Saturday, October 09, 2021

Leo Szilard, the Intellectual Bumblebee (lecture by William Lanouette)


This is a nice lecture on Leo Szilard by his biographer William Lanouette. See also ‘An Intellectual Bumblebee’ by Max Perutz.
Wikipedia: Leo Szilard was a Hungarian-American physicist and inventor. He conceived the nuclear chain reaction in 1933, patented the idea of a nuclear fission reactor in 1934, and in late 1939 wrote the letter for Albert Einstein's signature that resulted in the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb.
How Alexander Sachs, acting on behalf of Szilard and Einstein, narrowly convinced FDR to initiate the atomic bomb project: Contingency, History, and the Atomic Bomb

Szilard wrote children's stories and science fiction. His short story My Trial as a War Criminal begins after the USSR has defeated the US using biological weapons.
I was just about to lock the door of my hotel room and go to bed when there was a knock on the door and there stood a Russian officer and a young Russian civilian. I had expected something of this sort ever since the President signed the terms of unconditional surrender and the Russians landed a token occupation force in New York. The officer handed me something that looked like a warrant and said that I was under arrest as a war criminal on the basis of my activities during the Second World War in connection with the atomic bomb. There was a car waiting outside and they told me that they were going to take me to the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. Apparently, they were rounding up all the scientists who had ever worked in the field of atomic energy ...
This story was translated into Russian and it had a large impact on Andrei Sakharov, who showed it to his colleague Victor Adamsky:
A number of us discussed it. It was about a war between the USSR and the USA, a very devastating one, which brought victory to the USSR. Szilard and a number of other physicists are put under arrest and then face the court as war criminals for having created weapons of mass destruction. Neither they nor their lawyers could make up a cogent proof of their innocence. We were amazed by this paradox. 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 and some of us live in peace.

See also The Many Worlds of Leo Szilard (APS symposium). Slides for Richard Garwin's excellent summary of Szilard's work, including nuclear physics, refrigeration, and Maxwell's Demon. One of Garwin's anecdotes:
Ted Puck was a distinguished biologist, originally trained in physics. ‘With the greatest possible reluctance I have come to the conclusion that it is not possible for me personally to work with you scientifically,’ he wrote Szilard. ‘Your mind is so much more powerful than mine that I find it impossible when I am with you to resist the tremendous polarizing forces of your ideas and outlook.’ Puck feared his ‘own flow of ideas would slow up & productivity suffer if we were to become continuously associated working in the same place and the same general kind of field.’ Puck said, ‘There is no living scientist whose intellect I respect more. But your tremendous intellectual force is a strain on a limited person like myself.’
Puck was a pioneer in single cell cloning, aided in part by Szilard:
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).
After the war Szilard worked in molecular biology. This photo of Jacques Monod and Szilard is in the seminar room at Cold Spring Harbor Lab. Monod credits Szilard 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.”


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