The reluctant author of the nuclear age

April 11, 1993|By Stanley A. Blumberg

GENIUS IN THE SHADOWS: A BIOGRAPHY OF LEO SZILARD, THE MAN BEHIND THE BOMB. William Lanouette with Bela Silard. Scribner's.

587 pages. $35. It is not generally known that in 1934, physicist Leo Szilard filed the world's first patent on the process of nuclear fission. Despite this achievement, which laid the theoretical foundation for nuclear fission, the Hungarian-born scientist had to scrounge for money to pay for his experiments and his living expenses.

Because of Szilard's pioneering work, and the patent (filed secretly with the British admiralty), he -- rather than J. Robert Oppenheimer -- is to scientists "the father of the atomic bomb."

William Lanouette is well-equipped to write this first complete biography of Szilard. Among his other credits, the author is a former Washington correspondent for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

His collaborator, Bela Silard -- Leo's brother -- translated his parents' memoirs and aided the lead author in locating documents and private letters that give substance and depth to this excellent work.

Szilard was born on Feb. 11, 1898, in Budapest. His father, Louis, was a prosperous contractor. The fact that he was Jewish did not, at that time, hamper his success. Tekla, Louis' wife, was the wealthy daughter of a prominent physician who divided his time between his practice and playing chess.

By the age of 6, their precocious oldest son, Leo, read children's stories in German. By 9, he began to read and speak French. He was taught English by his governess.

The children -- Leo, Bela and their sister, Rose -- enjoyed all the cultural and financial advantages of an upper-middle-class family. Their father spoiled them, while their mother attempted to teach moral and social responsibility. These two forces influenced Szilard's character for the rest of his life.

He was a sensitive and cerebral child who was known to faint at the sight of blood. He detested violence and avoided strenuous exercise to the point of refusing to learn to swim or to ride a bicycle.

World War I intruded upon the family's peaceful and comfortable existence. After graduating with high honors from high school, Szilard was called up but was given a brief deferment to continue engineering studies.

After the defeat of the Central Powers, he feared the growth of anti-Semitism. He went to the reform church in his neighborhood

and applied to change his religion to Calvinism. In spite of his conversion, when he and Bela returned to their engineering school to register, they were stopped by a dozen students.

One shouted, "You cannot stay here -- you're a Jew." The Szilard brothers were beaten and kicked as they retreated.

It was clear they would not be able to continue their studies in Budapest. In the winter of 1919, Leo, followed by Bela, escaped from Hungary. In Berlin, he enrolled in the Technical Institute, but was soon bored.

As he later explained: "I really lost interest in engineering." It was too much "routine application of already established knowledge."

A cocky and self-confident Leo Szilard was admitted as a student at Berlin University. It was a fortunate choice, for in the 1920s Berlin was the capital of modern physics. He breezed through the courses without much apparent effort.

He studied under, and established a long friendship with, Albert Einstein. Szilard broke new ground with his doctoral thesis and became an assistant instructor in 1925.

With the rise of fascism in 1933, he was forced to leave Germany. He moved to London, where he was one of the prime figures in trying to resettle academic refugees.

Szilard enjoyed challenging accepted theories. Mr. Lanouette lTC writes that in 1911, Ernest Rutherford "envisioned the atom as having a small, heavy core, or nucleus."

During a lecture on Sept. 11, 1933, Rutherford concluded that the splitting of the nucleus "was a poor way of producing energy, and anyone who looked for this as a source of power was talking moonshine."

Szilard decided that it was the great Lord Rutherford who was talking "moonshine." One day, while strolling the streets of London, he concluded that "Rutherford might be wrong."

He wrote: "It suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons, and which would emit two neutrons when absorbed by one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction."

The Hungarian physicist realized the implications of his discovery. Nuclear fission not only could be used to produce the bomb but also could be a source of power.

But this was only a theory. Szilard tried, with limited success, to persuade research laboratories to conduct the necessary experiments. One port of call was the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England.

Rutherford agreed to meet Szilard "for a short time." For some reason, the Hungarian gave Rutherford an incomplete explanation of his theory and, as he later told his friend Edward Teller, "I was thrown out of his office."

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