Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb

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Leo Szilard has long been overshadowed by such luminaries as Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Enrico Fermi - with whom he designed the first nuclear reactor in 1942. In this widely acclaimed biography, William Lanouette presents an excellent portrait of the shy, witty, eccentric Szilard who lived both sides of the arms race: working first to prevent, then to hasten, and finally to outlaw nuclear weapons.

Leo Szilard has long been overshadowed by such luminaries as ...

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Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb

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Overview

Leo Szilard has long been overshadowed by such luminaries as Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Enrico Fermi - with whom he designed the first nuclear reactor in 1942. In this widely acclaimed biography, William Lanouette presents an excellent portrait of the shy, witty, eccentric Szilard who lived both sides of the arms race: working first to prevent, then to hasten, and finally to outlaw nuclear weapons.

Leo Szilard has long been overshadowed by such luminaries as Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Enrico Fermi--with whom he designed the first nuclear reactor in 1942. This entertaining biography presents a focused look at the shy, witty eccentric--who worked first to prevent, then to hasten, and finally to ban nuclear weapons.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The shadows that have obscured physicist Szilard (1898-1964) have, ironically, been cast by the monuments of the atomic age his work catalyzed: the Cold War, nuclear power and such icons as Robert Oppenheimer. In this comprehensive study, science writer Lanouette and Silard, the subject's brother, cast welcome light on the physicist's career and character. The Hungarian-born Szilard was at the epicenter of the Manhattan Project--indeed, he patented the first reactor design with Enrico Fermi--but his concern over the destructive uses of atomic power (and a degree of personal eccentricity) isolated him from the celebrity (and Nobel prizes) that came to other founding fathers of quantum physics. Though the authors' fine brushstrokes--such as their record of what the physicist and his brother ate for dinner one night in 1923--sometimes overwhelm their portrait of Szilard himself, readers will find Szilard to be a ``curious and human character'' whose engagement with his work and its consequences was so profound that it can make other figures of the era seem hollow. Photos not seen by PW . (Jan.)
Library Journal
The latest in a spate of Manhattan Project biographies, this reverent, admiring, and overly long study draws extensively on Szilard's own papers and the memories of his brother, Bela Silard. Szilard's most prominent accomplishments as a scientist were somewhat opaque; they remain so even after reading this book. Szilard was the first to predict the possibility of a controlled nuclear chain reaction, fundamental to making an atomic bomb. He also instigated--and drafted for his friend Einstein--the famous letter alerting FDR to the possibility of nuclear weapons from which the Manhattan Project arose. Szilard seems a strange man indeed: Unable to focus his energies or thoughts on any one project for more than a moment, he led a gypsy scholar life in which he lobbied for jobs and academic appointments and then turned them down or abandoned them; started thousands of research projects but never finished one; drafted scientific papers but never got around to publishing them; and courted a woman for 30 years before marrying her but never lived with her. Szilard had many friends in high places, but it is never clear exactly what they saw in him. Instead, his enigmatic personality remains tightly wrapped, even in this biography.-- Mark L. Shelton, Athens, Ohio
Booknews
A detailed but highly accessible account of the life and work of the great scientist (1898-1964) associated both with the development of nuclear power and, later, with its control--based on some 200 interviews, exclusive family records and photos, archival research, and more than 300 personal letters from Szilard to his wife that were discovered in 1987. Lanouette's (senior energy policy analyst, US GAO) collaborator, Bela Silard, is Leo Szilard's brother. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Gilbert Taylor
Szilard is one of the last members of the original nuclear priesthood to receive a full-length bio, which may be attributable to his eccentric personal habits and his brusqueness in tweaking either ignorance or authority. His brilliance nevertheless resulted in the achievements that account for his scientific reputation: Szilard conceived the chain-reaction potential in neutron bombardment; he designed and ran (with Fermi) the first atomic "pile," in 1942; and he wrote Einstein's famed letter to FDR that proved to be the genesis of the Manhattan Engineering District, the administrative euphemism for the A-bomb project. But he found himself on the periphery of that epical creation and under constant FBI surveillance, the victim, asserts Lanouette, of General Leslie Groves' animus and suspicion. What Groves (and some of Szilard's fellow scientists) probably resented was Szilard's conviction that physicists were obligated to control, by lobbying politicians and the public, the nuclear energy their inquisitiveness had released. Szilard forsook physics for biology and organized various ban-the-bomb groups. Thirty years after Szilard's death, Lanouette's profile is an exhaustive three-dimensional perspective on the growth of a maverick mind--restless but sometimes fatefully influential.
Max F. Perutz - New York Review of Books
““Lanouette's book is eminently readable. . . . An excellent book spiced with telling anecdotes about a strange man who influenced world history.””
Dick Teresi - New York Times Book Review
““A wonderful book about this endlessly fascinating man . . . one of the most entertaining stories in recent years. . . . A keeper.””
Gregg Herken - Nature
““Lanouette's exhaustively researched and artfully written account of one of the most underrated figures of the atomic age establishes Szilard as both a curmudgeon and a posthumously honored prophet.””
Hans Bethe - Physics Today
““William Lanouette . . . has written the most sensitive and lively biography. . . . The book gives an excellent picture of the man, and makes most interesting reading. I strongly recommend it.””
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684190112
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 1/27/1993
  • Pages: 640

Meet the Author

William Lanouette has written about atomic energy and arms control for more than two decades. Publications he has written for include the Atlantic, the Economist, New York Magazine, and the Washington Post. He holds a BA in English from Fordham University and a MSc and a PhD in politics (comparative government) from the London School of Economics. He lives in San Diego, California.

Jonas Salk (1914–1995) was an American medical researcher and virologist best known for discovering and developing the first successful polio vaccine in the 1950s. In 1960, he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, CA, where Leo Szilard was one of the first fellows.

Bela Silard (1900–1994), Leo Szilard's brother, simplified his name as an immigrant to the United States in 1938. He translated his parents' memoirs, compiled family records and photographs, and drafted recollections for this book.

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