Leó Szilárd

29.03.2015 |

Episode #3 of the course “Unknown Scientists Who Changed The World”

Leó Szilárd, an Austro-Hungarian physicist, may have been the man most responsible for starting the Manhattan Project, the group who designed and planned the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during WWII. He was also, however, the man who realized the impact of what they were about to do and tried to stop it from happening. He once said, “We might start an arms race between America and Russia which might end with the destruction of both countries.”

Szilárd was born in 1898 in Budapest, Austria-Hungary (now just Hungary) to a Jewish family. He attended Budapest Technical University in 1916. Following the First World War, the political situation in Hungary grew unstable so he left Budapest for the Institute of Technology in Berlin-Charlottenburg. There he took physics classes from brilliant minds such as Albert Einstein and Max Planck, among others. He went on to earn a doctorate in physics from Humboldt University of Berlin in 1923.

In 1933, Szilárd conceived of the nuclear chain reaction and patented the idea of a nuclear reactor with Enrico Fermi. It was an event six years later in 1939, however, that he is most famous for. Late that year, he wrote a letter to his old university professor, Albert Einstein, to convince him to sign on to the Manhattan Project. Einstein agreed and the group eventually built the world’s first atomic bomb. Besides his work in nuclear physics, Szilárd also conceived of the electron microscope, the linear accelerator, and the cyclotron.

Much of the work Szilárd did during his lifetime was not credited to him. He did not build the devices he theorized, nor did he publish his ideas in scientific journals, and so credit for them often went to others. Szilárd never received a Nobel Prize as did others who saw his inventions into actualization.


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