‘An Intellectual Bumblebee’

Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, The Man Behind the Bomb

by William Lanouette, with Bela Silard, foreword by Jonas Salk
Scribner's/A Robert Stewart book, 587 pp., $35.00

On August 13, 1940, Lt. Col. S.V. Constant of US Military Intelligence reported: “ENRICO FERMI…. He is supposed to have left Italy because of the fact that his wife is Jewish…. He is undoubtedly a Fascist…. Employment of this person on secret work is not recommended.” “MR SZELARD. [sic] He is a Jewish refugee from Hungary. It is understood that his family were wealthy merchants in Hungary and were able to come to the United States with most of their money…. He is stated to be very pro-German…. Employment of this person on secret work is not recommended.”

Fermi was not a fascist, and Szilard lived in terror of the Germans; his family was neither wealthy nor had it come to the United States, but no matter. Had military intelligence been heeded, the atomic bomb would not have been built and the coming of the atomic age would have been at least delayed.

Leo Szilard was born in Budapest in 1898, the son of a successful Jewish civil engineer. He was mentally precocious but physically lazy, preferring to organize his playmates than to take part in games himself; he made close friends and suddenly dropped them, habits that he was to maintain throughout his life. Szilard’s mother, though originally Jewish and a nonbeliever, had worked out her own practical religion based on Jesus’ teaching, and she inculcated strong ethical values in her children. They were to guide one side of Leo’s life; another was guided by the persistence and multiplication of his childhood terrors.

As engineering students at Budapest’s Technical University in 1919, Leo and his brother Bela supported Bela Kun’s short-lived Communist regime. After Kun’s government was overthrown, they were hounded by the police and attacked by anti-Semitic students. Leo decided to continue his studies in Berlin. To mislead the border police, he took an excursion steamer going up the Danube to Vienna. As he sadly watched the Hungarian shores recede, an old Hungarian farmer returning to Canada after a home visit tried to console him: “Beglad, as long as you live, you’ll remember this as the happiest day of your life!” Szilard would not have become famous if he had stayed at home, but he was to spend the rest of his lonely life as a vagabond in hotels and temporary lodgings.

In Berlin Szilard enrolled as an engineering student at the Technical University as his father wished, but engineering soon bored him. On discovering the weekly physics seminars at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University attended by Albert Einstein and other eminent scientists, Szilard switched to physics. For his Ph.D. he wrote a brilliant mathematical thesis on a theory of fluctuations derived from thermodynamics which was later published, and he followed this with an ingenious paper on how entropy in a thermodynamic system can be reduced by the intervention of intelligent beings, showing that information is equivalent to negative entropy, i.e., to less disorder. 1 The second paper foreshadowed the information theory that was later developed by Claude…

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