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(1913 - 1973),

Szilardian Science and Politics: Evolution, Revolution, or Subversion? By William Lanouette (Presented 10th November 2005 at the World Science Forum, Budapest).

The philosopher-historian Thomas Kuhn proposed that science advances not by evolution in small and steady increments, but by revolution. Science doesnt creep forward, he said; instead, it lurches in rare and dramatic paradigm shifts from one world view to another.1

But consider a different explanation for scientific progress, one personified by the physicist, biologist, and arms-control activist Leo Szilard (1898-1964). Szilard worked at science in a third way: not by evolution or revolution... but by subversion. He advanced by infiltrating and negating and reformulating what was already known by other scientists; by twisting conventional wisdom into unconventional discoveries.

Recalling his first encounter with Szilard in 1947, the Nobel laureate Jacques Monod said that Many of the questions seemed very unusual, startling, almost incongruous. I was not sure I understood them all, especially since he insisted on redefining the basic problems in his own terms, rather than mine.2 Another Nobel laureate, physicist Hans Bethe, said Szilard was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. His mind worked quickly and profoundly, and he was able to come to ideas that most of us appreciated only after many hours of talk. This was his strength and, of course, also his weakness. He was always ahead of his time. His ideas often were expressed in paradoxes, and the paradoxes were not always understood.3

Szilardian Science

Szilard was a visionary for both science and politics in the 20th Century. In science, he devised the basis for information theory in the 1920s by imagining himself as Maxwells Demon, the imaginary imp in a classic thermodynamics puzzle. The Demon controlled molecules in a way that seemed to defy the Second Law.4 But Szilard realized that to succeed the Demon had to use his memory, thus combining entropy with information.

Szilard thought up and patented the nuclear chain reaction in the 1930s by defying Nobel physicist Ernest Rutherfords proclamation that gaining energy from atoms was moonshine. Rutherford had split atoms using alpha particles, but Szilard substituted the newly-discovered neutron to bombard atomic nuclei, adding the concept of a critical mass to envision self-sustaining chain reactions. With Enrico Fermi, Szilard co-designed the worlds first nuclear reactor in 1939. When their invention first worked, in 1942, Szilard recalled, I shook hands with Fermi, and I said I thought this day would go down as a black day in the history of mankind.5

From the 1940s to the 1960s, Szilard took on molecular biology, devising ways to clone mammalian cells and to explain negative feedback regulation.6

- 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 its alone. This was no flippant excursion into psychobiology. Rather, Szilards idea to use a layered feeder dish worked while the open dish had not.7

- Szilard is given credit by Monod 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 antirepressive effect, rather than the reverse, as I tried, unduly, to stick to.8

But Szilard not only dreamt up bright ideas, he also loved to devise new and novel institutions. He founded the Association for Scientific Collaboration in 1939 to fund chain-reaction research with Fermi.9 He helped Jonas Salk establish the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, encouraging that it study both basic science and the social problems that science creates.10 And with CERN as his model, Szilard proposed the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), which thrives today in Heidelberg, Germany.11

Szilardian Politics

A true subversive, Szilard approached politics in the same disruptive and creative way. Behind his political drive was a narrow margin of hope that he gained as a child and embodied throughout his life. From this he determined that it is not necessary to succeed in order to persevere.12 Here in Budapest during the 1919 Bela Kun Hungarian Soviet Republic, Szilard founded a socialist students association to help clarify political and economic issues.13 In London in the 1930s, Szilard helped organize the Academic Assistance Council to aid refugee scholars.14 He also proposed enlisting Nobel laureates to protest Japans invasion of Manchuria, the first time this august group was politicized in this way.15

Szilards best known political efforts involved his mentor and friend, Albert Einstein. In New York in 1939, Szilard proposed and drafted a letter from Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that warned about German nuclear weapons research and urged a U.S. counter-effort. Why Einstein? Szilard had befriended Einstein in Berlin in the 1920s, and the two developed several joint patents for an electromagnetic pump. Einstein was known to Roosevelt, while Szilard was not. But also, as Szilard put it, The one thing most scientists are really afraid of is to make a fool of themselves. Einstein was free from such a fear and this above all is what made his position unique on this occasion.16

Their letter prompted Roosevelt to convene a federal Advisory Committee on Uranium (with Hungarian physicists Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and Szilard as members) that promised money for Fermi and Szilard to conduct chain-reaction experiments at Columbia University. But when this funding from Washington hadnt materialized by the spring of 1940, Szilard enlisted Einstein in a little-known effort at political blackmail. He drafted for Einstein a letter warning the White House that if those funds were not forthcoming, Szilard would publish a paper detailing just how a chain reaction in uranium could work. Soon, Fermi and Szilard received their money.17

Szilard drafted another little-known Einstein letter to Roosevelt in March of 1945, this time seeking to influence post-war nuclear arms control. When Roosevelt died in April, before seeing the letter, Szilard called on the Truman White House and was sent, in May, to meet with the new presidents atomic advisor (and soon Secretary of State) James F. Byrnes. Szilard brought along chemist Harold Urey, pitting two scientists who had made the bomb and wanted to stop it against the politician who couldnt wait to use it.18 The two scientists left the meeting frustrated by Byrnes, who saw the bomb as a way to appease the Congress and intimidate Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.

Undeterred, Szilard helped in June to draft the Franck Report by Manhattan Project scientists urging an A-bomb demonstration before dropping it on cities.19 When that was ignored, Szilard organized a petition to Truman in July signed by 155 Manhattan Project scientists that urged the president to weigh his moral responsibilities. But the Army delayed the petition, and after the war classified it Secret. It was finally declassified in 1961, and first published in 1963, a year before Szilards death.20

Its ironic that Szilard suffered from atomic secrecy, which he had invented. In the 1930s, when Szilard feared that German scientists would recognize what he had about chain reactions, he urged colleagues not to publish their nuclear research a heresy in science at the time. But once the Army took over in 1942, secrecy became law. After the war, Szilard said the most powerful weapon to result from the Manhattan Project was not the A-bomb but the SECRET stamp.21

Once A-bombs leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Szilard led American scientists to lobby Congress for civilian control of the atom. Beginning in 1945, he urged direct talks between U.S. and Soviet scientists to curb a nuclear arms race. Scientists should share ideas, he insisted, because they could bring much-needed reason to complex policy matters.

In 1947, Szilard wrote an open letter to Stalin, urging nuclear restraint and proposing radio broadcasts to each others citizens by U.S. and Soviet leaders. The same year, Szilard wrote his political satire My Trial as a War Criminal to dramatize that scientists are responsible for their creations. When this story was re-published in 1961, the Russian nuclear physicist Viktor Adamsky read it, then translated it for his colleague Andrei Sakharov. According to historian Richard Rhodes, Sakharov took Szilards responsibilities to heart and began his own courageous crusade to halt the arms race he had advanced so brilliantly.22

In 1960, Szilard advocated a new way to coerce public officials to do the right thing: bribery. In The Voice of the Dolphins, a political satire that correctly predicted how the US-Soviet nuclear arms race would run down in the 1980s, Szilard speculated that a fictional research institute might raise money, educate the public, and bribe corrupt officeholders to retire while rewarding honest ones who make politically tough decisions. The book is not about the intelligence of the dolphin, Szilard said, but about the stupidity of man. It was both playful and dead serious; much like Szilard himself.23

Also in 1960, Szilard became playful and serious during a private meeting with Premier Nikita Khrushchev in New York City. During their two-hour conversation, Szilard gained the Soviet leaders assent for a Moscow-Washington hot line to help prevent accidental nuclear war. As a gift, Szilard brought Khrushchev a new razor and promised to send him blades as long as there is no war. If there is war, said Khrushchev, I will stop shaving. Most other people will stop shaving, too.24

In his politics as in his science, Szilard loved to create new institutions. In 1946, Szilard joined with Einstein, Urey, and Bethe in an Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists to educate the public about the dangers from A-bombs and a nuclear arms race. In 1957, Szilard joined the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, and that fall urged that these talks among scientists be kept private, and not be expanded to a mass movement as co-founder Bertrand Russell preferred. Szilards view prevailed, assuring a back-channel dialogue for the nuclear superpowers. The Pugwash Conferences, and their leader Joseph Rotblat, received the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for continuing efforts to hold science responsible for its creations.

In April 1961, a week after the CIAs inept invasion at Cubas Bay of Pigs, Szilard was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and he quickly tried to politicize its members. He invited Academicians to sign a petition to President Kennedy condemning his administrations actions and policies. Only one-sixth of the Academy members signed,25 and an esteemed friend, physicist James Franck, censured Szilard. Franck had appreciated Szilards moral and political direction on the Franck Report, but this time he drew a harsh distinction. Franck objected that scientists as a class believe that their scientific reputation is a proof that they are also experts in political reasoning. And he warned that we endanger our influence in these particular questions if we speak up as a group in matters not directly connected with our profession.26

This candid advice led Szilard to abandon petitions as a way to influence political decision makers. Petitions, Szilard realized, were for outsiders. How, he wondered, could he become a Washington insider? 27 Szilards answer led him to his first and only popular and democratic political effort. In 1962, he founded the Council for a Livable World to raise money for U.S. Senators who favored arms-control treaties. By Szilards calculus, all states had two Senators, so votes came cheapest by supporting campaigns in the least populous states. The Councils first successful candidate was Sen. George McGovern from South Dakota. Today the Council thrives by supporting candidates from all states and the House of Representatives as well. It is Americas first political action committee for arms control and disarmament.

Two Questions

For us today, Szilards career raises two questions about science and politics. Are scientists more effective working inside or outside their professional and political establishments? And, how can policy makers use scientists most effectively?

To the first question Id answer that scientists can influence policy makers both from inside and outside their governments. J. Robert Oppenheimer was famously an insider during and after World War II, but was banished because his views crossed the ambitions of other inside scientists and policy makers notably Edward Teller and President Eisenhowers nuclear adviser and Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss. Teller played an insider role during his long and influential career in America, advising allies in the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, the U.S. Air Force, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the White House. Another insider among the Hungarians in the Manhattan Project was John von Neumann, who became a member of the Atomic Energy Commission. A third was Eugene Wigner, who analyzed and advocated civil-defense schemes for the National Academy of Sciences and for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Wigner said in 1983 that as a young man he went into science because he knew that as a Jew he would never be prime minister.28

Still, outsiders like Szilard have also shaped public policy. Philosopher Bertrand Russell helped create both the Pugwash Conferences and the British peace movement. Physicist Ralph Lapp publicized the dangers of atomic testing with his expose of the Lucky Dragon, a Japanese fishing boat whose crew suffered from radioactive fallout. Chemist Linus Pauling roused the worldwide opposition to nuclear testing that led to test-ban treaties. I think that scientists have a special responsibility, Pauling said. All human beings, all citizens, have a responsibility for doing their part in the democratic process. But almost every issue has some scientific aspect to it, and this one of nuclear war, or war in general, is of course very much a matter of science.29

Princeton University physicist Frank von Hippel notes that influencing policy makers involves both activists who raise, shape, and amplify policies as well as analysts who study and explain the science and technology behind them. Working together can be a winning combination, von Hippel said, citing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 and defeat of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or Star Wars) in 1980s.30

To the second question, about how policy makers can use scientists most effectively, it is worth recalling Winston Churchills dictum that Science should be on tap, not on top. Physicist I. I. Rabi was a member of the Atomic Energy Commissions General Advisory Committee and also served on the Presidents Science Advisory Committee. Being inside the government is always useful, Rabi has said, even when your advice is ignored. Still, Rabi told fellow Nobel laureate Leon Lederman: Advisors come and go. Power in this country belongs not to advisors, but to elected officials. If you scientists want your advice to be heeded, get elected! Run for office!31

Working in and out of government, Hans Bethe continued his criticism of the nuclear arms race as a White House adviser and by publicly urging fellow scientists to boycott work on weapons of mass destruction. And, joining with physicist Richard Garwin, Bethe publicly revealed scientific problems with the anti-ballistic missile system as a way to end its development. The two also undermined the SDI by pointing out that Tellers dreams for an X-ray laser to shoot down intercontinental missiles would not work as proposed because his calculations ignored a simple fact: the earth is round.32

Several Russian scientists besides Sakharov have publicly opposed their governments policies, among them Yuri Orlov who founded a Moscow chapter of Amnesty International and the first Helsinki Watch, and my distinguished fellow panelist, Evgeny Pavlovich Velikhov.


A final question concerns us now. Where are the Szilards of today? Who will risk failure to do the right thing? Who will pursue that narrow margin of hope? One legacy to recognize todays policy-minded scientists is the American Physical Societys Leo Szilard Lectureship Award. Since 1975, this award has honored outstanding accomplishments by scientists working for the benefit of society in areas such as the environment, arms control, and science policy,33

In conclusion, Szilards message for scientists today is: Try anything once. Work by evolution, revolution, and subversion! In a word, Experiment!


William Lanouette, a writer and public policy analyst, has specialized in the politics of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons since the 1960s. The former Washington Correspondent for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, he was also on the staffs of Newsweek, The National Observer (Dow-Jones & Co.), and National Journal. He has written freelance articles for many publications, including Ambio, Arms Control Today, The Atlantic Monthly, Civilization, The Economist, Isis, Issues in Science and Technology, the New York Herald Tribune, Risk, Scientific American, Smithsonian, the Washington Post, and The Wilson Quarterly.

Lanouette (with Bela Silard) wrote Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, The Man Behind the Bomb. Hardback: Scribners, 1992. Paperback: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Hungarian: Szilard Leo: Zseni arnyekban , Magyar Vilag Kiado, 1997 (translated by Peter Hrasko). Russian: 2005 (translated by Viktor Adamsky). With Peter Cook, he has written Uranium + Peaches, a play dramatizing Szilards May 1945 confrontation with James F. Byrnes, President Trumans atomic-policy advisor (and soon Secretary of State), about wartime use and post-war control of nuclear weapons.

Lanouette earned an A.B. in English at Fordham University, and M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in Politics (Comparative Government) at the London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London). In public policy work, he has been a Professional Staff Member in the U.S. House of Representatives, Communications Director of the World Resources Institute, a Fellow at Harvards Kennedy School of Government, and a Guest Scholar at the Smithsonian Institutions Woodrow Wilson Center. He is, since 1991, a Senior Analyst for energy and science issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington, DC.

The author gratefully acknowledges the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Ploughshares Fund for support to attend the 2005 World Science Forum. The views in this talk are his alone, and do not reflect those of the GAO, the Academy, or Ploughshares Fund.

wlanouette@comcast.net326 Fifth Street SE, Washington, DC 20003 USA


1. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Second Edition, Enlarged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970; Simplify, Simplify Innovation by Gary Chapman. Los Angeles Times, 28 December 1995.

2. Foreword to The Collected Works of Leo Szilard. Scientific Papers. London, England and Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, xvi. Editors: Bernard T. Feld and Gertrud Weiss Szilard. (Hereafter MIT Vol. I) Jacques Monod shared the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Francois Jacob and Andre Lwoff for their discoveries concerning genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis. Istvan Hargittai, The Road to Stockholm: Nobel Prizes, Science, and Scientists. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002, 39 and 328.

3. Hans Bethe interview, 21 November 1985. In William Lanouette (with Bela Silard) Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, The Man Behind the Bomb. New York: Scribners 1992 and Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1994, xix. [Page references to 1992 & 1994 editions.] For personal and historical context on Szilards life see Tibor Frank Ever Ready to Go: The Multiple Exiles of Leo Szilard. Berlin: Max-Planck-Institut fur Wissenschaftsgeschichte, 2004.

4. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that no cyclic process is possible in which heat is absorbed from a reservoir at a single temperature and converted completely into mechanical work. James Clerk Maxwell, in Theory of Heat (1871), posed a way to defy this law by having an imaginary impish creature manipulate molecules without expending any energy. Lanouette, 61-2. See also Tibor Frank, Ever Ready to Go: The Multiple Exiles of Leo Szilard. Physics in Perspective. 7 (2005) 210.

5. CBS Reports interview, 2 April 1960, transcript p. 47. Leo Szilard Papers, Mandeville Special Collections, University of California, San Diego. See Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts. Editors: Spencer R. Weart and Gertrud Weiss Szilard. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: MIT Press 1978, 146. (Hereafter MIT Vol. II) Attribution in Source Notes to Mike Wallace interview, WNTA-TV, 27 February 1961. See also See it Now, November 1952, with Edward R. Murrow. Lanouette, 245.

6. For more on Szilards transition from nuclear physics to molecular biology see Gabor Pallo To Save the World: Szilards Biology and Philosophy in Leo Szilard Centenary Volume. Budapest:Eotvos Physical Society, 1998, 141-7; Lanouette Leo Szilard and Post-War Science: From Nuclear Physics to Molecular Biology, The History of Science Society and American Historical Association, Washington DC, 29 December 1990.

7. Lanouette, 396-7.

8. Monod, MIT Vol. I, xvii.

9. Lanouette, 187.

10. Memorandum to Cass Canfield by William Doering and Leo Szilard (January 11, 1957). MIT Vol. I, 505-24. Working behind the scenes, Szilard helped arrange the funding, select the site in LaJolla, California, and enlist the first fellows.

11. See, for example, Szilard to C.F. von Weizsacker, 14 January 1963 (CERN #1 cc. To Weisskopf, CERN Archive File 20683). See also CERN Report dated 20 August 1963 (No. 6808, CERN No. 1) and Dakin to Weisskopf, 19 July 1963 (CERN book #1). Szilard helped raise support for EMBO through his approaches to the French Government and the Volkswagen Foundation.

12. Szilard wrote that he gained a narrow margin of hope to save mankind after reading the Hungarian epic poem The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madach. MIT Vol. II, 3 and footnote 1.

13. Both before and after World War I, Szilard had attended the Galilei Circle, a cultural movement of free-thinking students in Budapest, which was suppressed in 1919. Lanouette, 45-6.

14. Today the Academic Assistance Council survives as the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. Lanouette, 117-27.

15. MIT Vol. II, 36-8; Lanouette, 141.

16. Szilard note for interview, 18 April 1955 (the day of Einsteins death). MIT Vol. II, 83. Lanouette, 200.

17. Lanouette, 216.

18. Lanouette, 259-66.

19. Lanouette, 267-9.

20. Lanouette, 259-78.

21. William Lanouette Leo Szilard: Baiting Brass Hats in Remembering the Manhattan Project: Perspectives on the Making of the Atomic Bomb and its Legacy. Cynthia C. Kelly, editor. Hackensack, New Jersey:World Scientific 2004, 73-7.

22. Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995, 582. We were amazed by [Szilards] paradox, Rhodes quotes Viktor Adamsky. You cant 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 [Sakharov] and some of us live in peace. Adamsky later translated and published a Russian edition of Genius in the Shadows.

23. The Voice of the Dolphins, And Other Stories. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992.

24. Lanouette, 417-20.

25. Among the signers were Szilards friends and colleagues including Edward Condon, Max Delbruck, Salvador Luria, Hermann Muller, Harlow Shapley, and Victor Weisskopf.

26. Franck to Szilard, 21 May 1961, Franck Papers (Joseph Regenstein Library, University of Chicago); Lanouette, 437-8.

27. Lanouette, 435-8.

28. Eugene P. Wigner, The Recollections of Eugene P. Wigner (as told to Andrew Szanton). New York and London: Plenum Press, 1992, 287-97. Eugene Wigner interview, 12 October 1984. For background on the Teller-Strauss efforts against Oppenheimer see Priscilla J. McMillan, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race. New York: Viking, 2005. Wigners science / prime minister remark was made to science historian Gabor Pallo.

29. Linus Pauling interview with Harry Kreisler, 18 January 1983 at the Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley. Paulings six-year, unrelenting campaign against nuclear testing led to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which took effect on 10 October 1963, the day it was announced that Pauling was awarded Nobel Peace Prize for 1962.

30. Frank von Hippel, Finding Common Ground: Analysts & activists must work together Nuclear Times March/April 1986, 19-20. See also Von Hippels Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena (New York: Meridian, New American Library, 1974 (with Joel Primack) and Citizen Scientist (New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1991). For a recent example of science and decision making see Katharine Jacobs, Gregg Garfin, and Melanie Lenart. More Than Just Talk: Connecting Science and Decisionmaking. Environment. Vol. 47, No. 9, November 2005, 6-21.

31. Science Advising by Leon M. Lederman. Science and Technology Advice to the President, Congress, and Judiciary. Editor: William T. Golden. New York: Pergamon Press, 1988, 225.

32. Richard L. Garwin, The Secret Hans, at Celebrating an Exemplary Life, Cornell University, 19 September 2005. See The Garwin Archive http://www.fas.org/rlg/050918-secrethans.pdf

33. See the AP S entry for prizes and awards at http://www.aps.org/praw/index.cfm Among the scientists honored for their Szilardian spirit are John A. Simpson, Evgeny P. Velikhov, Roald Z. Sagdeev, Herbert F. York, Ray Kidder and Roy Woodruff, John H. Gibbons, Kurt Gottfried, Robert H. Williams, Thomas Cochran, Carl Sagan, Kosta Tsipis, David R. Inglis, Andrei Sakharov, Wolfgang Panofsky, Henry Kendall, Hans Bethe, Sidney Drell, Sherwood Roland, Matthew Meselson, Richard Garwin, and Bernard Feld.

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