The Einstein-Szilard Letter | Teen Ink

The Einstein-Szilard Letter

June 28, 2014
By Caspian GOLD, New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania
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Caspian GOLD, New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania
14 articles 2 photos 2 comments

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In May of 1922, when a scientist named Dr. F. R. Aston gave his warning about “tinkering with angry atoms,” the infinitesimally small atom was at the forefront of everyone’s mind (“Tinkering With Atoms” 44). The macabre connotation of the atom clashed dramatically with the upbeat tempo of the times, having no relation to such things as energetic swing music and the fantastic world of Narnia that was created by C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia. Nonetheless, scientists were on the precipice of releasing the tremendous destructiveness of the atom through the atomic bomb. Nazi and American physicists were conducting research. Physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard felt the need to warn the United States government of this potential threat and wrote what history now refers to as the Einstein-Szilard Letter. The Manhattan Project, lead by General Leslie Groves and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, was created as an effect of the letter. (Roosevelt “Letter to Oppenheimer”).

The Einstein-Szilard Letter consists of two pages of typewritten text. Leo Szilard composed the letter and convinced his colleague Albert Einstein, a more widely know physicist, to send it under his name. Six paragraphs outline the need for the United States to be wary of German scientists’ work in nuclear physics and to create its own program to develop a bomb that uses nuclear fission. Albert Einstein addressed the letter to President Franklin Roosevelt and dated it August 2, 1939 (Szilard, Einstein). Alexander Sachs, an economist and friend of Roosevelt (Dannen), orally delivered the letter to President Roosevelt on October 11, 1939, over two months after it was mailed (Sachs). Roosevelt sent a reply to Einstein on October 19 of the same year (Rhodes 313). I will explain the significance of Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, and then give my analysis of the significance of the Einstein-Szilard Letter to the development of the atomic bomb and the furthering of nuclear physics.

Rights and responsibilities come in many forms. They can be simple, commonplace, or even pioneering. They can also change history. When making dinner, one has the right to choose the meal, but one also has the responsibility to feed the family. Voting is perhaps the most notable example of a commonplace right in today’s world. Both Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard
exercised their Right of Petition as mentioned in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (US Const. amend. I). It was the responsibility of Einstein and Szilard to defend their country. They had responsibilities to society and their families. As physicists, they had the responsibility to further the knowledge of their profession. Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard recognized the need for action when nuclear physics developed a way for extensive energy to be released from miniscule mass. This resulted in a project, a weapon, and an explosion that shook the world.

During the fearful years of World War II, everyone in Europe knew the location of the nearest air raid shelter. When people heard the air raid siren, they ran (“What Was”). Incendiary and high explosives caused this fear. The bombs came in many shapes and sizes, from the RAF 22,000 Grand Slam to the USAAF 100 lb. Some were for demolition, all were destructive, but none matched the awesome power of the atomic bomb (Moncur).

Hitler’s dictatorship, one of the most feared and remembered in history, is the face of Nazi Germany. His government based itself on modern science; it seemed a paradise for theorists and experimentalists alike. This, however, quickly eradicated when it became apparent that science was to be integrated into the Socialist government and used for military purposes (Macrakis 82). Physicists, especially, were morally bound to shield their important work from the government. They needed to escape Nazi Germany, and Leo Szilard acted as their envoy.

Many accomplished physicists came to the United States as the threats to their homelands became increasingly eminent. Szilard assisted many scientists that emigrated from Germany (“Leo Szilard”), but his most famous recipient might be Edward Teller, the inventor of the hydrogen bomb. Other physicists independently came to America. Enrico Fermi came from Italy to shelter his wife from the Jewish genocide. Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr also emigrated. Their studies were degradingly called “Jewish physics (Blow 27).” Most of these scientists would later be drafted to work on the Manhattan Project (Blow 29).

Leo Szilard was the man behind the Einstein-Szilard Letter and the bomb. His brilliant mind created the idea that an atom, when bombarded with neutrons, would break down into fragments that would continue the reaction. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity proved integral. The idea that mass and energy are so related that one can be transformed into the other showed that breaking down the atom could release vast amounts of energy from relatively small amounts of matter. When struck by the significance of this discovery, he, with a group of colleagues, drafted the letter to be approved of and signed by world-famous scientist Albert Einstein.

Einstein and Szilard not only worked together in the laboratory and classroom; they had a relationship that extended into their personal lives. The Einstein-Szilard refrigeration patent (1927) shows the relationship between the scientists (Einstein, Szilard Refrigeration). Albert Einstein’s fame was the reason behind him being the signer of the letter. Anyone at that time would have considered himself lucky to receive mail from the leading physicist in the world. While he did not write the letter, it commonly bears his name as his signature graces the final line.

Szilard wrote about several scientists in the first paragraph of the Einstein-Szilard Letter. These include Fermi and himself. Joliot is mentioned in the first sentence of the second paragraph. They all gave major contributions to the development of the atomic bomb. Some came to later reject its use, feeling that they were responsible for the destruction that could be caused. Einstein, a sworn pacifist, was horrified to see the bomb used on any country other than Germany. Szilard, too, became active against the use of the bomb he conceived of when tendrils of surrender started trailing out from Japan.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity provided the foundation for the formation of the bomb. It quantified that energy (E) is equal to mass (m) times the speed of light (c) squared. The equation (E=mc2) supported the transformation of minute quantities of mass to vast amounts of energy.

Frederic Joliot, the husband of Irene Joliot-Curie and the son-in-law of Marie Curie, discovered artificial radioactivity in 1934. He worked on such topics as projection of nuclei, fission, chain reactions, and atomic energy. He was also active in politics. In 1936, Joliot joined the League for the Rights of Man. Two years before the letter was written, he was elected Professor at the College de France (“Frederic Joliot”).

Enrico Fermi’s work added the definitive information needed to construct an atomic bomb. Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938, following a stream of discoveries from the Italian scientist. He followed the work of Joliot, and based some of his experiments off of his French counterpart. Fermi’s greatest discovery was nuclear fission, the release of energy from an atom (“Enrico Fermi”). Fermi’s discovery, with that of Joliot’s nuclear chain reactions and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, completes the science needed to construct an immensely powerful weapon.

Szilard briefly explained the physics involved in creating an atomic bomb in the second paragraph of the letter. He referenced the work of Fermi, Joliot, and Einstein, and adds implications from his own experiments. He designed experiments that made nuclear chain reactions a reality. Since he preferred theorizing to engineering apparatuses for experiments (Rhodes 299) he was the first to strike upon the idea that fission, nuclear chain reactions, and converting mass into energy could create a massive explosion. He knew that his discovery would be catastrophic (“Leo Szilard”).

The transportation for this new bomb and its power to destroy were the topics of the third paragraph of the letter. The owner of the bomb would possess unprecedented power. Entire cities could be demolished almost instantly. Einstein and Szilard speculated that the weapon could be transported by a boat and “exploded in a port” that “might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory” (Szilard, Einstein). They also thought that an atomic bomb would be too weighty to carry on an airplane.

To construct an atomic bomb, a country would need a source of uranium. The fourth paragraph of letter reads, “The United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities.” Uranium and other radioactive elements had been revered since the turn of the century. Radioactivity occurs when the particles in an element extemporaneously divide and emit radiation (“Radioactivity”). Fantastic projects such as radium spas were being constructed as early as 1911 (“Where the Radium Cure”). The allure of an unstable element pulled in scientists such as Frederic Joliot in France.

Missions such as those led by Colonel Boris T. Bash to secure uranium were crucial in developing the bomb before Germany. If Germany developed the bomb first, the war may have been drastically different. Major battles or even the entire outcome could have been completely reversed ( The bulk of the uranium for the Manhattan project was from the Belgian Congo (Goldschmidt). This is the location that Einstein and Szilard recommended in the letter.

Private United States companies took interest in the uranium industry beginning in 1913. The Standard Chemical Company of Pittsburgh mined 600 grams of uranium. Unfortunately, bombs were not thought of then, and the uranium was either sold or sent to factories to be made into radium (Goldschmidt). There was some ore in Canada, but the issue still remained that the Germans had far better resources available to build an atomic bomb.

Paragraph six of the Einstein-Szilard Letter lays out some suspicion of German activities involving uranium. The shutdown of Czechoslovakia supported the theory that the Germans knew how to create a bomb, and they were in the process of doing so. Czechoslovakia’s great store of uranium would make it an optimal location for the Germans to get their supply. The Germans also had large quantities of uranium in the Joachimsthal mines, giving them further leverage in an atomic race.

Paragraph five of the letter comes between the two paragraphs talking about uranium and details Einstein and Szilard’s suggestions for the creation of an atomic bomb. They understood that a project to create a weapon of this magnitude should be conducted in utmost secrecy. They suggested that the head of this project could have two responsibilities: to inform government departments on the activities of the project members’ focus on securing uranium and to give attention to raising funds with which to carry out the experiments.

The letter had several results. General Leslie R. Groves was the man who received the honor of being head of the Manhattan Project. He was a technical man. With a special eye for detail and a will of steel, he set about constructing sites for the production of the bomb and the housing of the employed physicists and their families (“Leslie Groves”). Dr. Oppenheimer was the second head of the project. He worked with the “secret programs of research, development and manufacture (Roosevelt “Letter to Oppenheimer”).” He was in charge of the use of uranium. The physical bomb is Oppenheimer’s brain child. Both Groves and Oppenheimer worked in secrecy and reported directly to the Administration, at that time headed by President Roosevelt.

The Einstein-Szilard Letter is a message from the past and a foundation for the future. Its creation shaped the legacy of World War II. Without the letter, the Administration would not have been informed of the capabilities of fission to destroy. The ideas presented in the letter stretch the orthodoxy of physics into the modern world. The United States took the information from Einstein and Szilard and improved upon it. Some points that were believed to be impossible were achieved. Einstein and Szilard speculated that an atomic bomb would be too heavy to carry on an airplane. However, when the United States dropped the bombs Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were transported by plane. Colonel Paul Tibbets was the commander of the Enola Gay, the aircraft that delivered the atomic bomb to the world (Enola Gay Crew).

The atomic bombs released the explosive power of physics as never seen before. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were thoroughly obliterated. The explosion of Little Boy, the bomb dropped over Hiroshima, equaled 12-15,000 tons of TNT. 80,000 people died instantly. The second bomb, Fat Man, had a slightly smaller, but still significant, impact. 40,000 people were killed, and 2.6 square miles of the city were ruined (“The Bombing”).

Even greater than the destructive power of these bombs were the psychological effects. Atomic diplomacy became the new big threat. President Truman had B-29s fly over during the Berlin Blockade. The Soviet Union used atomic diplomacy “to try to force U.S. concessions on Europe (“Atomic Diplomacy”).”

The Einstein-Szilard Letter is an example of both a right and a responsibility. Both scientists exercised their Right of Petition as mentioned in the Bill of Rights. They exercised their right properly and with regard for the rights of others. They were not forceful or demanding. They recognized an issue and brought it to the attention of their government. Their actions shaped the outcome of one of the largest wars in the history of civilization.

It was the moral responsibility of Einstein and Szilard to defend their country instead of their motherlands. They had responsibilities to society and their families. As physicists, they had the responsibility to further the knowledge of their profession. They warned the United States about the potential of “the angry atom” and how its power could be released.
Their work and the work of other scientists such as Frederic Joliot and Enrico Fermi made an atomic bomb a tangible weapon. Two bombs, nicknamed “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were created through the Manhattan Project and dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, physicists inspired by the Manhattan Project are working on the cutting edge of a new power source: proton-boron nuclear fusion (Grant). The letter also gave rise to atomic diplomacy, therefore playing a key role in the Cold War. Einstein and Szilard will forever be remembered for the effects of their rights and responsibilities.

The author's comments:
The bibliography is annotated and divided into primary and secondary sources.

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