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Primer: Leo Szilard June 11, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Photo Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Photo Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

I had another post planned for today, but got waylaid when, working on my physicist web project, I had to piece together the career of Leo Szilard.  The idea behind the project is to gather skeletal information on physicists to help trace career paths, but this doesn’t work very well for Szilard, who was a sort of a physicist vagabond who seems to have cobbled his career together out of temporary and part-time positions, meager patent revenues, and a penchant for a modest existence.  So, I’ve been spending my day immersed in journalist and policy analyst William Lanouette’s Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard (1992), trying to sift out what I can.  Since I’m learning more than enough for a post, I thought I’d just write something up on him while I was at it.

Szilard, the son of an engineer, was born Leo Spitz in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1898.  (His family changed their name in 1900.)  Out of a sense of practicality, Szilard aimed to become an engineer himself, enrolling in the Technical Institute of Budapest, but was drafted into the army during World War I.  After the war, political conditions became difficult for Szilard, on account of his Jewish heritage, and he moved from Hungary to Berlin to continue his education there, first at the Technical Institute and then the University.  In Berlin, Szilard decided to indulge his intellect and study physics in an environment rich in the some of the greatest talent of his day, notably Max von Laue and Albert Einstein.  Submitting a manuscript detailing a new conceptualization of thermodynamics that impressed both these men (and was decades later recognized as a contribution to the integration of thermodynamics and information theory), he was granted his doctorate in 1922.

The key characteristic of Szilard’s work and career was his restless and penetrating intellect, which accepted no boundaries and precious little institutional restraint, and drove him to travel constantly.  He devoted his thinking to equally intense considerations of physics and the general problems of society.  Einstein would recognize a kindred spirit in Szilard’s intellectual boldness and in his social conscience, and would offer the aid of his fame to Szilard at key points in the latter’s life.  However, Szilard’s impatience also limited his ability to find peace in his projects and to make sustained contributions to any given field.  His publication output would remain low throughout his career, though many of his numerous interlocutors might argue that his primary value was in the wealth of ideas that permeated conversations with him.

Szilard would cause friends endless frustrations as he continually failed to take steps toward securing a position for himself, despite their efforts on his behalf.  Between 1922 and 1925, Szilard had no formal affiliation, moving between the university in the city center and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in the suburbs, where he met fellow Hungarian Michael Polanyi, who, like Einstein, would support Szilard’s pursuits where he could.  It was in this period that Szilard also initiated his habit of taking out patent applications on invention ideas, which included a refrigerator without moving parts that he designed with Einstein.  Some academics would view his patent-seeking ways as calling his commitment to pure science into question.  He also spent a great deal of time fantasizing about creating a Bund—a scientifically minded group that would lead the development of society.  In 1925 Szilard secured a position as Max von Laue’s assistant, and in 1928 he became a privatdozent at the university.  However, as at any point in Szilard’s career, it would be a mistake to assume that his position title accurately described his activities.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Szilard left just ahead of the imposition of anti-Semitic regulations, and thereafter he remained suspicious of his security in any location.  He made his way via Austria to London, where he devoted his efforts toward establishing and rallying support for an organization called the Academic Assistance Council, which aimed to help Jewish academic refugees leave Germany and establish themselves elsewhere.  He also developed a short-lived interest in biology that would later rekindle.  However, after hearing of recent work at Cambridge on the transformation of elements through the action of the recently discovered neutron, Szilard immediately became obsessed by the possibility of a chain reaction where neutrons flying off one nucleus would cause others to emit further nuclei, and concentrated his attention on first beryllium and later indium as elements prone to such chain reactions.  In 1934, he took out a patent on the chain reaction process, did nuclear research at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, and from 1935 to 1938 he worked as a fellow in Frederick Lindemann’s Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University, though he spent much of his time in America.

In 1938 Szilard moved to America permanently, settling in a hotel in New York City where, lacking an official affiliation, he did much of his work until 1942.  After the discovery of nuclear fission of uranium and Italian nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi’s move to Columbia University, he spent time trying to rally funding for his nuclear research and to convince others to keep nuclear research secret.  These activities led him in 1939 to persuade Einstein (now at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton) to send a letter Szilard drafted to Pres. Franklin Roosevelt on the potential and danger of nuclear energy, which resulted in the establishment of a uranium advisory committee and $6000 in research funds for him and Fermi to use.  This effort would soon be absorbed into a larger research activity, which became the $2 billion Manhattan Project.  Szilard would spend the war at the project’s reactor research facility at the University of Chicago (he and Fermi would be granted a patent for their lab’s reactor), and his unpredictable antiauthoritarian ways earned him the permanent enmity of Manhattan Project director Gen. Leslie Groves, who viewed him as a threat to the management and security of the project.

By 1944, Szilard had become disturbed by the political consequences of the atomic bomb, and began rallying support from his colleagues for an attempt to stop the bomb from being used during the war, and for shaping postwar policy for control of the bomb.  The end of the war brought fame to nuclear scientists, and Szilard’s role at the project’s origins brought him particular notoriety.  Securing a professorship in biophysics at the University of Chicago (which he pursued intermittently to some success), he spent large amounts of time traveling the country and pushing policy ideas for nuclear arms control.  He became an active participant in the efforts of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago (soon the Federation of Atomic Scientists), their journal The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (which became famous for their “doomsday clock” and was the most important organ for the publication of Szilard’s ideas), and, later, the Pugwash Conferences.

Through the remainder of his career Szilard remained a mercurial idea man, balancing a prodigious production of impractical ideas with suggestions making real influence.  In 1961, long inspired by the works of H. G. Wells, he published his own collection of satirical short stories, The Voice of the Dolphins, with ideas for future policy embedded within.  In 1962, he founded and became co-chair of the board of directors of the political support group, The Council for a Livable World, which still exists.  In 1957, he drummed up support for polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk’s idea for an institute devoted to biological research and social issues, and persuaded him to locate it in La Jolla, California rather than Pittsburgh.  In 1964 Szilard became a research fellow at the Salk Institute shortly before his death that year.



1. Will Thomas - April 3, 2012

Bill Lanouette was kind enough to drop a comment on this post over on the About page, which includes the text of a brief article he wrote for Science and Public Policy, focusing especially on Szilard’s later years. You can also find the original, properly formatted article here, if you have access to that journal.

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