Leó Szilárd
By: Alexis Madrigal | Categories: HiLo Heroes

Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd, 1946

A key member of the Manhattan Project, senescence researcher, and guardian of the second law of thermodynamics, Hungarian physicist LEÓ SZILÁRD (1898-1964) should be the patron scientist of eschatologies. His key early scientific contribution made Maxwell’s Demon real, and therefore subject to the laws of physics. It took energy to gather and store information, he said, which kept the Demon from defeating the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy kept winning. Even on the day of his greatest triumph, the creation of the first nuclear chain reaction in an underground squash court at the University of Chicago, his mind dashed off toward loss. “I shook hands with Fermi and I said that I thought this day would go down as a black day in the history of mankind,” he recalled. “I was quite aware of the dangers. Not because I am so wise but because I have read a book written by H. G. Wells called The World Set Free.” Szilárd, a longtime friend of Einstein’s, became obsessed with stopping the use of nuclear weapons. He often referred to Wells’ 1914 novel, calling it “the most incredible prediction I have ever seen.” Wells describes the rise of (something like) atomic power and weapons, including a destructive nuclear war — after which the world unites under the banners of science and collective purpose. Nothing’s perfect: the book’s protagonist suffers a heart attack, dying “in an instant in the night.” Szilárd met the same end.

For more on H.G. Wells’ The World Set Free, click here.

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Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor and lead technology writer for TheAtlantic.com. A former staff writer for Wired, he's the author of the forthcoming history of clean energy in America, Inventing Green.