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Szilard, Leo

war nuclear physics fission

[ zi lah®d] (1898–1964) Hungarian–US physicist: recognized the significance of nuclear fission.

Szilard has been described as ‘a difficult child who grew up to become an impossible adult’. He was imaginative, volatile and immodest. A versatile and creative physicist, Szilard had an extraordinarily wide-ranging and original mind. He first studied electrical engineering, trained in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War and later took a doctorate in physics at Berlin (1922). Work with on thermodynamics followed, and led to a paper foreshadowing modern information theory (1929). Moving to Oxford and London in 1933, and to the USA in 1938, he began to work on nuclear physics at Columbia University.

In 1934 he had taken the earliest patent on nuclear reactions, covering in general terms the use of neutrons in a chain reaction to generate energy, or an explosion. On hearing of fission of uranium (1938), he immediately approached , in order to write together to President Roosevelt warning him of the possibility of Germany making atomic bombs. Together with , Szilard organized work on the first fission reactor, which operated in Chicago in 1942. He was a central figure in the Manhattan Project leading to the successful Allied atomic bomb, despite the fact that General Groves, in overall charge of the project, attempted at one point to have him interned for the duration of the war, judging him to be a security risk. Szilard opposed the direct use of the bomb against the Japanese, wishing to use it in a demonstration only; and he forecast the nuclear stalemate after the war in a 1945 report to the secretary for war. His enthusiasm for physics, politics and food continued.

After the war Szilard moved to research in molecular biology, doing experimental work on bacterial mutations and biochemical mechanisms and theoretical work on ageing and memory.

T'Hooft, Gerardus [next] [back] Szent-Gy├Ârgi, Albert von

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