Column: Szilard’s Nightmare

Leo Szilard was one of the smartest people living in and shaping events in the Twentieth Century. He started his training in Hungary as an engineer but switched to become a nuclear physicist. He enjoyed science fiction and recognized that many of the fantasies of writers, like H.G.Wells, were already feasible with the tools and knowledge on hand in the 1930s. One of Wells’ imaginary weapons was what the fiction writer called an “atomic bomb.” This hypothetical bomb did not rely on conventional explosives: it involved harnessing the energy holding matter itself together.

Szilard discussed with his colleagues ways to extract energy from the decay of radioactive materials and set forth the idea of realizing Wells’ hypothetical “atomic bombs” by a phenomenon Szilard labelled a “chain reaction.” Simply put, using a radioactive material that emitted highly energetic neutrons, subatomic particles in the nuclei of all materials, a self-sustaining chain reaction could be initiated. These high energy neutrons would collide with atomic nuclei with numerous neutrons and knock out of each struck nucleus two or more neutrons. This was akin to a billiard ball colliding with a cluster of billiard balls and sending off balls in various directions. A single neutron only needed to force the ejection of a pair of neutrons in the nucleus it struck to set off a chain reaction. Each of these ejected neutrons would then knock two neutrons out of each of the nuclei they struck and send them off to induce the release of four neutrons from the nuclei with which these two neutrons collided. Once the reaction got started, it would be self-sustaining. With each collision, along with the ejection of the neutron pairs, there would be energy released in the form of heat, light, and other less friendly phenomena.

Szilard recognized that this self-sustaining reaction could be harnessed to produce atomic bombs. When the Nazi Party took control of the German government in 1933 and started recruiting engineers and scientists to develop weapons for a resurgent German military, Szilard saw the horror that lay in the not too distant future and advised his friends and family to leave Europe.  Before coming to America, he patented his idea for an atomic bomb and signed over all rights to the device to the British military. He took these steps to alert the British government to the inevitability that Nazi scientist would soon realize what he already knew and start working on an atomic bomb. By assigning the patent to the military, he was assured that his own ideas on how the bomb could be made would be kept secret. Shortly thereafter, Szilard left for the United States, and the Nazis recruited the Nobel Prize winning physicist Werner Heisenberg to assemble a team capable of creating the bomb.

Szilard helped to convince the U.S. government that it needed to get in the race to build an atomic bomb. The top secret program to create it was called the Manhattan Project. Once the Manhattan Project was underway, he continued to contribute his know-how to overcome technical challenges.  Like many of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project, he naively believed that once the U.S. demonstrated that it had a functioning nuclear weapon, its adversaries would sue for peace and the bomb would never be used as anything more than a deterrent to war. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki woke him from this delusion.

In addition to being disillusioned, he realized that an even more terrible future had been crafted by his brainchild. If the leaders of countries or of armies were willing to use this horrific weapon to win wars, there was no reason to expect they would decline from contaminating their own lands and those of their opponents to deprive their enemies of the spoils of war. Szilard looked to the future and saw governments creating doomsday machines, nuclear reactors that could spew showers of radioactive materials over vast stretches of the globe. This was not a great imaginative leap once the world recognized that Hitler and his close associates were willing to see Germany and its people destroyed before they would surrender to any of their opponents. Szilard lived to see the Cold War begin, but he did not live long enough to see the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) adopted by our country and the Soviet Union or the arming with nuclear weapons of antagonistic governments around the world.

And now we are watching Vladimir Putin standing with a nuclear grenade in his hand, obviously willing to pull the pin and detonate it, as his dream of a resurgent Soviet Union faces humiliating opposition from the U.S. and much of Europe. With his invasion of the Ukraine, he has sacrificed more Russian soldiers in six months than the U.S. lost in ten years of fighting in Vietnam. Despite these losses, he is still pressing forward with his invasion. He continues to hold as bargaining chips the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, the Zaporizhzhia facility, and the crippled nuclear power plant at Chernobyl. His control of these facilities threatens the survival of the Ukraine, Belarus, western Russia and much of Scandinavia. When the Chernobyl facility blew up, it left millions of people downwind from the plant contaminated with radioactive materials that led to innumerable illnesses and deaths. If the Zaporizhzhia plant has an “accident,” the damage to the Ukraine and eastern Europe will dwarf the horrors inflicted by the Chernobyl explosion. As Putin’s invasion stalls, he may decide to unleash Szilard’s nightmare.

The damage to Russia with the destruction of either or both of these nuclear facilities will be enormous, but the current leadership of that country seems indifferent to the toll its actions inflict on its own citizens.  A major release of radioactive material from the Zaporizhzhia facility would leave much of the Ukraine uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.  It would make a Russian victory unnecessary, since the radioactive contamination of the Ukraine would force the evacuation of much of its population and the abandonment of most of its industry and agriculture.

When Leo Szilard first envisioned the feasibility of an atomic bomb, his colleagues, which included the most renown physicist of his day, assured him it was impractical and that the laws of physics did not support his vision. He described numerous other devices that seemed impractical or overly complicated, including the electron microscope and the atomic particle accelerator. These devices were constructed by his ever skeptical colleagues, and we have reaped the benefits of these inventions for decades. As we watch the conflict in the Ukraine, we can only hope that his vision of a nuclear hellscape created by autocratic rulers desperate to avoid defeat was the one thing he got wrong.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.