It is amazing sometimes how a work of fiction can set a person’s imagination on fire. Apparently, The World Set Free was such a work of fiction to Leo Szilard. Leo Szilard might not be as well known as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, or Max Planck, however, it is very likely that Leo Szilard’s work as a physicist will have the greatest, and most terrible, impact on mankind’s future.
Leo Szilard came from an upper class Jewish-Hungarian family. In the early 1920’s, he immigrated to Germany and had the good fortune to study physics with some of the world’s greatest physicists, including Albert Einstein. Many of the physicists Leo Szilard met during the 1920’s, would later work together on the Manhattan Project.
Einstein characterized Szilard: He “is a genuinely intelligent man, not generally inclined to fall for illusions. Perhaps, like many such people, he tends to overestimate the role of rational though in human life. The Martians of Science: Five Physicists who Changed the Twentieth Century, István Hargittai.
Although Einstein said that Szilard was not inclined to fall for illusions, Szilard seemed to have an uncanny ability to predict the future. Szilard realized early that the Nazi’s would make life intolerable for Jews living in Germany, and eventually all of Europe.
Szilard saw what was coming, even if not in precise terms, but even he could not have foreseen the extent of the horrors that would be unfolding in a few years’ time. For many people, though, the gradual nature of the worsening situation worked as a sedative. The Martians of Science: Five Physicists who Changed the Twentieth Century, István Hargittai.
Szilard warned his friends and family that they should leave Europe long before the start of World War II.
During a brief visit to Budapest in early 1933, Szilard tried to convince his brother and parents to get out of Europe, but they thought that he was exaggerating. He also warned a friend, Alice Eppinger, again to no avail. The Martians of Science: Five Physicists who Changed the Twentieth Century, István Hargittai.
At the very beginning of 1933, Szilard foresaw the deterioration of the situation in Germany and urged Michael Polanyi to leave. Polanyi had been offered an appointment at the University of Manchester, but he could not imagine highly cultured Germany falling for the Nazis. In a few months’ time, however, he could, and he moved to Manchester with his family. The Martians of Science: Five Physicists who Changed the Twentieth Century, István Hargittai.
Eventually, Szilard took his own advice and fled Nazi Germany in early 1933. He learned a very valuable lesson that we all should probably contemplate in the years to come.
Even though Szilard could not have imagined Auschwitz, he warned everybody who would listen to him to leave. He left Germany on March 30, 1933, crossing the border into Czechoslovakia on March 31. The next day Germany closed her borders to would-be refugees, and from then on it was much more difficult to leave. This was a close call that Szilard considered a lesson for the rest of his life: “If you want to succeed in this world you don’t have to be much cleverer than other people; you just have to be one day earlier. The Martians of Science: Five Physicists who Changed the Twentieth Century, István Hargittai.
Szilard was not alone in recognizing the danger that the Nazi’s control of Germany posed, many Jews left Germany after the Nazi’s took power. However, the vast majority of the Jews in Germany, as well as the majority of Jews in the rest of Europe, failed to pay heed to the Nazi’s threat, and they eventually paid the ultimate price.
After Szilard fled to England, he read H.G. Well’s book The World Set Free, and he turned his attention to researching experimental nuclear isotopes. Szilard could not only read the political signs of the times, but he was also able to make other predictions with a great degree of specificity.
A hospital director, F.L. Hopwood, warned Szilard that he should not violate regulations about the use of isotopes. He wanted to underline the importance of adhering to the rules, and to make Szilard aware of the fact that when he looked out the window, he saw walls that “have been standing here for over FIVE HUNDRED YEARS.” Szilard was not someone to be impressed easily by such a warning considering his disregard for the past. Now he had the added weight of the anticipated war. He responded to Hopwood that “these walls may not be standing here TEN YEARS from now.” Sadly, Szilard was proved right; the walls were destroyed by German bombing in World War II. The Martians of Science: Five Physicists who Changed the Twentieth Century, István Hargittai.
After Szilard read H.G. Wells’ book The World Set Free, he became preoccupied with the possibility of creating an atomic bomb. While in England, Szilard filed a patent for a nuclear chain reaction, and his experiments would eventually lay the groundwork for building the world’s first atomic bomb.
In 1934, Szilard filed for a patent for the nuclear chain reaction. Martians of Science: Five Physicists who Changed the Twentieth Century, István Hargittai.
Later, Szilard also patented the idea of a nuclear reactor with Enrico Fermi. Leo Szilard did much of his research on isotopes while living in England, but he also spent a lot of time commuting back and forth to the United States during the early 1930’s. While living in England, Szilard made another specific prediction about when he would permanently move to the United States.
In 1935, Szilard predicted that he would return to England until “ONE YEAR before the war.” … By the time Szilard arrived in New York in the spring of 1937, he had filed for immigration to become a U.S. citizen. The Munich Agreement between Nazi Germany and Great Britain and France was signed on September 30, 1938. That made Szilard decide to stay in the United States rather than travel to England, which he should have done according to an agreement with Oxford University. World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, and once again Szilard’s foresight had proved to be prophetic. The Martians of Science: Five Physicists who Changed the Twentieth Century, István Hargittai.
When Leo Szilard learned that German scientists had discovered uranium fission in 1938, he drafted a letter to President Roosevelt warning that Germany might be developing an atomic bomb, and urged the President to begin a nuclear program in the United States. Szilard then asked his old friend and mentor, Albert Einstein, to sign the letter and forward it to Roosevelt. The letter was the catalyst for the beginning of the Manhattan Project, and eventually it led to the creation of the first atomic bombs by the United States.
Leo Szilard, and other physicists who worked on the Manhattan project, hoped that atomic bombs would never be used on people. They hoped that the mere threat of atomic bombs would cause Germany and Japan to surrender, but over Szilard’s protests atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August of 1945. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 people died because of those two atomic bombs, half of the deaths occurred on the first day and most of them were civilians.
Leo Szilard was the true father of Nuclear weapons. If he had not written his letter to President Roosevelt, and then had his friend Albert Einstein sign it, the United States would never have spent billions of dollars during World War 2 in order to develop the atomic bomb. Einstein said that if he had known at the time that Germany was not pursuing its own nuclear bomb program, he would never have signed Szilard’s letter.
Most interesting to me, in 1931, a few years before Leo Szilard took an interest in Nuclear physics, his friend Eugene Wigner managed to get him an invitation to spend a year teaching physics in Princeton. When Szilard first arrived in New York City, he had a terrible premonition.
Szilard’s first impression of New York City was that it seemed unreal. Is it likely that it will be here a hundred years from now? Somehow I had a strong conviction that it wouldn’t be there. I asked myself what could possibly make it disappear. I asked myself… and found no answer. And yet the feeling persisted that it was not here to stay. It was Christmas Day, 1931. Genius in the Shadows, William Lanquette.
The United States is the only country to have ever used atomic weapons in wartime or on civilians. Could Szilard, the future father of the atomic bomb, have had a premonition that one day New York City would be ground zero for a nuclear attack within a hundred years? Jesus gave a stern warning to Peter when he pulled out his sword:
Mat 26:52 Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
Could it be that they who use atomic weapons are doomed to perish with atomic weapons? Also, Napalm, another terrible weapon, was developed at Harvard University in 1942. Napalm is a gelling agent mixed with gasoline that sticks to the skin and causes severe burns. It was used extensively by the United States during World War 2 against Germany and Japan, and it was also used during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Could Leo Szilard have had a premonition of the future punishment of Babylon the Great?
Rev 17:15 And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.
Rev 17:16 And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire.