Leó Szilárd

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Science is progressing at such a rapid rate that when you make a prediction and think you are ahead of your time by 100 years you may be ahead of your time by 10 at most.

Leó Szilárd (11 February 189830 May 1964) was a Hungarian-American physicist, and probably the first scientist to take seriously the idea of actually developing atomic bombs; he drafted the famous letter sent by Albert Einstein to U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that was largely responsible for initiating the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons during World War II.

Quotes[edit]

If the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us, we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them.
It is not necessary to succeed in order to persevere. As long as there is a margin of hope, however narrow, we have no choice but to base all our actions on that margin.
That night I knew the world was headed for sorrow...
A man's clarity of judgment is never very good when you're involved, and as you grow older, and as you grow more involved, your clarity of judgment suffers.
  • Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb, say, on Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?
    But, again, don't misunderstand me. The only conclusion we can draw is that governments acting in a crisis are guided by questions of expediency, and moral considerations are given very little weight, and that America is no different from any other nation in this respect.
    • "President Truman Did Not Understand" in U.S. News & World Report (15 August 1960)
    • Variant: If the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us, we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them.
      • As quoted in The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb (1996) by Dennis Wainstock, p. 122
  • A great power imposes the obligation of exercising restraint, and we did not live up to this obligation. I think this affected many of the scientists in a subtle sense, and it diminished their desire to continue to work on the bomb.
    • "President Truman Did Not Understand" in U.S. News & World Report (15 August 1960)
  • I'm looking for a market for wisdom.
    • As quoted in "Close-up : I'm looking for a market for wisdom. : Leo Szilard, scientist" in LIFE‎ magazine, Vol. 51, no. 9 (1 September 1961), p. 75
  • A scientist's aim in a discussion with his colleagues is not to persuade, but to clarify.
    • As quoted in "Close-up : I'm looking for a market for wisdom. : Leo Szilard, scientist" in LIFE‎ magazine, Vol. 51, no. 9 (1 September 1961), p. 75
  • The most important step in getting a job done is the recognition of the problem. Once I recognize a problem I usually can think of someone who can work it out better than I could.
    • As quoted in "Close-up : I'm looking for a market for wisdom. : Leo Szilard, scientist" in LIFE‎ magazine, Vol. 51, no. 9 (1 September 1961), p. 75
  • In order to succeed it is not necessary to be much cleverer than other people. All you have to do is be one day ahead of them.
    • As quoted in "Close-up : I'm looking for a market for wisdom. : Leo Szilard, scientist" in LIFE‎ magazine, Vol. 51, no. 9 (1 September 1961), p. 75
    • Variant: If you want to succeed in the world, you don't have to be much cleverer than other people. You just have to be one day earlier.
  • It is not necessary to succeed in order to persevere. As long as there is a margin of hope, however narrow, we have no choice but to base all our actions on that margin. America and Russia have one interest in common which may override all their other interests: to be able to live with the bomb without getting into an all-out war that neither of them wants.
    • As quoted in "Some Szilardisms on War, Fame, Peace", LIFE‎ magazine, Vol. 51, no. 9 (1 September 1961), p. 79
  • In life you must often choose between getting a job done or getting credit for it. In science, the most important thing is not the ideas you have but the decision which ones you choose to pursue. If you have an idea and are not doing anything with it, why spoil someone else's fun by publishing it?
    • As quoted in "Some Szilardisms on War, Fame, Peace", LIFE‎ magazine, Vol. 51, no. 9 (1 September 1961), p. 79
  • Science is progressing at such a rapid rate that when you make a prediction and think you are ahead of your time by 100 years you may be ahead of your time by 10 at most.
    • As quoted in "Some Szilardisms on War, Fame, Peace", LIFE‎ magazine, Vol. 51, no. 9 (1 September 1961), p. 79
  • All we had to do was lean back, turn a switch and watch a screen of a television tube. If flashes of light appeared on the screen it would mean that liberation of atomic energy would take place in our lifetime. We turned the switch, saw the flashes — we watched for about five minutes — then switched everything off and went home. That night I knew the world was headed for trouble.
    • On the experiment at University of Chicago which indicated a nuclear chain reaction was possible, as quoted in "Some Szilardisms on War, Fame, Peace", LIFE‎ magazine, Vol. 51, no. 9 (1 September 1961), p. 79
    • Variants:
    • We turned the switch, we saw the flashes, we watched them for about ten minutes — and then we switched everything off and went home. That night I knew the world was headed for sorrow...
      • As quoted in the Boston University Graduate Journal (1968)
    • We turned the switch, saw the flashes, watched for ten minutes, then switched everything off and went home. That night I knew the world was headed for sorrow.
  • A man's clarity of judgment is never very good when you're involved, and as you grow older, and as you grow more involved, your clarity of judgment suffers.
    • As quoted in Leo Szilard : His Version of the Facts, edited by S. R. Weart and G. W. Szilard, in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (February 1979), Vol. 35, No. 2, p. 38

The Voice of the Dolphins : And Other Stories (1961)[edit]

Let your acts be directed toward a worthy goal, but do not ask if they will reach it; they are to be models and examples, not means to an end.
Even in times of war, you can see current events in their historical perspective, provided that your passion for the truth prevails over your bias in favor of your own nation.
The people who have sufficient passion for the truth to give the truth a chance to prevail, if it runs counter to their bias, are in a minority. How important is this "minority?" It is difficult to say at this point, for, at the present time their influence on governmental decisions is not perceptible.
  • Even if we accept, as the basic tenet of true democracy, that one moron is equal to one genius, is it necessary to go a further step and hold that two morons are better than one genius?
    • Variant: I'm all in favor of the democratic principle that one idiot is as good as one genius, but I draw the line when someone takes the next step and concludes that two idiots are better than one genius.
      • As quoted in "Some Szilardisms on War, Fame, Peace", LIFE‎ magazine, Vol. 51, no. 9 (1 September 1961), p. 79
1. Recognize the connections of things and laws of conduct of men, so that you may know what you are doing.
2. Let your acts be directed toward a worthy goal, but do not ask if they will reach it; they are to be models and examples, not means to an end.
3. Speak to all men as you do to yourself, with no concern for the effect you make, so that you do not shut them out from your world; lest in isolation the meaning of life slips out of sight and you lose the belief in the perfection of creation.
4. Do not destroy what you cannot create.
5. Touch no dish, except that you are hungry.
6. Do not covet what you cannot have.
7. Do not lie without need.
8. Honor children. Listen reverently to their words and speak to them with infinite love.
9. Do your work for six years; but in the seventh, go into solitude or among strangers, so that the memory of your friends does not hinder you from being what you have become.
10. Lead your life with a gentle hand and be ready to leave whenever you are called.
  • "Ten Commandments"
  • Variants: Don't lie if you don't have to.
  • Personal dictum, (variant of #7) as quoted by Albert Szent-Györgyi, in Science, Vol. 176, (1972), p. 966

Are We on the Road to War?[edit]

Speech at Harvard Law School (17 November 1961) ; republished in Toward a Livable World: Leo Szilard and the Crusade for Nuclear Arms Control (1987) by Leo Szilard, Helen S. Hawkins, G. Allen Greb, and Gertrud Weiss Szilard, p. 432
  • I sometimes have the feeling that I have lived through all this before and, in a sense, I have. I was sixteen years old when the first World War broke out, and I lived at that time in Hungary. From reading the newspapers in Hungary, it would have appeared that, whatever Austria and Germany did was right and whatever England, France, Russia, or America did was wrong. A good case could be made out for this general thesis, in almost every single instance. It would have been difficult for me to prove, in any single instance, that the newspapers were wrong, but somehow, it seemed to me unlikely that the two nations located in the center of Europe should be invariably right, and that all the other nations should be invariably wrong. History, I reasoned, would hardly operate in such a peculiar fashion, and it didn't take long until I began to hold views which were diametrically opposed to those held by the majority of my schoolmates.
  • Even in times of war, you can see current events in their historical perspective, provided that your passion for the truth prevails over your bias in favor of your own nation.
  • The people who have sufficient passion for the truth to give the truth a chance to prevail, if it runs counter to their bias, are in a minority. How important is this "minority?" It is difficult to say at this point, for, at the present time their influence on governmental decisions is not perceptible.

Quotes about Szilárd[edit]

…It is the tragedy of mankind.
  • I had not been long back from Hiroshima when I heard someone say, in Szilárd's presence; that it was the tragedy of scientists that their discoveries were used for destruction. Szilárd replied, as he more than anyone else had the right to reply; that it was not the tragedy of scientists, it is the tragedy of mankind.

External links[edit]

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