Matthew has a Master of Arts degree in Physics Education. He has taught high school chemistry and physics for 14 years.
At the end of the Great War in 1918, world had seen more death and destruction than it had ever wanted to see. The war was fought differently than previous wars, with the introduction of the tank, aircraft, and submarines as new ways to destroy people, and property. In the 1930s the world once again found itself on the brink of war, however they had no idea of the new weapon on the horizon. It was something so powerful and terrifying that since its use in 1945, it hasn't been used again. It is something physicist Leo Szilard envisioned, but later lobbied against its use. Let's take a look at Szilard's life and role in the development of the atomic bomb.
Tracks through Europe
Szilard was born in 1898 in Budapest, Austria-Hungry, and was somewhat of an awkward child. He would invent games to play, but wouldn't play the games with the other kids. He wasn't athletic either, but he was an apt student in science and engineering.
In 1917, Szilard was plucked from his engineering studies to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army. While serving as an ordnance cadet, he caught the Spanish flu, which possibly saved his life because he was excused from serving at the Italian-front where his unit was decimated.
Szilard became disinterested in engineering, and began to pursue his interest in physics at the University of Berlin, which, at that time, was ground zero for cutting-edge physics research. Among the scientists there were Max Planck and Albert Einstein.
Szilard attended physics lectures where Planck, and Einstein were in attendance. He was intrigued with Max von Laue who was a 1914 Nobel laureate. Szilard asked von Laue to be his advisor, and became good friends with Albert Einstein when he took Einstein's course in statistical mechanics. Szilard produced a paper on thermodynamics, and with Einstein's encouragement, showed it to von Laue who accepted it as his doctoral thesis. It was 1922, and for the next couple of years Szilard would become somewhat of an academic drifter.
In 1925, Szilard and Einstein would work together on a pump-less refrigerator. Szilard continued inventing, but didn't seem interested in it. In 1929, he met a woman, Gertrud Weiss. She took the physics course he was teaching, and they became friends. She was undecided between pursing physics or medicine, and Szilard pushed her towards medicine because he felt she wasn't smart enough to be a physicist. She took his advice, and returned to live with her parents in Vienna where she eventually became a physician. Thus a friendship developed.
In 1933, a day before the Nazi regime began the crackdown on Jews, Szilard left Berlin for Vienna, Austria-Hungry. Eventually, he would help organize the resettlement of faculty and students that were kicked out of Berlin's universities to relative safety in London. Szilard made it to London too, which led to an enlightenment.
While in London, Szilard attended lectures given by Ernest Rutherford. ''Talking moonshine'' was the phrase famed scientist Ernest Rutherford used to describe the effort to harness the power stored in atomic nuclei. Szilard wanted to prove Rutherford wrong, and while he was walking through London one night he imagined a nuclear chain reaction releasing tremendous energy.
In 1939, German physicists created a fission reaction whereby they split uranium atoms into two roughly equal-sized pieces. Six years later, American forces dropped a uranium-based atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan named Little Boy.
Szilard made it to the United States in 1938, and worked with Enrico Fermi where they pursued creating a mini nuclear reactor. The powers that be in the United States knew the Germans were on the trail of developing a nuclear super-weapon. Szilard knew the Germans could do it, so he reasoned that it would be better if the United States developed one first. He wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, and Albert Einstein signed it. The letter informed, and encouraged the president to pursue the development of the atomic bomb.
Three years later, Szilard and Fermi succeeded in creating a mini-nuclear reactor in a squash court at the University of Chicago. It became clear that the nuclear power wasn't ''talking moonshine'', and the United States government began developing an atomic bomb, known as the Manhattan Project .
Szilard became indignant that the military had control over the scientific advances required to make this weapon a reality. By 1945, it was becoming clear that the war in Europe was going to be won by the Allies. Defeating Japan was going to be another story, though.
On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. When the Japanese didn't unconditionally surrender, three days later a second nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. This was the last nuclear bomb the United States had at the time. The world was forever changed.
Szilard was against the use of the nuclear bomb, which possibly caused him to resign his studies in physics, and begin his studies in molecular biology. In 1951, he married Gertrud Weiss, but they often lived apart. For the rest of his life, until is death in 1954, he would speak against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Leo Szilard was an integral part in the development of the nuclear weapons that ended the war with Japan in 1945. He started his academic career in engineering, and switched to physics on the eve of the rise of Nazi Germany.
Dr. Szilard was a friend and colleague of Albert Einstein, and the two worked on developing a pump-less refrigerator before immigrating to the United States. Before reaching the U.S., Szilard heard Ernest Rutherford dismiss the possibility of harnessing power from the atom, which ignited a passion to prove him wrong.
German scientists created a fission reaction, which split uranium atoms. Enrico Fermi and Szilard developed the first mini nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago, and the development of the nuclear bomb was underway with the Manhattan Project. Szilard didn't like the idea of using the weapons on Japan, and left physics in pursuit of molecular biology.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack