were all of one piece to make this a better world.
In 1960, Szilard had contracted bladder cancer and worked out his own radiation method, which in fact had cured him to bladder cancer. Ed Lennox, who was a biologist at the Salk Institute, reflected on how if Szilard was able to cure himself of bladder cancer, why he couldn’t also prevent a heart attack? He concluded, “God never would have got Leo if he had been awake.”
Szilard left instructions that rather than bury his ashes, they should be put in brightly colored balloons and released so at least it would delight all of the children. That never happened until many years later. In 1998, on the hundredth anniversary of Szilard’s death [misspoke: birth], Szilard’s ashes were divided. Half of them went to the Kerepesi Cemetery in [Budapest,] Hungary and the other half went to the Lakeview Cemetery in Ithaca, New York, where his wife’s family was buried. And at that time, some great-nieces and some great-nephews put some of Szilard’s ashes into an airmail envelope and wrote on it, “He did his best,” which is what Szilard wanted as his epitaph, and with brightly colored balloons released Szilard’s ashes off in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean.
The title of the book that I wrote about Szilard is called “Genius in the Shadows,” because in part he’s not as well-known as other people. This happened for several reasons.
First of all, he was bright and thought if you just thought up bright ideas and gave them to people in power that that would be enough.
Second, he changed fields. Most people who become famous in science are famous for being a biologist, or a chemist, or an astrophysicist. Szilard was a physicist in which he worked first on information theory and then put that aside. And then he worked on atomic energy. Later he worked on biology, again sharing ideas, and in fact giving ideas away. And so there was no real public record or awareness of how Szilard was going to be remembered.
There was a scientist, Andrei Sakharov, who publically protested the use of nuclear weapons. There was a scientist, the chemist Linus Pauling, who became a celebrity for the demonstrations that he arranged [against nuclear weapons tests]. Some scientists have been famous for the kind of work they did, but Szilard missed out on that kind of limelight. I think also General Groves had a hand in this and that he tried to diminish Szilard’s role afterwards in terms of how Szilard would be remembered.
But I think also the fact was that Szilard was always so far ahead of his time, that everything he was thinking about was only recognized years later as being traceable to him. For example, I did an article for the Atlantic Monthly about the nuclear breeder reactor, and I said in this article I was researching, “Where does the chain reaction come from? Leo Szilard. Where does the breeder reaction come from? Leo Szilard. The first breeder built says [was named for] Enrico Fermi. Where’s this guy Szilard?” And when I started this article, I wrote him into the article, and then discovered his brother [Bela], and then wrote this biography, but there was no biography of Leo Szilard.
Somehow, he really slipped through the cracks. And in part I think it’s because he did so many things so well, but did them so modestly or so secretly that he was never really remembered. He also had a name that’s really hard to spell and pronounce.
But more importantly, I think he was somebody who always lived in the realm of ideas. And to the extent that those ideas have touched us, I think we should all be grateful.