APS News

Speakers at Centennial Session Pay Tribute to Leo SzilardSpeakers at Centennial Session Pay Tribute to Leo Szilard

Leo Szilard -- physicist, inventor, biologist, writer and occasional diplomat -- was the subject of a special Saturday afternoon session at the APS/AAPT Spring Meeting in Columbus, Ohio, sponsored by the Forum on Physics and Society, the Forum on International Physics, and the Forum on the History of Physics. The session opened with an official greeting from Istvan Szemenyei, counselor for science and technology of the Empbassy of the Republic of Hungary.

In the field of nuclear physics, Szilard's role as an inventor is well recognized, according to V.L. Telegdi of the University of California, San Diego, and CERN. The concept of a sustained nuclear chain reaction is credited to him, and a joint patent with Enrico Fermi covers all the essential features of the carbon-uranium reactor. "His proposals concerning accelerators, covered in applications for patents which never seem to have been issued, have not yet been publicized," Telegedi said. Szilard is also credited with inventing the cyclotron, the linear accelerator and the concept of phase stability, as well as drafting Albert Einstein's 1939 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, which led to the Manhattan Project.

Szilard originated from a polycultural family, according to George Marx of the University of Budapest in Hungary, this year's Beller Lecturer, who discussed Szilard's roots and interdisciplinity. In the early 20th century he grew up in Hungary, at the crossroads of history, where political regimes, national borders, ideological doctrines, and "final truths" changed in a dizzying cavalcade. Instead of conservative dogmatism, this social environment required critical thinking in order to survive. "World War I was the school of John von Neumann, Eugene P. Wigner and Leo Szilard, each of whom learned to trespass political and disciplinary boundaries without inhibition," said Marx. "And their sensitivity for trends had been utilized by the U.S. when war efforts and high tech required orientation under new horizons."

Far from being limited to atomic physics, Szilard's interests ranged from statistical physics through information theory to biological evolution, from life phenomena through hot atoms to nuclear strategy and deterrance. "His intellectual adventures might look like crazy jumps for specialists," said Marx. "But now, looking back to the political and technological history of the 20th century one can see than it was a consequent progress of a future-sensitive mind."

In addition to being a creative physicist and biologist, Szilard's concern about how scientific discoveries might affect humanity led him to seek political solutions to enlarge the benefits and limit the damage caused by his work, many of which were summarized by William Lanouette, a writer and public policy analyst who is the author of Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, The Man Behind the Bomb. This disposition to save the world came to Szilard by the age of 10, when he read The Tragedy of Man, a Hungarian epic poem in which humanity faces extinction yet continues to survive by maintaining a narrow margin of hope. With this hope Szilard brought about improbable scientific and political feats, such as the nuclear chain reaction and the Moscow-Washington Hotline, as well as many attempts in 1945 to prevent the atomic bombing of Japan. In addition, Szilard published a novel, The Voice of the Dolphins, a parable of the technical prowess and moral limitations of our times.

Edward Gerjuoy of the University Pittsburgh closed the session with a description of how, for essentially his entire adult life, Szilard sought to increase the likelihood that the results of basic scientific research -- which have so greatly increased humanity's ability to manipulate the natural world, especially since World War II -- would be used for humanity's benefit. He reviewed and assessed Szilard's endeavors in this quest, reflecting on its significance for those who assembled to honor him 34 years after his death.

A short biography of Szilard appeared in the February 1998 issue of APS News.