Saturday, September 08, 2007
Leo Szilard (Spitzer)
Thinking of my Szabo (Spitzer) uncles, another Spitzer, Leo Szilard, came to my mind. They too had Hungarized aka camouflaged their name. While my family changed his name to the vulgar Szabo (Taylor), Szilard went for the pompous Szilard (Solid). Leo Szilard was one of the group of Jewish refugees driven from Europe by Hitler, and with Teller, Wigner, and von Neumann a product of the Budapest Gymnasia of the turn of the century Judapest. These four were called by their fellow scientists the "Martians" because their ways seemed strange to the Americans and because of their otherworldly brilliance. All were theoretical physicists, friends of the world's leading scientist Albert Einstein, and steeped in German culture and interests. They spoke Hungarian, which sounds Martian to some people.
He was a firm believer in the patent system and hoped to make money with his inventions, but did not. One of his first inventions was a method of refrigeration with no moving parts which he patented with Albert Einstein. He invented and patented the idea of a chain reaction in the mid thirties even before nuclear fission was discovered. After Uranium was found to give off neutrons during the fission process, Szilard and Fermi together patented the nuclear reactor and Szilard later proposed the term "breeder" to describe a reactor which produced more fuel than it burned. He also invented a lobbying group called the Council for a Livable World and thought up the idea for the Washington-Moscow hot line. When his political activities led General Groves to withdraw all government support from Szilard in nuclear physics, he switched his interests to molecular biology and helped establish the European Laboratory for Molecular Biology. He lived a rootless cosmopolitan life, never held a stable salaried job and had no real estate or other properties. Married late with his lifelong companion Trude Weiss, left no children. During the Cuban crisis, he thought an atomic war was possible and left for Europe. He could never follow a diet and died of heart attack at 65.