Leo Szilard (1898-1964)

In What Technology Wants Kevin Kelly argues that we are constrained in our choices of what new technology to adopt; constrained by a dynamic that is inherent in technology and that is independent of our current conception of human nature. I wonder whether he would include nuclear energy in his unavoidable inherent dynamic of technology.

When I was at the impressionable age of 25 my exposure to the world included watching "Dr Strangelove" on its first round of the cinemas. It was characteristic of the 1960s, when the cold war between the US and the USSR was at its most intense, generating a mood characterized Stanley Kubrick's movie, by the term "MAD" (Mutually Assured Destruction), and by Tom Lehrer's skit "Wernher von Braun".

Has the nuclear stand-off ceased to exist in the meantime? Is there a hot line between Presidents Xi, Obama, and Putin for use in case of "nuclear emergencies"? I am not aware of any announcements to this effect, but no one around me seems to feel under the nuclear gun the way we did in the 1960s.

Whether or not nuclear energy is part of What Technology Wants, the fact remains that it came at a particularly inopportune stage of the history of mankind and that we are lucky that we might just escape scot-free. I cannot imagine a more vivid illustration of the moral conflicts of nuclear energy than the life of a single man, a courageous genius named Leo Szilard [1].

In September 1933 he had been mulling over a lecture by Lord Rutherford, one of the great pundits of nuclear physics. In the lecture the lord dismissed practical or military use of nuclear energy as "moonshine". One of Szilard's favourite modes of cerebration was to take walks. While crossing Southampton Row in the Bloomsbury quarter of London, the possibility occurred to him that the release of neutrons might trigger a chain reaction causing the conversion of a tiny amount of mass into a huge amount of energy. Szilard was a refugee from Germany, where Hitler's party had just come to power. He had done research in physics in Berlin and knew that Germany was in the forefront of nuclear research. Szilard hoped fervently that he was wrong in his hunch that the chain reaction could be made to happen. At the same time he realised that it was urgent for the question to be settled by researchers in the free world rather than in Germany.

The odds were against him in Britain, where physicists accepted Rutherford's "moonshine" dismissal. Szilard started a single-handed campaign to perform experiments that might help settle the question. He tried to persuade individual researchers, approached institutions and individuals for financial support, solicited contributions in kind: laboratory space, equipment, materials.

All the while he remained ready to leave Britain. As a twenty-year old he had fled his native Hungary to escape arrest. When the persecution of Jews started in 1933, he had gone to Britain. Even there he did not feel safe from Germany. He prepared immigration to the US and planned to leave Britain one year before the start of the war, just to be safe. When the Munich Pact between Chamberlain and Hitler was signed September 30, 1938, the reaction of most Britons was relief—as Chamberlain phrased it: "Peace For Our Time". At the time Szilard was visiting the US, anxiously monitoring radio broadcasts. His reaction was to send a telegram to his laboratory that he would not return to his job. In this way he verified to a reasonably close degree of approximation his vow to leave Britain one year before the outbreak of war [1, page 176].

In the US Szilard continued his campaingn for experiments to settle the chain reaction question. Again most of his gambits were fruitless, and included many fanciful ones. The response of every government department was, truthfully, "this is not my department". One of the more quixotic gambits was to enlist the help Albert Einstein to send a letter directly to the president of the US to alert him to the fact that the fission of uranium had recently been demonstrated by Hahn and Strassmann in Berlin and to the importance of finding out whether this might lead to a chain reaction. It so happened that the letter had the intended effect: a considerable effort was launched in secrecy, with government funds.

On December 2, 1942 the team led Enrico Fermi and Szilard uncorked a bottle of chianti. The team had improvised a reactor assembly on the campus of the University of Chicago. The cause of the celebration was that the assembly had gone critical on that day. And had been shut down according to plan.

December 2, 1942 seemed to Szilard "a black day in the history of mankind" [1, page 252]. What he had feared since that September day in 1933 turned out to be true. The immediate threat was Germany, where fission of uranium had been first demonstrated in 1938. The next, and biggest, threat was that it was only a matter of time for many other countries to reproduce the new technology.

Szilard continued work on reactors, including among his inventions the breeder reactor. Now that the cat was out of the bag, his main concern was to limit the damage. He returned to lobbying and organizing mode. In an attempt to forestall a US–Soviet arms race he issued a proposal for the international control of nuclear energy. This was a year before the first atomic bomb test. He helped write a report urging a demonstration of the atomic bomb in hopes of preventing their use against Japanese cities. In 1945 he helped found the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a forum for arms-control issues. He helped plan the first Pugwash conference, involving US and Soviet scientists and policy makers in informal talks. It seems likely that contacts thus established made the subsequent test-ban treaties possible.

It was necessary to find out whether the energy-releasing chain reaction is possible. It was impossible to prevent the discovery to occur before the advent of world government. It was (and remains) necessary to prevent the consequences from killing us. Szilard was a genius among the giants of his time. He was unique in grasping all the issues simultaneously, an exemplar of the Hi-Tech Imperative.


[1] Genius in the Shadows: A biography of Leo Szilard, the man behind the bomb by William Lanouette. Scribner, 1993; ISBN 978-0684190112. Also published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2013; ISBN 978-1-62636-023-5. The latter edition contains no mention of the former, so looks like a new publication. It probably is not; e.g. same page count as the Scribner edition.