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The dubious distinction, and literary legacy, of Leo Szilard (hazlitt.net)
34 points by whocansay on Aug 22, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 20 comments

Bizarre and ultimately bad essay. The author seems to want to convince us that she knows more about Szilard than she will ever tell. She calls Szilard "Leo" while referring to everyone else by surname. She's dismissive of Szilard and his legacy without ever giving evidence the man was less than a genius. She twice mentions Szilard's insistence on designing his own radiotherapy, but fails to mention that this saved not only his own life, but became standard and saved countless lives subsequently (including that of my maternal grandfather).

Perhaps worth mentioning that Paul Erdős had a somewhat vagabondish lifestyle as well - I suspect refugee experience.

Back in the early 80s, Rudolf Peierls did a talk to about a hundred of us at Birmingham University about the war, quantum mechanics and Heisenberg. It must have seemed desperate in 1940 in the dark days with worries about family &c.

With Erdős I wonder if there was a bit of this involved http://induecourse.ca/absent-mindedness-as-dominance-behavio...

I've never heard his eccentricity attributed to wartime trauma (obviously I'll always be open to new information on that...)

Edit: Confused Ulam and Szilard

I think you're confusing Ulam with Szilard. I'm not sure Szilard even comes up in Indiscrete Thoughts

Szilard never had brain surgery.

Other errors of omission include:

* "When The Voice of the Dolphins was published, Leo hadn’t worked in physics in over a decade" fails to mention he switched to biology.

* "His first real permanent address in America was in La Jolla, where he retired" fails to mention he helped setup the Salk Institute (in La Jolla) and was a fellow there.

Szilard features prominently in Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." Definitely worth the read if you have an interest in early nuclear science. Really filled in a lot of details about scientists that I remember learning about in school but never knew much about personally. Highly recommend it!

Superb book, perhaps the finest non-fiction book I've had the pleasure of reading. I love the way he is able to create a narrative that goes all the way back to H. G. Wells to find its roots.

Rhodes' follow-up, "Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb", basically continues the story where TMAB left off. The narrative gets a bit more fractured and factual, focused on the question of how to safeguard nuclear weapons and what their political/military/diplomatic purpose is. But it does wrap up the J. Robert Oppenheimer story.

Once one has read these two, I strongly recommend "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" [2] by Bird and Sherwin. Also extremely well written.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Sun-Making-Hydrogen-Bomb/dp/0684...

[2] https://www.amazon.com/American-Prometheus-Triumph-Tragedy-O...

we have the same bookshelf apparently! have you read any other non-fiction greatest hits tomes, like Power Broker?

as we all have the same bookshelf here, the next brick over on mine is Daniel Yergin's "The Prize". amazing work on the history of oil

"The Prize" is fantastic, as is the associated (7 hour!) PBS-produced documentary that's available in its entirety on youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1stQW6i1Ko The actual in-person interviews with oil execs who were in the room during nationalization are amazing!

The Power Broker is a great, huge read.

Another good one that I got recently is Arabia Felix [1], a rather obscure Danish book from 1962 from NYRB. A minor classic.

I'm not a war buff by any stretch, but I can recommend Antony Beevor. Sometimes his books devolve into exhausting, never-ending play-by-plays of tank and troop movements, but both Stalingrad and The Fall of Berlin [3] and were fascinating just for his ability to conjure up the time and place. Inside the Third Reich was similarly interesting, even it's known to be a flawed narrative.

I also recently read Bad Blood, about Theranos, which was excellent. Literary-wise not quite on the same level, though.

Got any recommendations?

[1] https://www.npr.org/2017/06/17/531929925/in-the-refrains-of-...

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Stalingrad-Fateful-1942-1943-Antony-B...

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Fall-Berlin-1945-Antony-Beevor

I got the impression from Richard Rhode's books that Szilard, for all his ability and achievements, was a pretty pretentious 'know it all' with a (possibly justified) powerful sense of his own importance. This article kind of hints at this nature as well. I think it's largely this that has prevented his name being perhaps as widely known as Oppenheimer, Teller, Fermi etc when one thinks of the Manhattan Project, as those who retell these events often appeared not to like the man particularly much. Fermi of course chose never to work with Szilard ever again.

That's an interesting focus on his schlubbiness but in a way it makes it even more curious that, over the long term he was more (and more fundamentally) influential than most of his much more politically and socially savvy colleagues. Even if you just take the start and end points - set the gears that led to the Manhattan project in motion, convinced the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers to install a hotline, it's not half bad, for a Martian.

I love the description by Richard Rhodes of Szilard's crossing of the road in London when he realised the possibility of a chain reaction:

"The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woes, the shape of things to come"


This article is riddled with errors. Voice of the Dolphins contained 4 short-stories. Article says 8. Seriously?

She also calls Nikita Khrushchev Nikolai Kruschev.

Yes, error after error. The intent of the article, clearly, is to attack Szilard. It poses as a review of Voice of the Dolphins, but there's little evidence that she even read it.

While there are some amusing anecdotes in the article, the characterization of Szilard as a failure is baffling.

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