Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Many Worlds of Leo Szilard

I've just returned from the APS April meeting, which hosted a special session entitled The Many Worlds of Leo Szilard (yes, Neil deGrasse Tyson was also there....).
Sadly, I overheard two students in the auditorium behind me commenting that they had no idea who this "Sizlard? Zilard? Lizard?" guy was.
Dr. Szilard, a physicist from Austria-Hungary, was instrumental in the development of the first nuclear reactor, electron microscope, linear accelerator, cyclotron, and was involved in the Manhattan Project. He is even anecdotally credited with designing his own radiation cancer therapy. My work would not be possible without the solid foundation he provided.
Despite his work on the nuclear bombs of the Manhattan Project, he had a tremendous respect for human life and hoped desperately that the United States would not actually use the weapons. He drafted a petition, collected signatures, and presented the result to President Harry Truman, but to no avail - the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war in the Pacific arena. Szilard was eventually dismissed from the Manhattan Project by General Leslie Groves for having suspected communist sympathies.
Today, few people outside of those interested in our nuclear history know his name (let alone how to pronounce it). In spite of this, he is forever memorialized with a crater on the dark side of the Moon named after him.
I can only hope those students learned something. I'd rather not repeat the history that Dr. Szilard tried so valiantly to prevent.

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