1898–1964: evolution, revolution, or subversion?

Leo Szilard pursued physics, biology, and nuclear arms control in creative and impish ways by defying traditional scientific and political methods. He worked within established disciplines to negate and reformulate both ideas and ideologies. Interacting with the likes of Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Bertrand Russell, Szilard pioneered discoveries in nuclear physics and advanced the cause of world peace. He challenged other Nobel laureates — and world leaders such as President Truman and Pre-mier Khrushchev — to rethink their assumptions and to reform their policies. Along with his keen insights and playful ingenuity, Szilard also employed humor and blackmail.

HE PHILOSOPHER–HISTORIAN Thomas Kuhn proposed that science advances not by ‘evolution’ in small and steady increments, but by ‘revolution’. Science does not creep forward, he said; instead, it lurches in rare and dramatic ‘paradigm shifts’ from one world view to another (Kuhn, 1970; Chapman, 1995).

Yet consider a different explanation for scientific progress, one personified by the physicist, biologist, and arms-control activist Leo Szilard (1898–1964). Szilard worked at science in a third way: not by evolution or revolution, but by subversion. He ad-vanced by infiltrating, negating and reformulating what was already known by other scientists; by twisting conventional wisdom into unconventional discoveries.

Recalling his first encounter with Szilard in 1947, the Nobel laureate Jacques Monod said that: Many of the questions seemed very unusual, startling, almost incongruous. I was not sure I understood them all, especially since he insisted on redefining the basic problems in his own terms, rather than mine.1

Another Nobel laureate, physicist Hans Bethe, said Szilard was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. His mind worked quickly and pro-foundly, and he was able to come to ideas that most of us appreciated only after many hours of talk. This was his strength and, of course, also his weakness. He was always ahead of his time. His ideas often were expressed in paradoxes, and the paradoxes were not always understood. 2

Szilardian science
Szilard was a visionary for both science and politics in the 20th century. In science, he devised the basis for information theory in the 1920s by imagining himself as ‘Maxwell’s Demon’, the imaginary imp in a classic thermodynamics puzzle. The Demon controlled molecules in a way that seemed to defy the Second Law.3 However, Szilard realized that to succeed the Demon had to use his memory, thus combining entropy with information.

Szilard thought up and patented the nuclear ‘chain reaction’ in the 1930s by defying Nobel physicist Ernest Rutherford’s proclamation that gaining energy from atoms was “moonshine”. Rutherford had split atoms using alpha particles, but Szilard substituted the newly discovered neutron to bombard atomic nuclei, adding the concept of a critical mass to envision self-sustaining chain reactions. With Enrico Fermi, Szilard co-designed the world’s first nuclear reactor in 1939. When their invention first worked, in 1942, Szilard recalled, “I shook hands with Fermi, and I said I thought this day would go down as a black day in the history of mankind”.4

From the 1940s to the 1960s, Szilard took on mo-lecular biology, devising ways to clone mammalian cells and to explain negative feedback regulation.5

When Szilard saw in 1954 that biologists Philip Marcus and Theodore Puck were having trouble growing individual cells into colonies, he concluded that “since cells grow with high efficiency when they have many neighbors, you should not let a single cell know it’s alone”. This was no flippant excursion into psychobiology. Rather, Szilard’s idea to use a layered feeder dish worked, while the open dish had not (Lanouette, 1992: 396–397).

Szilard is given credit by Monod for the negative-feedback idea behind his 1965 Nobel prize. “I have … recorded” in my Nobel lecture, said Monod, “how it was Szilard who decisively reconciled me with the idea (repulsive to me, until then) that enzyme induction reflected an anti-repressive effect, rather than the reverse, as I tried, unduly, to stick to.”6

Szilard not only dreamt up bright ideas, he also loved to devise new and novel institutions. He founded the Association for Scientific Collaboration in 1939 to fund chain-reaction research with Fermi (Lanouette, 1992: 187).  He helped Jonas Salk establish the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, encour-aging that it study both basic science and the social problems that science creates.7 With CERN as his model, Szilard proposed the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), which thrives today in Heidelberg, Germany.8

Szilardian politics
A true subversive, Szilard approached politics in the same disruptive and creative way. Behind his political drive was a “narrow margin of hope” that he gained as a child and embodied throughout his life. From this he determined that “it is not necessary to succeed in order to persevere”.9 In Budapest, during the 1919 Bela Kun Hungarian Soviet Republic, Szilard founded a socialist students association to help clarify political and economic issues.10 In London, in the 1930s, Szilard helped organize the Aca-demic Assistance Council to aid refugee scholars.11 He also proposed enlisting Nobel laureates to protest Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, the first time this august group was politicized in this way (Weart and Szilard,1978: 36–38; Lanouette, 1992: 141).

Szilard’s best known political efforts involved his mentor and friend, Albert Einstein. In New York, in 1939, Szilard proposed and drafted a letter from Einstein to President Franklin D Roosevelt that warned about German nuclear weapons research and urged a US counter-effort. Why Einstein? Szilard had befriended Einstein in Berlin in the 1920s, and the two developed several joint patents for an electro-magnetic pump. Einstein was known to Roosevelt, while Szilard was not. Also, as Szilard put it, “The one thing most scientists are really afraid of is to make a fool of themselves. Einstein was free from such a fear and this above all is what made his position unique on this occasion”.12

Their letter prompted Roosevelt to convene a federal Advisory Committee on Uranium (with Hungarian physicists Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and Szilard as members) that promised money for Fermi and Szilard to conduct chain-reaction experiments at Columbia University. When this funding from Washington had not materialized by the spring of 1940, Szilard enlisted Einstein in a little-known effort at political blackmail. He drafted for Einstein a letter warning the White House that, if those funds were not forthcoming, Szilard would publish a paper detailing just how a chain reaction in uranium could work. Soon, Fermi and Szilard received their money (Lanouette, 1992: 216).

Szilard drafted another little-known Einstein letter to Roosevelt in March of 1945, this time seeking to influence post-war nuclear arms control. When Roosevelt died in April, before seeing the letter, Szilard called on the Truman White House and was sent, in May, to meet with the new president’s atomic advisor (and soon Secretary of State) James F Byrnes. Szilard brought along chemist Harold Urey, pitting two scientists who had made the bomb and wanted to stop it against the politician who could not wait to use it (Lanouette, 1992: 259–266). The two scientists left the meeting frustrated by Byrnes, who saw the bomb as a way to appease the Congress and intimidate Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.

Undeterred, Szilard helped in June to draft the Franck Report by Manhattan Project scientists urging an A-bomb demonstration (Franck et al, 1945), before dropping it on cities (Lanouette, 1992: 267–269). When that was ignored, Szilard organized a petition to Truman in July signed by 155 Manhattan Project scientists that urged the president to weigh his moral responsibilities. However, the Army delayed the petition, and after the war classified it “Secret”. It was finally declassified in 1961, and first published in 1963, a year before Szilard’s death (Lanouette, 1992: 259–278).
It is ironic that Szilard suffered from atomic secrecy, which he had invented. In the 1930s, when Szilard feared that German scientists would recog-nize what he had found out about chain reactions, he urged colleagues not to publish their nuclear research — a heresy in science at the time. Yet, once the Army took over in 1942, secrecy became law. After the war, Szilard said the most powerful weapon to result from the Manhattan Project was not the A-bomb but the “SECRET” stamp (Lanouette, 2004).

Once A-bombs leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Szilard led American scientists to lobby Congress for civilian control of the atom. Beginning in 1945, he urged direct talks between US and Soviet scientists to curb a nuclear arms race. Scientists should share ideas, he insisted, because they could bring much-needed reason to complex policy matters.

In 1947, Szilard wrote an open letter to Stalin, urging nuclear restraint and proposing radio broadcasts to each others’ citizens by US and Soviet leaders. The same year, Szilard wrote his political satire “My trial as a war criminal” (Szilard, 1949) to dramatize that scientists are responsible for their creations. When this story was republished in 1961, the Russian nuclear physicist Viktor Adamsky read it, then translated it for his colleague Andrei Sakharov. According to historian Richard Rhodes (1995: 282), Sakharov took Szilard’s responsibilities to heart and began his own courageous crusade to halt the arms race he had advanced so brilliantly.13

In 1960, Szilard advocated a new way to coerce public officials to do the right thing: bribery. In The Voice of the Dolphins, a political satire that correctly predicted how the US–Soviet nuclear arms race would run down in the 1980s, Szilard speculated that a fictional research institute might raise money, educate the public, and bribe corrupt officeholders to retire, while rewarding honest ones who make politically tough decisions. “The book is not about the intelligence of the dolphin,” Szilard said, “but about the stupidity of man.” It was both playful and dead serious; much like Szilard himself (Szilard, 1992).

Also in 1960, Szilard became playful and serious during a private meeting with Premier Nikita Khrushchev in New York City. During their two-hour conversation, Szilard gained the Soviet leader’s assent for a Moscow–Washington hot line to help prevent accidental nuclear war. As a gift, Szilard brought Khrushchev a new razor and promised to send him blades as long as there is no war. “If there is war,” said Khrushchev, “I will stop shaving. Most other people will stop shaving, too.” (Lanouette, 1992: 417–420)

In his politics as in his science, Szilard loved to create new institutions. In 1946, Szilard joined with Einstein, Urey, and Bethe in an Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists to educate the public about the dangers from A-bombs and a nuclear arms race. In 1957, Szilard joined the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, and that fall urged that these talks among scientists be kept private, and not be expanded to a mass movement as co-founder Bertrand Russell preferred. Szilard’s view prevailed, assuring a back-channel dialogue for the nuclear superpowers. The Pugwash Conferences, and their leader Joseph Rotblat, received the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for continuing efforts to hold science responsible for its creations.

In April 1961, a week after the CIA’s inept inva-sion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, Szilard was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and he quickly tried to politicize its members. He invited academicians to sign a petition to President Kennedy condemning his administration’s actions and policies.

Only one-sixth of the Academy members signed,14 and an esteemed friend, physicist James Franck, censured Szilard. Franck had appreciated Szilard’s moral and political direction on the Franck Report, but this time he drew a harsh distinction. Franck objected that “scientists as a class believe that their scientific reputation is a proof that they are also experts in political reasoning”. He warned that “we endanger our influence in these particular questions if we speak up as a group in matters not directly connected with our profession”.15

This candid advice led Szilard to abandon petitions as a way to influence political decision-makers. Petitions, Szilard realized, were for outsiders. How, he wondered, could he become a Washington insider? (Lanouette, 1992: 435–438). Szilard’s answer led him to his first and only popular and democratic political effort. In 1962, he founded the Council for a Livable World to raise money for US Senators who favored arms-control treaties. By Szilard’s calculus, all states had two Senators, so votes came cheapest by supporting campaigns in the least populous states.

The Council’s first successful candidate was Senator George McGovern from South Dakota. Today the Council thrives by supporting candidates from all states and the House of Representatives as well. It is America’s first political action committee for arms control and disarmament.

Two questions
For us today, Szilard’s career raises two questions about science and politics. Are scientists more effec-tive working inside or outside their professional and political establishments? How can policy-makers use scientists most effectively?

To the first question I would answer that scientists can influence policy-makers from both inside and outside their governments. J Robert Oppenheimer was famously an insider during and after World War II, but was banished because his views crossed the ambitions of other inside scientists and policy-makers — notably Edward Teller and President Eisenhower’s nuclear adviser and Atomic Energy Commission chairman, Lewis Strauss. Teller played an insider role during his long and influential career in America, advising allies in the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, the US Air Force, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the White House.

Another insider among the Hungarians in the Manhattan Project was John von Neumann, who be-came a member of the Atomic Energy Commission. A third was Eugene Wigner, who analyzed and advocated civil-defense schemes for the National Academy of Sciences and for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Wigner said in 1983 that as a young man he went into science because he knew that as a Jew he would never be prime minister (Wigner, 1992: 287–297).16

Still, outsiders like Szilard have also shaped public policy. Philosopher Bertrand Russell helped cre-ate both the Pugwash Conferences and the British peace movement. Physicist Ralph Lapp publicized the dangers of atomic testing with his expose of the Lucky Dragon, a Japanese fishing boat whose crew suffered from radioactive fallout. Chemist Linus Pauling roused the worldwide opposition to nuclear testing that led to test-ban treaties. “I think that scientists have a special responsibility,” Pauling said. “All human beings, all citizens, have a responsibility for doing their part in the democratic process. But almost every issue has some scientific aspect to it, and this one of nuclear war, or war in general, is of course very much a matter of science.”17

Princeton University physicist Frank von Hippel notes that influencing policy-makers involves both activists who raise, shape, and amplify policies and analysts who study and explain the science and technology behind them. Working together can be a winning combination, von Hippel said, citing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972 and defeat of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or ‘Star Wars’) in the 1980s (von Hippel, 1986).18

To the second question, about how policy-makers can use scientists most effectively, it is worth recall-ing Winston Churchill’s dictum that “science should be on tap, not on top”. Physicist I I Rabi was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee and also served on the Presi-dent’s Science Advisory Committee. Being inside the government is always useful, Rabi has said, even when your advice is ignored. Still, Rabi told fellow Nobel laureate Leon Lederman: “Advisors come and go. Power in this country belongs not to advisors, but to elected officials. If you scientists want your advice to be heeded, get elected! Run for office!” (Lederman, 1988: 225, original emphasis).

Working in and out of government, Hans Bethe continued his criticism of the nuclear arms race as a White House adviser and by publicly urging fellow scientists to boycott work on weapons of mass destruction. Joining with physicist Richard Garwin, Bethe publicly revealed scientific problems with the anti-ballistic missile system, as a way to end its development. The two also undermined the SDI by pointing out that Teller’s dreams for an X-ray laser to shoot down intercontinental missiles would not work as proposed because his calculations ignored a simple fact: the earth is round (Garwin, 2005).

Several Russian scientists besides Sakharov have publicly opposed their government’s policies, among them Yuri Orlov, who founded a Moscow chapter of Amnesty International and the first Helsinki Watch, and Evgeny Pavlovich Velikhov.

A final question concerns us now. Where are the Szilards of today? Who will risk failure to do the right thing? Who will pursue that “narrow margin of hope”? One legacy to recognize today’s policy-minded scientists is the American Physical Society’s Leo Szilard Lectureship Award. Since 1975, this award has honored outstanding accomplishments by scientists working “for the benefit of society in areas such as the environment, arms control, and science policy”.19

In conclusion, Szilard’s message for scientists today is: try anything once. Work by evolution, revolution, and subversion! In a word, experiment.

1. “Foreword” in Feld and Szilard (1972: xvi). Jacques Monod shared the 1965 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine with Francois Jacob and Andre Lwoff “for their discoveries con-cerning genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis” (Hargittai, 2002: 39, 328).

2. Hans Bethe interview, 21 November 1985, in Lanouette (1992: xix) (page references are identical for 1992 and 1994 editions). For personal and historical context on Szilard’s life, see Frank (2004).

3. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that no cyclic process is possible in which heat is absorbed from a reser-voir at a single temperature and converted completely into mechanical work. James Clerk Maxwell (1871), in Theory of Heat, posed a way to defy this law by having an imaginary, impish creature — Maxwell’s Demon — manipulate mole-cules without expending any energy. To do this, Szilard rea-soned, the Demon had to use his memory, thus linking the concepts of entropy and information (Lanouette, 1992: 61–62.

4. CBS Reports interview, broadcast 2 April 1960, transcript page 47 in Leo Szilard Papers, Mandeville Special Collections, Uni-versity of California, San Diego. See Weart and Szilard (1978: 146). Attribution in Source Notes to Mike Wallace interview, WNTA-TV, 27 February 1961. See also “See it now”, November 1952, with Edward R Murrow (Lanouette, 1992: 245).

5. For more on Szilard’s transition from nuclear physics to mo-lecular biology, see Pallo (1998: 141–147; Lanouette (1990).

6. Monod in Feld and Szilard (1972: xvii).

7. “Memorandum to Cass Canfield by William Doering and Leo Szilard (January 11, 1957)” (Feld and Szilard, 1972: 505–524). Working behind the scenes, Szilard helped arrange the funding, select the site in La Jolla, California, and enlist the first fellows.

8. See, for example, Szilard to C F von Weizsacker, 14 Janu-ary 1963 (CERN #1 cc. To Weisskopf, CERN Archive File 20683). See also CERN Report dated 20 August 1963 (File 6808, CERN no 1) and Dakin to Weisskopf, 19 July 1963 (CERN book #1). Szilard helped raise support for EMBO through his approaches to the French Government and the Volkswagen Foundation.

9. Szilard wrote that he gained a “narrow margin of hope” to save mankind after reading the Hungarian epic poem by Imre Madach, The Tragedy of Man (Weart and Szilard,1978: 3; footnote 1).

10. Both before and after World War I, Szilard had attended the Galilei Circle, a cultural movement of free-thinking students in Budapest, which was suppressed in 1919 (Lanouette, 1992: 45–46).

11. Today, the Academic Assistance Council (AAC) survives as the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. AAC’s archives are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Lanou-ette, 1992: 117–127).

12. Szilard note for interview, 18 April 1955 (the day of Einstein’s death) (Weart and Szilard (1978: 83; Lanouette, 1992: 200).

13. “We were amazed by [Szilard’s] paradox”, Rhodes (1995) quotes physicist Viktor Adamsky, a colleague of Andrei Sakharov. “You can’t get away from the fact that we were developing weapons of mass destruction. We thought it was necessary. Such was our inner conviction. But still the moral aspect of it would not let Andrei Dmitrievich [Sakharov] and some of us live in peace.” Adamsky later translated and published a Russian edition of Genius in the Shadows (Lanouette, 1992).

14. Among the signers were Szilard’s friends and colleagues, in-cluding Edward Condon, Max Delbruck, Salvador Luria, Hermann Muller, Harlow Shapley, and Victor Weisskopf.

15. Franck to Szilard, 21 May 1961, Franck Papers (Joseph Re-genstein Library, University of Chicago); Lanouette (1992: 437-438).

16. Eugene Wigner interview, 12 October 1984. For background on the Teller–Strauss efforts against Oppenheimer see McMillan (2005). Wigner’s science/prime minister remark was made during a personal interview with science historian Gabor Pallo.

17. Linus Pauling interview with Harry Kreisler, 18 January 1983 (Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley). Pauling’s six-year, unrelenting campaign against nuclear testing led to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which took effect on 10 October 1963, the day it was announced that Pauling would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1962.

18. See also Primack and von Hippel (1974) and von Hippel (1991). For a recent example of science and decision-making, see Jacobs et al (2005).

19. See the American Physical Society entry for prizes and awards at <http://www.aps.org/praw/index.cfm>, last ac-cessed 10 October 2006. Among the scientists honored for their Szilardian spirit are John A Simpson, Evgeny P Velikhov, Roald Z Sagdeev, Herbert F York, Ray Kidder and Roy Woodruff, John H Gibbons, Kurt Gottfried, Robert H Williams, Thomas Cochran, Carl Sagan, Kosta Tsipis, David R Inglis, Andrei Sakharov, Wolfgang Panofsky, Henry Kendall, Hans Bethe, Sidney Drell, Sherwood Roland, Matthew Meselson, Richard Garwin, and Bernard Feld.

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