Tag Archives: Fermi-Szilard Neutronic Reactor

Leo Szilard and the Foundation Mark Gable

16 Sep

“Gloire et louange à toi, Satan, dans les hauteurs

Du Ciel, où tu régnas, et dans les profondeurs

De l’Enfer, où, vaincu, tu rêves en silence!

Fais que mon âme un jour, sous l’Arbre de Science,

Près de toi se repose, à l’heure où sur ton front

Comme un Temple nouveau ses rameaux s’épandront!

Charles Baudelaire, in Les Fleurs du Mal [1]

Science is in danger of survival. Technology and Burocracy took its place. How to create anew the conditions that give birth to the wonderful discoveries of the last century that endure until the 1950’s with the discovery of the laser? This is an actual and fundamental problem that strikes our civilization.

“Only daring have made the main contributions  to Science. Notwithstanding this, the contemporary heavy administration in the
system of modern scientific education and scientific research still suppresses  everyone who wishes to develop new and productive ideas. That is why the  freedom  of scientific work and the free initiative of original studies should  undeniably be defended, because only these factors were and will be the most  productive sources of great progress of Science”—Louis de Broglie, Necessity of  Freedom of Scientific Work, Annales de la Fondation Louis de Broglie, vol. 4, nº  1, p.62 (1979)

Fermi-Szilard neutronic Reactor. Image credit:Wikipedia

But here we are talking about a singular man of science. Leo Szilard, the great physicist of Hungarian ascent after Hiroshima left physics to dedicate his interests to biology and science-fiction…Szilard was born in Hungary in 1898 and come to Berlin in 1919 to study with Albert Einstein, Max von Laue and become a friend with Eugen Wigner. In 1938 he went to the United States, rapidly recognizing the evil nature of nazism. In Chicago, he worked with Enrico Fermi at the Metallurgical Laboratory in the framework of the Manhattan Project. At this laboratory, Leo Szilard developed the concept of nuclear chain reaction into a nuclear  reactor, and he patented the idea together with another great physicist Enrico Fermi (this kind of people are disappearing in our societies unfortunately, there is no place for them), see their patent [1a].

US postage stamp honoring Enrico Fermi. Im credit: web.mit.edu
Leo Szilard. Image credit: sciencephoto.com

At a certain moment, Szilard felt the need to eliminate the sinister side of his nuclear reactor and atomic bomb, not being pleased with the political turn of the Manhattan Project.

What was his idea about Big Science? «It was not the kind of physics I like, and I even wonder if it is physics at all». In a  series of tales, Szilard, describes with humor a meeting with a millionaire, Mark Gable, that enriched with a bank of sperm. We refer now to a part of the tale appearing in Leo Szilard book “The voice of the dolphins and other stories” [2].

“Would you intend to do anything for the advancement of science?” I asked.

“No”, Mark Gable said. “I believe scientific progress is too fast as it is.”

“I share your feeling about this point,” I said with fervor of conviction, “but then why not do something about the retardation of scientific progress?”

“That I would very much like to do,” Mark Gable said, “but how do I go about it?”

“Well,” I said, “I think that shouldn’t be very difficult. As a matter of fact, I think it would be quite easy. You could set up a foundation, with an annual endowment of thirty million dollars. Research workers in need of funds could apply for grants, if they could mail out a convincing case. Have ten committees, each committee, each composed of twelve scientists, appointed to pass on these applications. Take the most active scientists out of the laboratory and make them members of these committees. And the very best men in the field should be appointed as chairman at salaries of fifty thousand dollars each. Also have about twenty prizes of one hundred thousand dollars each for the best scientific papers of the year. This is just about all you would have to do. Your lawyers could easily prepare a charter for the foundation. As a matter of fact, any of the National Science Foundation bills which were introduced in the Seventy-ninth and Eightieth Congress could perfectly well serve as a model.”

This question is of huge importance nowadays and must be taken seriously by all of us. What kind of civilization are we leaving to our sons? [3]


[1] Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal

[1a] Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, Nutronic Reactor, Patent US2708656

[2] Leo Szilard, The voice of Dolphins and Other Stories

[3] Tragic Science of Leo Szilard, by Roy Scott Sheffield

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