“Who for life and who for death.” This prayer has gained terrible new meaning in the atomic age. Yet as late as the 1930s, many scientists regarded the practical application of nuclear energy as an impractical dream. If only they had been correct!
By the end of the nineteenth century, many scientists believed that the codes of creation were laid bare. Mankind had plumbed the mysteries of electricity and X-rays, magnetism and chemistry; all that remained was a drop of fine tuning.
As the famed Jewish scientist Albert Michelson (debunker of the ether theory and calculator of the speed of light) exclaimed in 5654/1894, “The most important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplemented in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote. Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”
In 5660/1900 British physicist Lord Kelvin admitted that two “clouds” were hovering on the horizon, one to do with the strange motion of light (later leading to the Theory of Relativity) and one to do with radiation – how could a substance like uranium constantly throw out high-level energy without fizzling out?
Einstein solved the problem by discovering that uranium converts tiny amounts of mass into huge floods of energy a la E = mc2. According to his calculations, every average sized adult has thirty king-size hydrogen bombs locked in his/her frame. But how can they be extracted? Could mankind ever utilize this immense power for energy production or for bombs? This was by no means certain.
As late as 5700/1933, nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford, the man who discovered that atoms are mostly empty space, concluded a lecture to the British Association for the Advancement of Science by speculating on the nonfuture of atomic energy.
“We might in these processes obtain very much more energy than the proton supplied,” he was cited as saying, “but on the average, we could not expect to obtain energy in this way. It was a very poor and inefficient way of producing energy, and anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of the atoms was talking moonshine.”
Incidentally, Rutherford was by no means the only person to label the possible as impossible. Even Wilbur Wright admitted in 5668/1908 after he and his brother had built the world’s first airplane, “I confess that in 1901, I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for fifty years. Ever since, I have mistrusted myself and avoided all predictions.”
After the airplane was invented, the eminent US astronomer William H. Pickering maintained that it would never amount to much.
“The popular mind often pictures gigantic flying machines speeding across the Atlantic and carrying innumerable passengers in a way analogous to our modern steamships,” he wrote in about 5670/1910. “. It seems safe to say that such ideas must be wholly visionary and even if the machine could get across with one or two passengers the expense would be prohibitive except to any but the capitalist who could own his own yacht.”
The almost unknown “hero” who moved the atom bomb through this impasse was the Hungarian-born Jew Leo Szilard (5658/1898-5724/1964). In a
historical irony, he had left Hungary in 5679/1919 due to rising anti-Semitism in order to continue his studies in liberal Berlin. There he studied under Einstein and later collaborated with him in developing and patenting a refrigerator that has no moving parts. Paradoxically, this fridge cools things down by means of a heat source, such as a small gas burner.
Rutherford’s pessimistic outlook on nuclear energy got on Szilard’s nerves. A year earlier he had read a prescient fictional account of atom bombs written by British author H.G. Wells in “The World Set Free” and its vision had stuck in his mind.
Wells had foreseen that the terrible threat of nuclear weapons would create a “world set free” by imposing compulsory peace upon the world. The terror of nuclear holocaust would inspire people to create a world government and individual nations would cease to exist.
“Certainly,” Wells wrote in his imaginary tale of the future, “. nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier 20th century than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible. The power to inflict a blow, the power to destroy, was continually increasing. There was no increase whatever in the ability to escape… It was impossible any longer to deal with it [peace] piece by piece. They had to secure it universally from any fresh outbreak of atomic destruction, and they had to ensure a permanent and universal pacification.”
Wells was less of a visionary when it came to submarines. In 5661/1901 he had predicted, “I must confess that my imagination, in spite even of spurring, refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea.” By World War I, German submarines were threatening to starve Britain into defeat.
Inspired by Wells, Szilard began considering how to increase the output of
nuclear power and the answer hit him in few brief seconds while he was waiting for traffic lights to change.
His idea was to create a domino effect. It is true that by shooting subatomic particles at uranium atoms you’ll only split a few million atoms, which amounts to almost nothing. However, what happens if the splitting atoms release their own particles that shoot out and split more atoms, and these atoms release particles that shoot out and split even more? By creating a chain reaction, he argued, one kilo of uranium could produce as much energy as ten thousand tons of TNT!
By 5699/1939 fission (atom splitting) was pioneered in Germany. Szilard was in a state of shock, realizing, perhaps more than anyone on the planet that this might lead to weapons the world had never known. His horror increased after he and the physicist Enrico Fermi created the world’s first chain reaction that year.
“We turned the switch,” he described later, “saw the flashes, watched for ten minutes, then switched everything off and went home. That night I knew the world was headed for sorrow.”
Terrified that Germany might invent the bomb, he visited Einstein and blurted out his fears. Einstein dictated a letter in German from which Szilard prepared a letter to President Roosevelt. The problem was getting it to the President’s attention. They tried to enlist the help of the famed aviator, Charles Lindbergh, until they discovered that he was a sworn anti-Semite and admirer of Nazi Germany.
Six weeks after the outbreak of World War II, a friend of Roosevelt, Alexander Sachs, visited the President and read him the text of Einstein’s warning:
“Sir, .. .In the course of the last four months it has been made probable through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America
[they had both moved to the US from Europe], that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated.
“Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable, though much less certain, that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.”
“Alex, what you are after is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up,” the Presi
“Precisely,” Sachs replied.
In response, President Roosevelt set up the Manhattan Project that built the bomb under the leadership of “the Father of the Atom Bomb,” Jewish physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Because of his pacifist attitudes, Einstein was considered a security risk and worked on the bomb for a total of two days.
Szilard hoped that the US would only develop the bomb as a threat to Germany and Japan, fearing that actually using the bombs might precipitate a desperate arms race that could destroy the world. In a petition to President Truman, he argued that using the bomb against the Japanese would open the floodgates of barbarism.
“The last few years show a marked tendency toward increasing ruthless-
ness,” he warned. “At present our Air Forces, striking at the Japanese cities, are using the same methods of warfare which were condemned by American public opinion only a few years ago when applied by the Germans to the cities of England. Our use of atomic bombs in this war would carry the world a long way further on this path of ruthlessness
“Thus, a nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.”
Just before the test bomb turned swathes of desert into molten glass, there were still those who insisted the bomb would never work.
“This is the biggest fool thing we have
ever done…,” Admiral William Leary of the US Navy warned President Truman. “The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.”
After the bombs stopped dropping, Einstein said that writing the letter to Roosevelt had been “the greatest mistake” of his life. Szilard’s fears were realized when the USA and Russia began stockpiling nuclear weapons in a feverish arms race. Unable to influence the government directly, Szilard established a lobbying body of eminent scientists called “The Council for Abolishing War” (nowadays the “Council for a Livable World”), whose minor influence on politics will never atone for the death and destruction engendered by his “chain reaction” brainwave.