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1964: Father Of, and Advocate Against, the Atomic Bomb

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Physicist Leo SzilardCredit: Wikimedia Commons

On May 30, 1964, physicist Leo Szilard, who helped discover nuclear fission and was both a father of the atomic bomb and an early leader in the campaign to prevent its use and proliferation, died.

Szilard had a remarkably nimble and fertile mind, and in this, he was at least in part responsible for the invention of the cyclotron, the electron microscope, the nuclear accelerator, and the very idea of the nuclear chain reaction. Along with Albert Einstein, he also designed a refrigeration engine with no moving parts.

Leo Szilard was born in Budapest on February 11, 1898 to Louis Spitz, a civil engineer, and the former Thekla Vidor. He was raised and educated in the city, receiving a religious as well as secular education. In 1916, he was the winner of a national mathematics prize. He began studying engineering at Budapest Technical University, only to have his education interrupted by conscription in 1916 during World War I. He was spared being sent to the front when he came down with influenza, and was eventually discharged without seeing action.

The unstable political situation in Hungary following the war and the rise of the fascist regime of Nicholas Horthy in 1920 led Szilard to emigrate. He continued his studies in Berlin, switching soon after his arrival from engineering to physics. He received his PhD in physics from Humboldt University in 1923.

In the decade before Hitler came to power, Szilard taught and did research at several different institutions in Berlin. In 1933, when, as a Jew, he had to resign his academic positions in Germany, Szilard moved to London. There he read an account of a speech by English physicist Ernest Rutherford in which he mocked the idea that the splitting of atoms, and nuclear energy in general, could ever having any practical application. Sziland was irked. According to Rutherford, “anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of the atoms was talking moonshine.”

Szilard’s anger at Rutherford’s dismissal supposedly gave rise to his epiphany, while crossing a London street, of a nuclear chain reaction, in which sub-atomic particles could be used to bombard an atom’s nucleus, thus causing a self-sustaining process that would yield vast amounts of energy.

In 1938, Szilard accepted an offer to come to Columbia University, in New York. The following year he heard about a successful experiment in nuclear fission (the splitting of the nucleus of an atom) in Germany. This, and his own research, filled him with apprehension that the Nazi regime would succeed in developing a weapon of unprecedented power based. An early experiment conducted with Enrico Fermi at Columbia led him to the conclusion that “the world was headed to grief.”

In August 1939, Szilard and physicist Eugene Wigner wrote a letter to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, signed by Albert Einstein, of the danger inherent in Germany’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb, urging the United States to begin its own nuclear-weapons program and stockpile uranium for the purpose. (Szilard was instrumental in convincing the Belgian government not to allow uranium to be exported from the Belgian Congo.)

The Manhattan Project was the consequence of the Szilard-Wigner letter and it culminated in the testing of the first atomic bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945.

By then, Szilard had become convinced that no good could come from actually detonating a bomb over civilian sites, and he urged the U.S. administration to offer the Japanese a demonstration of the bomb’s potential, so that they could surrender before being subjected to nuclear attack. President Harry Truman rejected the idea, and in August of that year, the United States dropped atomic bombs on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, thus bringing the war in the Pacific to a rapid close.

Following World War II, Szilard switched from the study of physics to the field of molecular biology. He also became a campaigner for nuclear disarmament. He correctly anticipated an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and he realized that the United States, having twice used a bomb in war, would have a hard time convincing the other major power to voluntarily set aside its own nuclear aspirations. He wrote widely on the subject and, in 1962, he founded the Council for a Livable World, which continues today to advocate in Washington for disarmament.

In 1962, Szilard became sick with bladder cancer. He took charge of his own treatment with Cobalt-60 radiation, though his doctors warned that the therapy was not safe. He recovered from the cancer, and when he died on this day in 1964, at age 66, it was from a heart attack in his sleep.

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