Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Leo Szilard - Father of the Bomb?

The title is a question, not a declaration. Who is father of the bomb? Einstein, Roosevelt, Oppenheimer, Fermi? How about a strange little Hungarian refugee you probably never heard of named Leo Szilard. He gets my vote anyway, and would be impossible to leave him out in any even halfway comprehensive account of the making of the atomic bomb.

If you have ever read anything about the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to build the atomic bomb, then you know literally thousands of people contributed to its creation, and that dozens can be said to be significant players. Many books on the subject leave most of them out.

Leo Szilard stands out for three primary reasons: he was the first to conceive of the chain reaction which was necessary to release the tremendous energy within the atoms. He was also the inspiration behind Einstein’s famous letter to Roosevelt that initiated the American push to develop the bomb. He, with another great scientist, developed the primitive atomic reactor that let us know the bomb was truly a reality. That he also later became the leader of the scientific community’s effort to prohibit use of the bomb, just makes him more interesting.

So, who was this genius (and yes, he was a genius, despite the popular overuse of the word)? His story and accomplishments will rivet and surprise you.

Szilard was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1898. He would grow to be a short portly man, perhaps a stereotypical absent-minded scientist who would do his best thinking taking walks or soaking in a tub. At age 16, he won the national prize in mathematics. He wanted to study physics but knew it had no future for him in Hungary. He served in World War I, but came down with the Spanish flu. It probably saved him from certain death; the fate of most of his regiment.

He later went to Germany to further his education, leaving a Hungary that was changing from a Communist government to a fascist one. In taking a break from what he believed was an unsolvable thesis problem posed by a professor, he came up with an answer to a problem in thermodynamics which he brought to the already world famous Einstein at a seminar. Although Einstein first thought Szilard’s idea was impossible, he quickly understood the brilliant solution. This scenario would repeat itself years later in more important circumstances, when his relationship with Einstein would come in handy. They filed several patents for inventions together, the most important being for an electro-magnetic refrigeration device.

Relying on his work to achieve his doctorate, he began studying nuclear physics.
In 1929 Szilard conceived what was later known as the cyclotron and patented it. The cyclotron is the basic device used to circulate atomic particles and crash them together using a magnetic field. It was the beginning of what is known as “big physics” which concerns virtually all major physics’ investigations today. He took it no further than the patent. Only a few months later an American, Ernest O. Lawrence, also destined for fame, came up with the same idea. Lawrence made a small working model and ended up with the Nobel Prize. Like so many of Szilard’s ideas, he did little with them, once they were patented.

Szilard’s greatest work was made possible by the discovery of the neutron in 1932. Being without an electric charge (unlike the positively charged proton with which it shared the nucleus, or the negatively charged electron which surrounded the nucleus) the neutron could pass through the nucleus’ electric barrier. This opened up the possibility, although doubted by many leading scientists, that the energy of the atom could be tapped. This was not long before Hitler came to power in 1933. That year Szilard took a train to Vienna. One day later he would have been among those stopped and interrogated by Nazis. He eventually wound up in Britain, an out of work Jewish refugee.

It was there, reading an article by the great Lord Rutherford, one of the founders of atomic physics, that he learned that he thought it “moonshine” that atomic energy could ever be used on an industrial scale. Szilard took a walk, and standing at a street corner, was struck by an idea he later thought of as his "moonshine" idea.

Richard Rhodes’ voluminous but brilliant The Making of the Atomic Bomb begins with Szilard’s epiphany of the chain reaction. If I can whet your appetite for this book by quoting the opening paragraph, then this blog is worth all of the other blogs in the world posted today:

“In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come”.

Szilard’s idea of a chain reaction was borrowed from chemistry. If he could find the right material to bombard a nucleus with its neutrons, one might enter it and cause two to be knocked out, and if those two entered two more nuclei . . . and so on, what would ordinarily be a tiny bit of energy, perhaps enough to move a grain of sand, would become, when multiplied trillions of times, energy sufficient to power the world, or blow it up.

A determined do-gooder, Szilard made great efforts to help other German scientists escape Germany and get settled where they could do their work. But, he was not well known himself, and was out of work. He did not have the facilities to test his chain reaction theory. Some element was needed which would fire out enough neutrons to do the job.

That work fell to another great scientist, Enrico Fermi, an Italian who made many great discoveries as a physicist, and is in the very top tier of physicists. He was far more disciplined, and certainly less erratic, than Szilard. Fermi had the lab, the materials, the technology and the assistants to test various substances to see which might create a chain reaction, an idea he came up with independently from Szilard.

But we are not discussing the making of the bomb in its entirety and will follow Szilard instead of Fermi, and wind up at the same place. Szilard continued to amend his patent ideas, including one patent which described what was later called critical mass, that is, sufficient radioactive substance to make the chain reaction self sustaining.

He wrote in that patent amendment these words . . .

“If the thickness (of the radioactive material) is larger than the critical value . . . I can produce an explosion”.

Szilard believed that Rutherford (not to mention Einstein and many other famous scientists) was wrong in believing that atomic power was not possible and that fictional writers who conceived nuclear energy were correct. Although Szilard was highly influenced by an H.G. Wells’ novel which, written on the eve of World War I, considered the destruction of the world by atomic bombs as occurring in the distant future -- 1956, he was more interested in using atomic energy to enable man to leave the earth and even the solar system, or to enforce world peace. He had a sort of complex messianic streak, coupled with genius and awesome self confidence with which he hoped to save mankind.

Although highly trained in physics, he had difficulty getting or holding a job. Fact was, Szilard was “brilliant but lazy” (I actually got that line from Spider-Man II). Despite all his inventions, he was almost purely a theoretician and felt performing experiments was beneath him. There was also a prejudice against him in England because he took out patents for his inventions, which was bad form among British scientists at the time.

He applied to work at Rutherford’s famed Cavendish Lab at Cambridge but was rejected. He thereafter was able to begin experimental work at the rival, but less important, Oxford lab, where he established himself as a nuclear physicist.

Szilard's devotion to what he believed was the truth regardless of its acceptance by established authority figures is quite attractive and brave. “I had never done work in nuclear physics before, but Oxford considered me an expert. . . Cambridge . . . would never had made that mistake. For them I was just an upstart who might make all sorts of observations, but these observations could not be regarded as discoveries until they had been repeated at Cambridge and confirmed”.

It was during this time period that Szilard came to a political conclusion which may have won World War II for the allies (quite a claim, I realize, but it was at least, one of a number of decisions that won it, and not Szilard's only one). Szilard had a profound and prophetic political eye, and was not only certain of Germany’s rearming, but also that war between it and Britain would happen long before others. He realized that if Germany developed the bomb (still just a notion) before Britain or America, it would be a disaster.

Therefore, in order to prevent Germany from learning of it, Szilard offered his patent for the chain reaction to the War Department, which, characteristically of good and wise similar acts, was rejected. Only when an older more influential scientist who worked with them intervened, did they accept it. Szilard set out to convince others to keep their work a secret. There can be little doubt that if the traditional method of publication following discovery had continued in nuclear physics, Germany’s scientists may have had a chance to learn enough from the future allies to beat them to the bomb.

Szilard ended up in America about a year before the war would begin, just as he predicted, something he had recommended to other refugee scientists (and also one Trude Weiss, who would much later become his wife). There he learned of the possibilities of uranium being the catalyst for which he was looking.

Eventually, Szilard was introduced to Fermi, whom he requested keep his discoveries pertaining to a chain reaction a secret. These ideas, although bouncing around academia, were virtually unknown to the public or government. Fermi thought the possibility of a chain reaction was small and should be played down; Szilard the opposite. But Szilard was determined to make it a secret and was eventually successful, at least as to the most important discoveries.

While Szilard’s battle for secrecy went on, he and Fermi worked together on a crucial experiment -- creating a chain reaction. Well, as far as the actual physical work went, Fermi did it with Szilard’s stand in. Szilard told Fermi he did not want to dirty his hands like a painter’s assistant. Fermi found this ridiculous and never worked with Szilard again. However, Szilard made many important contributions, and working together, they eventually succeeded in the chain reaction in a dramatic experiment (that could easily have gone out of control) which has, as we all know, changed the world, and our expectations of its survival. But it would not occur until December 2, 1942.

Prior to that experiment’s fateful conclusion, while Fermi was away in the Summer of 1939, Szilard dealt with something equally important. He was aware that the tiny country of Belgium was in possession of huge amounts of uranium mined from their colony in the Congo. It was in danger of being captured by Hitler. He also wanted the United States government to get involved. Szilard knew of someone whose reputation was irreproachable and who could get the ear of any government. Moreover, he also personally knew Belgium’s Queen. His name -- Albert Einstein, Szilard's old friend and fellow inventor.

Using a future Nobel prize winner and fellow Hungarian, Eugene Wigner, as chauffeur for a trip out to the Northeast end of Long Island to where Einstein was summering, Szilard was shocked to find out that Einstein (no longer at the forefront of physics) did not even know about chain reactions. Once Szilard explained, he quickly caught on. Einstein agreed to help, and drafted a letter to the Queen, which Szilard took with him.

Later that Summer, Szilard was able to make an appointment with a Roosevelt acquaintance who agreed to take a letter from Einstein to the president. Using Einstein’s draft letter to the Belgian Queen Elizabeth, he now drafted one to Roosevelt from Einstein.

The two of them worked together on further drafts on Szilard’s second trip to Eastern Long Island (at Nassau Point, which Szilard couldn't find then, and you would have difficulty finding now). Incidentally, Szilard’s chauffeur for that second trip was Edward Teller, a brilliant but difficult man who would later become father of the hydrogen bomb. Eventually, Einstein signed two letters to Roosevelt, a shorter and then a longer version.

The letter was transmitted to Roosevelt, and, of course, the rest is history, which I will not go into here in detail. I presume readers of this blog knows that the atomic bomb was developed as the “Manhattan Project” and that bombs were made at Los Alamos, New Mexico, with which the United States, after Germany had already surrendered, at least in part forced the capitulation of Japan by exploding the devices, dropped by airplanes, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The readiness of the Soviet Union to at long last enter the fray against Japan also played a role in captitulation and some have argued the greater role.

Thus, Einstein’s famous letter to Roosevelt, now in the Smithsonian Institute, was more a product of Szilard’s hand, than Einstein. Though both took part in the drafting, Einstein would not even have been aware of the possibility of a chain reaction without Szilard, or thought to contact Roosevelt.

Szilard was not allowed much participation in building the bomb once the first chain reaction occurred in late 1942. He was kept clear of Los Alamos and mostly languished in Chicago’s Met Lab. He and General Leslie Groves, who ran the project from the government end, were at loggerheads from the beginning. Groves later described Szilard as “the kind of man that any employer would have fired as a troublemaker.” Groves and Szilard fought over the competition between security and scientific openness. They fought about Szilard’s pay and property rights in his inventions. Although Szilard, a private citizen, was finally paid for his work during the war while it was still ongoing, it wasn’t until ten years after the war that Szilard and Fermi won a joint patent for the nuclear reactor.

Not surprisingly, Groves later described Szilard as “unprincipled, amoral and immoral” and “an inveterate troublemaker and not a great scientist.” “He was an [entrepreneur], not a scientist." This was ridiculous, and it may be unfair to Groves to present it in a vacuum, as he was under insane pressure and did a magnificent, if not almost impossible job in supervising the entire project.

Groves even had Szilard under surveillance, assuming that the Hungarian pain in his neck was also a spy. Frankly, paranoia about the project was so great that even Einstein was not completely trusted, because of his pacifist politics. It is actually a wonder that Szilard, a fearless and relentless gadfly if there ever was one, was not locked up for the duration of the war. In 1945, prior to the use of the bomb, Szilard organized scientists against the bomb’s use. He was able to see Eleanor Roosevelt in an effort to get to the president, but Roosevelt soon died. Using a Missouri contact in the Chicago lab, Szilard almost got to see Truman, who had only learned of the bomb upon Roosevelt’s death, but was shunted aside to an underling.

Szilard was devastated by the bomb’s use in Japan and felt personally guilty. He had conceived the bomb as a prelude to his vision of peace under a world government on a Platonic model. He belatedly realized the destruction and problems the bomb would cause. Although I wouldn’t give two cents for the success of his utopian visions, which were no doubt born out of his own experiences in twentieth century totalitarianism, Szilard could be remarkably farsighted, envisioning both the bomb and its consequences before it was seen by others.

After the war, Szilard changed specialties, becoming a biologist (he was, after all, barred from working in the nuclear field dominated by the government which he had more than anyone else brought into the picture), and made important contributions in that field. He worked with Francis Crick and Jonas Salk. He was the author of an interesting, but not great, book, called The Voice of the Dolphins, his vision of world peace, and a few others you probably don't want to read. He married in his early fifties to his old friend, Gertrude Weiss, and died at age 66, on May 30, 1964, of a heart attack.

Szilard’s colleague’s, many of them Nobel Prize winners or deserving of the award, thought him a brilliant and more importantly, incredibly original and independent thinker. Eugene Wigner wrote that if all that was necessary were ideas, Szilard could have done the Manhattan Project all by by himself.

Why do awe inspiring scientists like Szilard get forgotten? Life goes on, that’s all. Today, brilliant scientists are submerged behind the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of the world. However, like Nikola Tesla, who you may have read about here recently, it seems almost impossible that someone so important should be so easily wiped away from memory. Then again, this past semester I asked my college class who among them had heard of the Marx Brothers and was met with almost complete silence. So it goes.

Does Szilard deserve the title – Father of the bomb? Let’s put it this way, Rhodes began his magnum opus with Szilard's insight into the chain reaction. Szilard was the glue throughout the entire book -- wherever it wandered, it came back to his story. Rhodes even began his Epilogue with Szilard too. If Rhodes had voted on the "Father of the Bomb," I think he would have picked Szilard.

Recommended reading:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb is not only the best and most comprehensive treatment of the project and its antecedents (and I’ve read a number of them), it is also possibly the single best history or non-fiction book that I have ever read, and that’s a lot of books.

Of course, it is not for everyone. If you don’t like history or science (don’t panic, no math necessary), World War II stories, daring commando raids, hair raising escapes, behind the scene politics, mysterious conversations, intellectual battles between the world's greatest scientists, between scientists and soldiers, scientists and politicians, the interpersonal relationships of the great men of this century, incomparable drama, massive death, powerful explosions, personal sacrifice and “a ripping good yarn” as they used to say, then don’t read it. If you are interested, I promise you that there will be no disappointment. It is 790 pages of text, which will probably scare away most people. I have started to read it for a second time, slowly, a page or two at a time.

As for exclusive Szilard biographies, I have read only one with the excellent title Genius in the Shadows, by William Lanouette. It was a thorough and enjoyable book. I know of one other, Prophet of the Atomic Age: Leo Szilard, which I have not read, and it would probably be harder to find.

Or you could stop here, with this posting, and say, that’s enough.


  1. Nice. I have been searching for some proof to support the comment heard in a conversation last night that Szilard resented Einstein because, Einstein had stolen his work or credit for his work.
    I loved reading your blog about this.
    Genius in the Shadows is selling for $104 on Amazon but I found a kindle version for $2.99.
    I know this is an old post but, I wanted you to know it was appreciated.
    I want to put a group of scientist in a fictional setting and I want to see the human side of these men. Not always an easy thing to find!
    Thanks Again,

  2. I don't think Szilard resented him at all. They actually had done some work on refrigeration together and he knew he needed Einstein to get to Roosevelt because of his star power. Szilard was a brilliant man intellectually, but not really interested in fame or fortune the way many others were.

  3. David,

    Thanks you for your thoughtful blog about Szilard and for your kind words about my biography. In 2013 Skyhorse Publishing brought out an updated and expanded edition with a new Introduction and some new photos, in paperback and in e-book and for sale on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, etc. A reasonably priced hardback of the new edition is available from Daedalus Books. Bill Lanouette

    1. Thanks for the update. Good book.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .