Rabi: Scientist and Citizen
by John S. Rigden
Basic Books, 302 pp., $21.95
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.”
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 …