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The Making of the Atomic Bombby Richard Rhodes
In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.
Leo Szilard, the Hungarian theoretical physicist, born of Jewish heritage in Budapest on February 11, 1898, was thirty-five years old in 1933. At five feet, six inches he was not tall even for the day. Nor was he yet the "short fat man," round-faced and potbellied, "his eyes shining with intelligence and wit" and "as generous with his ideas as a Maori chief with his wives," that the French biologist Jacques Monod met in a later year. Midway between trim youth and portly middle age, Szilard had thick, curly, dark hair and an animated face with full lips, flat cheekbones and dark brown eyes. In photographs he still chose to look soulful. He had reason. His deepest ambition, more profound even than his commitment to science, was somehow to save the world.
The Shape of Things to Come was H. G. Wells' new novel, just published, reviewed with avuncular warmth in The Times on September 1. "Mr. Wells' newest 'dream of the future' is its own brilliant justification," The Times praised, obscurely. The visionary English novelist was one among Szilard's network of influential acquaintances, a network he assembled by plating his articulate intelligence with the purest brass.
In 1928, in Berlin, where he was a Privatdozent at the University of Berlin and a confidant and partner in practical invention of Albert Einstein, Szilard had read Wells' tract The Open Conspiracy. The Open Conspiracy was to be a public collusion of science-minded industrialists and financiers to establish a world republic. Thus to save the world. Szilard appropriated Wells' term and used it off and on for the rest of his life. More to the point, he traveled to London in 1929 to meet Wells and bid for the Central European rights to his books. Given Szilard's ambition he would certainly have discussed much more than publishing rights. But the meeting prompted no immediate further connection. He had not yet encountered the most appealing orphan among Wells' Dickensian crowd of tales.
Szilard's past prepared him for his revelation on Southampton Row. He was the son of a civil engineer. His mother was loving and he was well provided for. "I knew languages because we had governesses at home, first in order to learn German and second in order to learn French." He was "sort of a mascot" to classmates at his Gymnasium, the University of Budapest's famous Minta. "When I was young," he told an audience once, "I had two great interests in life; one was physics and the other politics." He remembers informing his awed classmates, at the beginning of the Great War, when he was sixteen, how the fortunes of nations should go, based on his precocious weighing of the belligerents' relative political strength:
I said to them at the time that I did of course not know who would win the war, but I did know how the war ought to end. It ought to end by the defeat of the central powers, that is the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and Germany, and also end by the defeat of Russia. I said I couldn't quite see how this could happen, since they were fighting on opposite sides, but I said that this was really what ought to happen. In retrospect I find it difficult to understand how at the age of sixteen and without any direct knowledge of countries other than Hungary, I was able to make this statement.
He seems to have assembled his essential identity by sixteen. He believed his clarity of judgment peaked then, never to increase further; it "perhaps even declined."
His sixteenth year was the first year of a war that would shatter the political and legal agreements of an age. That coincidence — or catalyst — by itself could turn a young man messianic. To the end of his life he made dull men uncomfortable and vain men mad.
He graduated from the Minta in 1916, taking the Eötvös Prize, the Hungarian national prize in mathematics, and considered his further education. He was interested in physics but "there was no career in physics in Hungary." If he studied physics he could become at best a high school teacher. He thought of studying chemistry, which might be useful later when he picked up physics, but that wasn't likely either to be a living. He settled on electrical engineering. Economic justifications may not tell all. A friend of his studying in Berlin noticed as late as 1922 that Szilard, despite his Eötvös Prize, "felt that his skill in mathematical operations could not compete with that of his colleagues." On the other hand, he was not alone among Hungarians of future prominence in physics in avoiding the backwater science taught in Hungarian universities at the time.
He began engineering studies in Budapest at the King Joseph Institute of Technology, then was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army. Because he had a Gymnasium education he was sent directly to officers' school to train for the cavalry. A leave of absence almost certainly saved his life. He asked for leave ostensibly to give his parents moral support while his brother had a serious operation. In fact, he was ill. He thought he had pneumonia. He wanted to be treated in Budapest, near his parents, rather than in a frontier Army hospital. He waited standing at attention for his commanding officer to appear to hear his request while his fever burned at 102 degrees. The captain was reluctant; Szilard characteristically insisted on his leave and got it, found friends to support him to the train, arrived in Vienna with a lower temperature but a bad cough and reached Budapest and a decent hospital. His illness was diagnosed as Spanish influenza, one of the first cases on the Austro-Hungarian side. The war was winding down. Using "family connections" he arranged some weeks later to be mustered out. "Not long afterward, I heard that my own regiment," sent to the front, "had been under severe attack and that all of my comrades had disappeared."
In the summer of 1919, when Lenin's Hungarian protégé Bela Kun and his Communist and Social Democratic followers established a short-lived Soviet republic in Hungary in the disordered aftermath of Austro-Hungarian defeat, Szilard decided it was time to study abroad. He was twenty-one years old. Just as he arranged for a passport, at the beginning of August, the Kun regime collapsed; he managed another passport from the right-wing regime of Admiral Nicholas Horthy that succeeded it and left Hungary around Christmastime.
Still reluctantly committed to engineering, Szilard enrolled in the Technische Hochschule, the technology institute, in Berlin. But what had seemed necessary in Hungary seemed merely practical in Germany. The physics faculty of the University of Berlin included Nobel laureates Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Max von Laue, theoreticians of the first rank. Fritz Haber, whose method for fixing nitrogen from the air to make nitrates for gunpowder saved Germany from early defeat in the Great War, was only one among many chemists and physicists of distinction at the several government- and industry-sponsored Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in the elegant Berlin suburb of Dahlem. The differen
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