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Leo Szilard

Leo SzilardAKA Leó Spitz

Born: 11-Feb-1898
Birthplace: Budapest, Austria-Hungary
Died: 30-May-1964
Location of death: La Jolla, CA
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Cremated, see note.

Gender: Male
Religion: Agnostic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist, Activist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Nuclear chain reaction

Military service: Austro-Hungarian Army (1917-18)

Physicist Leo Szilard's research established the relation between entropy and transfer of information in 1929, and in 1934 led to development of the first method for separating the isotopes of artificial radioactive elements. He was one of the first scientists to see the significance and potential of nuclear fission, and became perhaps the key driving force behind the US development of atomic energy and atomic weapons and then called for the eradication of the weapons he had championed and helped to build.

Szilard worked with Enrico Fermi to develop the uranium-graphite pile, and they shared the 1955 patent for the first self-sustained nuclear reactor based on uranium fission. During World War II he urged his friend Albert Einstein to write to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to explain what an atomic bomb might be, and to warn that Germany could develop and use such weapons to win the war. Roosevelt, largely on Einstein's advice and recommendation, initiated the Manhattan Project, the super-secret effort that created the first atomic weapons.

He was the principal author of the Szilard petition, co-signed by 155 scientists working on the Manhattan Project, urging President Harry S. Truman to provide a demonstration of the atomic weapons, instead of using the weapons in an act of war. His hope was that Japan would surrender after seeing the destructive power of the bomb, without the deaths of countless Japanese citizens. The petition, however, was said to have been lost in the bureaucratic maze between the scientists and the Oval Office, and the 1945 attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are estimated to have killed between 150,000 and 250,000 people, mostly civilians.

After the war, Szilard predicted the coming nuclear stalemate as the world's most powerful nations developed nuclear weapons, and he became an advocate for nuclear disarmament. In 1957 he was involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations that led Nikita Khrushchev to accept installation of the famed "hot line" linking the Kremlin and White House, and in 1962 he was the founder of the Council For A Livable World, one of the first activist groups calling for arms control. He was a founding sponsor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and later became an advocate for one-world government as an alternative to the present nation-state system which, he felt, encouraged and virtually ensured perpetual war.

In his scientific career, he became fascinated by molecular biology. Despite having little formal training in this field, he studied the genetics and physiology of bacteria and viruses, and the molecular basis of memory. His most notable research in biophysics was conducted in collaboration with Aaron Novick (1919-2000), including their proposal of negative feedback regulation of enzyme activity. Szilard's work in biophysics was respected and his new colleagues were said to have been sometimes dazzled by his brilliance, but also occasionally taken aback by his lack of knowledge regarding matters they considered basics.

Szilard's nephew, John Silard (1929-2009), was a well respected pro-civil rights lawyer.

Note: After cremation Szilard's ashes were divided, half buried at Kerepesi Cemetery in his native Budapest, Hungary, and half buried alongside his wife at Lakeview Cemetery in Ithaca, New York.

Wife: Getrud Weiss Szilard (m. 1951)

    High School: Reáliskola, Budapest (1916)
    University: Budapest Technical University
    University: PhD Physics, University of Berlin (1922)
    Teacher: University of Berlin (1922-33)
    Scholar: Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford University (1933-35)
    Scholar: St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London, England (1935-37)
    Scholar: Columbia University (1937-42)
    Professor: Nuclear Research, University of Chicago (1942-45)
    Professor: Biophysics, University of Chicago (1946-55)
    Professor: Social Sciences, University of Chicago (1955-56)
    Professor: Biophysics, Enrico Fermi Institute, University of Chicago (1956-57)
    Professor: Biophysics, University of Colorado (1957-63)
    Professor: Biophysics, Brandeis University (1957-63)

    Atoms for Peace Award 1959
    Albert Einstein Award 1960
    Humanist of the Year 1960
    National Inventors Hall of Fame 1996
    American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1954
    American Physical Society
    Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Board of Sponsors, 1946-64
    Council for a Livable World Founder, 1962
    European Molecular Biology Organization
    Federation of American Scientists
    National Academy of Sciences 1961
    National Institutes of Health
    Salk Institute for Biological Studies
    Manhattan Project
    Austrian Ancestry
    Hungarian Ancestry
    Jewish Ancestry
    Naturalized US Citizen 1943
    Heart Attack 1958
    Heart Attack 30-May-1964 (fatal)
    Lunar Crater Szilard (34.0N, 105.7E, 122 km diameter)
    Risk Factors: Bladder Cancer

Author of books:
The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories (1961, short stories)
The Collected Works of Leo Szilard (1972, scientific papers)


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