Leo Szilard: A Life In The Spotlight

Leo Szilard was born Leo Spitz on February 11, 1898, in Budapest, Hungary. He developed an interest in physics at age thirteen and attended public school prior to being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1917, where attended officer’s training school. However, influenza prevented him from an active duty assignment. After World War I ended, he left Hungary for Berlin in 1919. Leo Szilard was a Hungarian-American physicist and inventor. He conceived the nuclear chain reaction in 1933, patented the idea of a nuclear fission reactor in 1934, and in late 1939 wrote the letter for Albert Einstein’s signature that resulted in the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb.

Life in Hungary

Born in Budapest, Leo Szilard was the son of a doctor and a housewife and grew up in a middle-class neighborhood where his family supported him through work. After high school, he studied physics at the University of Budapest and was admitted to the faculty of engineering, where he was soon promoted to assistant professor. In 1934, he co-founded the magazine PHYSICS, which he edited from 1932 until his retirement in 1937. In 1937, he and his brother Albert developed the prototype nuclear fission reactor. In 1939, he co-wrote the letter that led to the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb.

Berlin and the future

In 1933, at the age of twenty-one, Leo Szilard developed the idea of liquid-atom nuclear fission, which caused electrons to fission away from heavier element atoms. The process of fissioning the nucleus allowed more energy to be released, which led to an increase in the atomic bombs’ explosive power. After his Nobel Prize was awarded in 1932, Szilard worked as a visiting scientist in Germany, where he was greatly influenced by the work of Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg, who was then at the University of Heidelberg. While in Germany, he met his future wife, mathematician Elisabeth Brüggemann, who would become his third wife. In 1933, they relocated to New York City, where he became a prominent member of the Manhattan Project staff. After the war, they returned to Budapest, where they remained until his death in 1980.

The atom bomb

In late 1939, at the start of World War II, Szilard wrote the first letter for Enrico Fermi’s signature, which led to the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. In his letter, he mentioned the “atomic bomb” and its potential to “convert matter into energy.” The bomb’s design and construction were based in his factory in Budapest, and he helped to design the secondary fuselage and upper stages. After the war, he helped to form the International Committee of Reactive-Grouping Scientists (ICRG) to develop a better method of hiring heavy elements from their sources. After World War II, he maintained a private practice as a conjugal physician in New York City, where he died in 1980.


During World War II, Szilard served as head of the physics department at the College of New Jersey, where he was a member of the Institute of mathematics. During World War II, he was a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley, where he invented the first blood-amino acid test and co-discovered the structure of polymers. From 1945 to 1949, he was the director of the Physical Research Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, where he helped to design the atomic bomb. In 1946, he was appointed to the Office of Scientific Research, where he remained until his retirement in 1954.

A resting genius

The period 1940 to 1945 that Szilard spent in Germany and Austria became known as the “pilgrim’s decade” in science. The decade saw the birth of nuclear fusion, which in turn led to the discovery of the nuclide hydrogen and the development of the fission reactor. Despite his fame, however, none of this was new to Szilard; his patent portfolio reflected earlier developments infusion. In fact, his patents listed several patents for devices that involved helium or other elements likely to be present in the atmosphere at the time of the patents’ filing. As time passed, it became more and more apparent that the atom bomb would never be built. By 1948, however, Szilard realized that given the right conditions, the bomb could be made.

The Berlin Wall and reunification

In 1949, after retiring from the University of California, Berkeley, and moving to Berlin, where he was returning to work as a partner in a law firm, he was charged with organizing the National Defense Research Commission. As a member of the commission, he helped to create the government-in-exile, which helped establish NATO and the European Union. After the war, he became the first German-American to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, where he also served as dean. In 1954, he retired from the law firm, which he had helped to start, and accepted the post of assistant secretary of state for cultural affairs at the U.S. Department of State, where he remained until his death in 1980.

The Manhattan Project and the cold war

In 1949, after retiring from the law firm in which he had served as dean, Szilard became the first person to receive the Nobel Prize in physics, for his work on the atom bomb. In that same year, he helped to form the National Academy of Sciences, where he served as chair until his death in 1980. After the war, he served as a member of the president’s Council of Advisors on Science, Engineering, and Technology (AOSTSTAR) and as chairman of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Physical Sciences, which he chairperson from 1969 to 1973.

Vienna, Austria, and the Union of Soviet Emirates

In 1954, Szilard traveled to Austria and Germany, where he was received warmly by the population and was received into the Communist Party. In 1955, he became the first American to accept an invitation to serve as an advisor to the Communist Party in Yugoslavia, where he served as an economic advisor until his death in 1980. He was survived by his wife, whose middle name was “Mija.”

The USSR and the United States: The years that changed nothing

In the early 1960s, Szilard traveled to the USSR and West Germany, where he met and became friends with members of the East German government. Afterward, he worked as a consultant for various companies in the U.S. and Europe. In 1964, he helped to found the International Association for the Defense of the Universal Trusteeship, which later became the American Association of University Professors. In 1979, he was appointed to the National Academy of Sciences, where he served as chairman until his death in 1980.

Final words

While Leo Szilard’s scientific achievements are numerous and varied, it is difficult to find a single quotation that would sum up Szilard in one word. As an engineer, physicist, and poet, he was a brilliant mind and an industrialist who rose to prominence in the post-war era. The vast majority of scientists will never be able to reach the level of prominence that Szilard achieved, but there are those few who achieve in their chosen fields the distinction of being the first. The achievements of the next generation will be greater than those of the prior, and the struggle for supremacy will be long and bitter. The present generation is the most prestigious in the history of science, for it represents the greatest advance since the discovery of the electric and radio communication systems more than two thousand years ago.

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