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Sunday, January 29, 2012


The world seems consumed about atomic weapons in Iraq and North Korea.  Sure, the implications are severe, but those threats are nothing compared to what happened 70 years ago.

When I first joined the University of Hawaii in 1972, one of professors in the Civil Engineering Department (which I later joined) was Rudolph Szilard.  There was some connection with Leo Szilard I never was able to figure out.  Rudolph emigrated to the United States from Hungary in 1949 and passed away two years ago in Colorado.

But to get to heart of the matter, the man who might have saved America and the Free World is Leo Szilard (right), who also came from Hungary, in 1938.  What a life.  He caught that dreaded Spanish Flu during World War I, so was in a hospital when his regiment was wiped out.  He invented the electron microscope, filed the patents for chain reaction (not much, and you need to tolerate VALPO, but the music is catchy), the linear accelerator and the cyclotron, and, with Albert Einstein (who was one of his professors), invented a refrigerator (actually got 45 patents, for Einstein once worked in a patent office, and their ideas were bought out by Electrolux of Switzerland).  Many of his closest colleagues won a Nobel Prize.  He never did.

Crossing a street in 1933 London, he suddenly conceived the wonders of chain reaction, and realized that the power could be limitless for humanity, but posed a monumental danger for the future of civilization.  Ernest Rutherford had already announced the possibility of creating more energy than from the supplied proton, but rejected the practicality of it.  The difference was that Szilard thought neutrons could sustain the reaction in a controlled manner using graphite without any boron contamination.

When Szilard accepted an appointment at Columbia University in 1938 he initiated some experiments with Italian emigrant Enrico Fermi (left) that could well have destroyed Manhattan.  When they later moved to the University of Chicago, they could have nuked Chicago.

Szilard knew that Hitler's Germany had begun a project to build an Atomic Bomb, but they could not get the graphite to work, so turned to heavy water, and therefore invaded Norway, which happened to have the world monopoly of these hydrogen isotopes.  You might have seen the movie, The Heroes of Telemark (Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris), where the Norwegian resistance prevented the Nazis from building this bomb.

Realizing that he who had the Atomic Bomb would control the world, and smart enough to understand that the President of the United States would not listen to him, he went to see Albert Einstein.  Many are familiar with Einstein's letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which spurred the Manhattan Project (cost around $29 billion in 2012 dollars).  Most don't know that there were three Einstein letters to FDR, all drafted by Szilard.

The third letter was sent after World War II in Europe was over, so the Hitler threat was gone.  Follow-up showed that Werner Heisenberg, who was in charge of that German project, and his team were not close to building that bomb, for his calculations were all wrong.  Not quite the lie of Bush's Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Iraq War, but fortunate, indeed, for the American leadership diddled around with mistrust and indecision for several years before getting their act together.  That third letter beseeched FDR not to drop the bomb on Japan, but to instead bring their representatives to Nevada to view the destructiveness of this device.  However, FDR died, Harry Truman took over, and there were doubts anyway that  Trinity (below, 0.16 seconds after explosion; click on You Tube recording) would even work.  When it did, Truman did not hesitate to end the war by using Little Boy (over Hiroshima) and Fat Man (over Nagasaki).

Incidentally, Szilard conceived of a cobalt bomb that left nasty radioactive particles on the ground.  Note that Hiroshima and Nagasaki today are thriving cities.  Cobalt-60 has just the right potency and half-life (bit more than 5 years) to be ideal for eliminating life. (Do worry about this isotope from Fukushima.)  The C-Bomb is the true "Doomsday Bomb" because a sufficient number of these explosions could end life as we know it!  If Iran and North Korea were fashioning cobalt bombs, the situation would be very, very serious.  You've got to wonder if any cobalt bombs are in a country's stockpile.  One of these get stolen and you have a reason for another movie.  Hmm...

Einstein said "I made one great mistake...,"  and that was his role in the creation of the Atomic Bomb.  Szilard was even more remorseful, and completely changed his life, becoming a molecular biologist.

So is Szilard the Man Who Saved Humanity?  Well, probably not.  That's why the question mark in the title.  In fact, he could well have created a  monster, for our society was one button push away from a nuclear winter.  If Hitler was actually close to perfecting the first Atomic Bomb, then, perhaps, yes.  But the good guys won and the Cold War ended.  No Mutual Assured Destruction anymore as the U.S. and Russia are slowly, too slowly, beginning to reduce nuclear capacity.  Iran and North Korea are toast if they even attempt to use these weapons.  Yet, that Cobalt Bomb still worries me.


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