A pioneer scientist of nuclear weapons

One of the most significant discoveries of the second millennium, nuclear power, was conceived by a physicist who is relatively unknown outside his circle of accomplished colleagues. He didn’t receive a Nobel Prize for his genius, but those who did based on his theories credit him for the concept.

Leo Szilard was waiting for a traffic light in London in 1933 when he had a flash idea that a neutron could split an atom’s core and set off a chain reaction of energy. In collaboration with Albert Einstein, the two intellectuals convinced President Franklin Roosevelt that an atomic bomb was feasible to accelerate the end of World War II. The Manhattan Project was created in 1939 and began development of the weapon at Los Alamos, N.M.

Historian William Lanouette wrote a biography of Szilard based on his long-time association with the physicist in the early days of General Atomic in San Diego. His personal impressions of the nuclear age’s reserved pioneer, who died in 1964, were shared with a group in March at UC San Diego’s Faculty Club.

Early experiments in nuclear energy were made at Columbia University, where a reactor was built in 1938. Szilard was one of many Hungarian refugees from Nazi Germany, including Edward Teller, who was among the first scientists recruited to work on the Manhattan Project. The pioneer scientists, who developed the first atomic chain reaction in 1942 using Szilard’s theories, called themselves the Martians.

The Lanouette biography is aptly titled “Genius in the Shadows: a Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb.” It is curious that this provocative prophet who helped create the atomic age hated the military brass hats, the ones who desperately wanted the bomb for military advantage.

After the bomb was used, Szilard was a passionate supporter of arms control. He even considered himself a war criminal for his part in unleashing such tremendous energy against mankind.

“Physics and politics were my two great interests,” Szilard told an audience in his later years. He believed it was an essential partnership to save the human species from annihilation.

The final decision to use the atomic bomb to defeat Japan was the responsibility of President Harry Truman. To boost his decision, the team at the Manhattan Project claimed that the bomb would make the Russians more manageable after the war.

A recent visit to Santa Fe, N.M. gave me an opportunity to refresh my memory of the creation of the atomic bombs at Los Alamos.

The Bradbury Science Museum offers displays and many videos of the building of the laboratory complex in the remote mountain retreat under great security and secrecy. Other videos were taken from the live films transporting the first bomb to the Pacific base where it was loaded on the aircraft and detonated over Hiroshima.

Viewing these films and replicas of the two bombs used to end World War II was the end product of what Leo Szilard and his colleagues conceived 12 years before. Nuclear power was not what the physicists envisioned as a military weapon.

Besides his early theory of atomic chain reaction, the father of the bomb was a key figure in convincing Jonas Salk to establish the Salk Institute in La Jolla. Later as a consultant at General Atomic, Szilard was a vital factor in the development the Torrey Pines complex of biotech and life science research in collaboration with the new campus of UC San Diego.

The university is fortunate to have the personal papers of Leo Szilard in Special Collections at the Geisel Library. The archive also includes the papers of Jonas Salk and two Nobel Laureates, Francis Crick and Harold Urey, among many others who were significant scientists affiliated with UCSD during their illustrious careers.

Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at

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