As a teenager, he became enthralled by physics, the new science of his day. As a scholar, he pushed for novel theories in thermodynamics and mathematics and enjoyed posing ideas in economics and politics that experts said couldn't be realized — but sometimes were. He delighted in devising inventions: some profound, many impractical.
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And, in later life, he resisted writing an autobiography, saying the past is unimportant, the future is all. Yet in ways that he may never have realized or may have surmised and then suppressed, Leo Szilard's own past held the forces that shaped his richly inventive yet frustrating life.
From his intense and exuberant child-hood in Budapest's elegant Garden District he gained the means to be a pioneer in science and in politics. He also inherited from his forebears mannerisms that would both charm and confuse associates and friends, quirks that sometimes helped to advance his proposals but also made his pioneering ideas toilsome to accept. For by the time he fought that elephant, Leo Szilard had another quality that would both limit and advance his life: a passion to be honest and frank. Late in life, Szilard traced this consuming candor to his mother and his maternal grandfather:.
Very often it is difficult to know where one's set of values comes from, but I have no difficulty in tracing mine to the children's tales which my mother used to tell me. My addiction to the truth is traceable to these tales. My mother was fond of telling tales to her children and she always had some particular purpose in mind. Why she wanted to inculcate addiction to truth in her children is not clear to me. I remember one story, which made a deep impression on me, about my grandfather. My grandfather was a high school student at the time of the Hungarian Revolution in In high school, when the children were waiting for the teacher to turn up, it was customary in Hungary for one child to keep watch.
It was his task to keep a list of those children who were disorderly, and when the teacher came to class he was supposed to submit the list of these disorderly children to the teacher for punishment.
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In the particular case of the story my mother told me, the Hungarian Revolution of was on. A troop of soldiers was marching by the school [in Debrecen, Hungary's second-largest city] and a number of children violated orders by leaving the class and lining the street and cheering the soldiers. My grandfather, who was supposed to keep watch on disorderly children, joined those who left the school building and cheered the soldiers. When the teacher turned up for class, all the children were back in the classroom and my grandfather rendered his report.
He gave the teacher the list of those children who had violated orders and went out to the street, and this list included his own name. The teacher was so much taken aback by this frankness that nobody was punished. Exemplary behavior by Sigmund Vidor became a compulsion in his daughter Tekla Vidor Szilard and a lifelong bond between her and her son Leo. This honesty gave them a way to be close without being sentimental or emotional. Sigmund Vidor's example became more than an action to emulate.
It was a standard to surpass.
Szilard remembered his maternal grandfather fondly; they lived in the same spacious villa on the Fasor until Leo was twelve years old. But his paternal grandfather, Samuel Spitz, who had died twelve years before Leo's birth, probably endowed him with just the stubborn self-assurance he needed to be so certain about everything, including his maternal grandfather's honesty and the courage to fight elephants.
The maternal grandfather Szilard knew was gentle, intellectual, and socially admired, while the paternal grandfather he heard little about was a restless vagabond — querulous, strong-willed, daring, adventurous, and proud. The grandfather Szilard knew may have engendered a sense of duty and public responsibility, but the grandfather he never knew gave him a resolute will.
And it was that will as much as Szilard's rigorous honesty that drove this restless genius to try to change our world. The ancestors Leo Szilard never knew, his paternal forebears, came in the mid-eighteenth century to Slovakia, which lies between Hungary and Poland. They came "from the East," Szilard's father Louis noted tersely in his otherwise detailed memoirs, but from just where was never certain. Probably from Galicia, the Austrian sector of divided Poland that is now part of Ukraine. Before that westward move, they, like many eastern Jews, did not use a last name and probably took Spitz as their family name only after settling in Slovakia.
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Leo Szilard's paternal great-grandfather, who was born before , was a shepherd in Nagyfalu now Vel'ka Ves nad Ipl'om , a small village in the Slovak county of Arva Orava , just below the high ridge of the Carpathian Mountains, near today's Slovakia-Polish border. He was said to have lived more than eighty years and to have driven his sheep to the mountaintops for grazing until the last summer of his life.
Along with some wonder about his nomadic and restless ways this old shepherd's sturdiness continued in family legend. Samuel Spitz, that old shepherd's only son and Leo Szilard's paternal grandfather, was born about and grew up in Arva. In Turdossin the Spitz family grew rapidly, eventually filling a large farmhouse and barnyard that Samuel had built to contain both his family and a dairy herd. It was large enough for the Spitz family, but the estate had poor soil — only good enough for growing oats, rye, clover, and hemp as cash crops.
Samuel also planted large areas with potatoes for use as stock in a distillery on the property. In this castle Samuel Spitz raised ten daughters and four sons. After about seven years, however, Samuel's fortunes completely reversed: his distillery leveled in a boiler explosion, his cattle killed in a barn fire, his sheep lost to drought.
This restless and determined man was an entrepreneur, albeit on a small scale, for Samuel had little luck, and more often than not his failed schemes only left him ever deeper in debt and desperate to concoct new enterprises. He held contracts for timbering on large forest tracts. And in years when lumber was in demand, he tried his luck as a lumber merchant, often botching that enterprise. At times, he distributed liquor or imported coal. But with repeated failures, Samuel Spitz in later life grew stern and domineering, bitter about his financial perils and brutish with gout.
Sometimes he was so impatient that his wife and children avoided him. When Samuel died an unhappy man, in Kremnica in about , his widow moved to Budapest to live with her eldest daughter. Grandfather Samuel's strong-willed tendency to dominate his family and surroundings continued in his progeny along with the greatgrandfather's physical sturdiness: not only in Samuel's son Louis, Leo's father, but also in his grandsons, Leo and Bela. More urbane Budapest relatives would later say that the Szilard tenacity "ran in the family," in contrast to their more artistic and pliant natures.
Louis remained his familiar name, although he used Lajos, the Hungarian form, in business. Louis was his parents' third son and as a child became his mother's favorite.
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In Szilard became an American citizen and moved to New York. When World War II started, Szilard became intensely concerned about the possible nuclear weapons development programs that could be initiated.
As a result of these concerns, his work on atomic energy intensified. He led an effort to have all nuclear-related research data withheld from publication, to help prevent Germany from obtaining any information, or possibly creating an atomic bomb. These concerns also prompted him, with the assistance of Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller , to contact Albert Einstein.
After sharing his fears with Einstein and obtaining his consent, Szilard drafted a letter that Einstein signed. Roosevelt in October of This letter outlined the possibility of achieving a nuclear chain reaction and its implications for the development of nuclear weapons for national defense. It also requested government support to conduct a large-scale experiment to prove whether or not a sustained nuclear chain reaction was possible.
President Roosevelt approved the funding and the project. Szilard began procuring suitable quality graphite and uranium, the necessary materials for constructing a large-scale chain reaction experiment. This experiment was successfully demonstrated on December 2, at the University of Chicago. Szilard was the chief physicist at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory from February to July He worked for Arthur H. Compton , the head of the Met Lab. Szilard helped build Chicago Pile-1, the first neutronic reactor to achieve a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.
He was very vocal about these issues as well as documenting them through his prolific letter writing. Szilard viewed the development and eventual production of the atomic bomb as a necessary evil or counter-measure to the possibility of a German atomic bomb. After Germany surrendered and the war ended in Europe, he organized his colleagues to collectively voice the need to adopt limitations regarding the use of an atomic bomb.
He drafted a letter and circulated it to the various Manhattan Project locations.
Szilard realizing this, scheduled a meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt requesting that she personally pass the letter to the president. President Roosevelt died before the meeting with Eleanor could take place. In June of the Franck Report was released. Hughes, J. Nickson, Eugene Rabinowitch, Glenn T. Seaborg, J. View all copies of this ISBN edition:. Synopsis Leo Szilard has long been overshadowed by such luminaries as Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Enrico Fermi—with whom he codesigned the first nuclear reactor in Buy New Learn more about this copy.
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