Memoir

Leo Szilard

February 11, 1898 - May 30, 1964


Election Year: 1961
Membership Type: Member

Leo Szilard, a native of Budapest and naturalized U.S. citizen, elected to Academy membership in 1961, was noted for his contributions to the fields of thermodynamics, biophysics, nuclear physics, and the development of atomic energy. Szilard, experimenting in collaboration with Fermi, Zinn, and Anderson, proved the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction, but he may be best known for his role in the initiation of the Manhattan Project for developing an atomic bomb during World War II.

Very early after the discovery of uranium fission, Szilard, having moved to the United States and realizing the military potential of the discovery, attempted to get the U.S. government interested in starting an atomic energy program. With Einstein, Szilard in the summer of 1939 drafted a letter, signed by Einstein, to President Roosevelt recommending such a program. The U.S. atomic energy effort, which became known as the Manhattan Project in 1942, was finally begun at the end of 1941. In 1945, when the Manhattan Project had produced an atomic bomb, Szilard circulated a petition, signed by a number of his fellow atomic scientists, asking that the bomb not be used against Japan. After the war Szilard involved himself in efforts to control nuclear arms and abandoned nuclear physics for work in the field of biology. Some of his last work in this field was published posthumously in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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