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Nuclear Wizards

Toward a Livable World: Leo Szilard and the Crusade for Nuclear Arms Control

edited by Helen S. Hawkins, edited by G. Allen Greb, edited by Gertrud Weiss Szilard
MIT Press, 499 pp., $50.00

Better a Shield than a Sword: Perspectives on Defense and Technology

by Edward Teller
The Free Press, 257 pp., $19.95

I suppose that a figure could be put to the number of books that tell the story of the unfolding of our nuclear age. There must be hundreds about the development of atomic weapons, and no doubt as many more will be published as further chapters are added to the story. This is not to say that we can all follow what we read about the way the anatomy of the atom was laid bare. What is important is that all of us know that the physicists were not joking when they said that if an atom were split—whatever the term meant—the energy that had previously been bound within the subatomic particles of which it consists could be released, as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to bear witness, as a fabulously destructive force. We can be sure that they are not exaggerating now when they tell us that it is possible to pack sufficient destructive power into a single hydrogen bomb—say, one of the many that could get through President Reagan’s SDI defensive screen—to crush and burn to a frazzle all the inhabitants of Washington, D.C., even all those of the whole of Manhattan. Winston Churchill was on sound ground when he said that the bomb would carry “mankind outside the scope of human control.”1

Obviously that was not what the physicists and mathematicians of the early years of our century were out to achieve. They were striving to penetrate the inner structure of the matter that our senses perceive. Their purpose was to add to the fund of basic knowledge, not to make us either materially richer or politically more powerful. The handful of scholars who had the brains, the imagination, and the courage to try to follow the pioneers went to Berlin, Copenhagen, Cambridge, and to other strongholds of the new physics, moving as peripatetic students from one center to another, until the moment came during the early Thirties when they were stopped by the barrier of fascism.

Among those who joined the freemasonry of the new physics were Isidor Rabi, Leo Szilard, and Edward Teller. All were born in central Europe, all were to play a part in the story of “the bomb,” and all were to have a profound impact on the history of their adopted country, the United States, and indeed of the world. Their professional paths were to converge, for a time coalesce, until the day when one, Teller, struck out in a direction diametrically opposed to that of the other two. The close appearance of the three books with which this review deals is a challenge for us to try to understand the curious relations these men had with each other.

Isidor Rabi, the most distinguished of the three, died this January. He was born in 1898, in a small town in what is now Poland, into a poor and strictly Orthodox Jewish family that emigrated to the United States before he was a year old. What happened next is told in John Rigden’s fascinating book, based as it is on wide reading, on interviews with more than a score of scientists who worked with Rabi, and, most important, on extensive talks with Rabi and his wife.

Rabi’s formal education started in a small Hebrew school in New York, where, without ever abandoning a sense of religious belief, of “the mystery and the philosophy” of the Creation, he started to question Jewish orthodoxy. A local public library had introduced him to a wider world. The Copernican solar system, about which he read in a little book on astronomy, came as a revelation that eliminated his need to believe in a God whose job it was to make the sun rise and set every day. At his next elementary school, he read about socialism and Marxism, which he soon realized did not provide the integrated view of society that he was seeking—for by the age of thirteen he already felt that there had to be some conceptual scheme into which could be fitted the disparate events of the past and present. He built his own radio set, and startled his elders by taking as the theme of the speech that by convention he had to deliver at his bar mitzvah ceremony “How the electric light works.”

The high school where he spent the next four years was a craft school, chosen as a way of escaping from his otherwise narrow environment. He left it “streetwise and self-educated”—streetwise because he had to learn to avoid the gangs that set upon small Jewish boys on their way to and from school; self-educated, because the school left him all the time in the world for his own reading. A scholarship took him to Cornell, which he entered as a student of electrical engineering. He quickly switched to chemistry—and continued the process of self-education through avid reading of whatever caught his fancy. In those days the atmosphere of Cornell was so anti-Semitic that during Rabi’s four undergraduate years he did not get to know a single faculty member. Nor, after he graduated in chemistry in 1919, were there any jobs available either for him or his Jewish classmates. He spent the next three years under the parental roof in New York, moving from one odd job to another, continuing with his reading, and enjoying the close company of three friends who had also graduated with distinction, but who were now in the same boat as he was.

This aimless period ended when he decided to return to Cornell as a graduate student, with his interest now turning to physics. But having failed to secure a fellowship with which to pay his way, he returned to New York, and entered Columbia University. A part-time tutorship at City College provided him with a faint measure of financial security. The subject of his thesis for the Ph.D., which he was awarded in 1926, was the magnetic susceptibilities of crystals, a problem that turned his attention to quantum mechanics. Only the new physics could explain why different atoms have different chemical properties.

A fellowship that he was awarded in 1927 then allowed him to embark on a tour of the European centers where the new subject was flourishing. In Munich, he ran into other American scholars who had set out on the same pilgrimage. He met young European theoretical physicists, among them Hans Bethe and Rudolf Peierls. He moved to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, and then to Wolfgang Pauli in Hamburg. Here he stayed, doing brilliant work in a stimulating intellectual environment. For a short time he studied with Werner Heisenberg in Leipzig, where he met both Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. His final port of call was Zurich, to which Pauli had moved from Hamburg, and where he ran into still more of the pioneers of the new physics, including Szilard and two other Hungarian scholars, Eugene Wigner and John Von Neumann. After some three months there, he returned in 1929 to Columbia, where he had been appointed to a lectureship.

During the next decade, Rabi’s career followed a much more even and far more successful course than did that of either Szilard or Teller. With his reputation as a theoretical physicist already made, he had been appointed to Columbia on the understanding that he would introduce quantum mechanics into the physics curriculum. But Rabi the theorist soon became Rabi the experimentalist. He explored the properties of atomic nuclei by ingenious developments of the molecular-beam technique that he had learned in Stern’s laboratory in Hamburg. The researches which he and his postgraduate students completed during the few years that preceded the Second World War were so outstanding that they not only established him as one of the great masters of his subject, but also won him, in 1944, the Nobel Prize for physics. By this time, he was deep in wartime research, working both on the development of radar at MIT and the atomic bomb at Los Alamos.

Rabi’s achievements were to be later memorialized in a schematic picture of a tree (reproduced by Rigden) which, as it grows, throws out powerful branches from which hang an ever-increasing number of basic scientific discoveries. The Rabi tree takes the story of his impact on the development of physics only to the end of the Fifties. By then it already recorded the names of twenty other Nobel laureates, including a few who had been his pupils. In a tribute to Rabi on his eightieth birthday, it was justly said that he had not only greatly enriched the cultural and intellectual life of Columbia, but had helped to establish the university as a “foremost center of scientific teaching and research.”2

Leo Szilard’s life, as Barton J. Bernstein reveals in his lively introduction to Toward a Livable World, a collection of papers, letters, and documents, was vastly different from Rabi’s. Szilard was born in Budapest in 1898—the same year as Rabi—the son of a prosperous Jewish civil engineer and builder, and was educated at Budapest’s premier Gymnasium, the Minta, where he is described as having been both bright and popular, and from which he graduated in 1916, winning the Hungarian national prize for mathematics. The First World War was on, and no sooner had he entered the university as an engineering student than he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army, from which however he was soon demobilized. When Béla Kun’s short-lived Hungarian Communist revolution broke out in 1919, Szilard decided that it was time to leave Budapest and to move to the University of Berlin.

He had sensed that worse was to come. In those days Jews made up only 5 percent of Hungary’s population of some 20 million, yet they filled between 50 and 60 percent of the professions and, almost more important, controlled 80 percent of the country’s financial institutions. They were powerful in the press and, although only a few were farmers, had come to own 40 percent of the country’s arable land. There were Jewish radicals as well as court Jews—financiers to a Magyar landowning nobility that had managed to keep a third of the country’s population in abject and illiterate poverty. The country was ripe for revolution. As a small but highly successful minority, exercising far more political power than was commensurate with their numbers, the Hungarian Jews were living on the slopes of an anti-Semitic volcano.3

In Berlin, Szilard abandoned the idea of a career in engineering and switched to physics. Never backward, he introduced himself to Einstein, and became a student of Max von Laue, the founder of X-ray crystallography. A highly original and quickly completed piece of research in the field of thermodynamics gained him his Ph.D. He was then appointed a lecturer in the University of Berlin—an appointment that he held until 1933 when, with the advent of Hitler, he left for London.

  1. 1

    Hansard (Commons), 1.3.55, Col. 1895.

  2. 2

    Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Pupin Laboratories (Columbia University Press, 1979).

  3. 3

    Information from Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1986) and the eleventh edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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