Bill Lanouette's Interview



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. Other thoughts? 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? Kelly: Sure. 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.

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