Update from Ragdale and A Nuclear Birthday

On Thursday evening, after dining on walnut burgers, chipotle sweet potatoes, and sautéed spinach, we built a fire in the fireplace and settled in for a long editing session. We spent more than four hours working our way aloud through the two chapters we’ve drafted since our writing residency began.

Yesterday, it snowed in big clumps. From our second-floor windows, we watched the snow fall. Anna went outside for a short walk and to take some photos. Then, we tried to outline the rest of the chapters, doling out our ideas to the remaining chunks of pages we imagine. We try to outline the next two in more detail, put the ideas in the order they should appear. We have an idea of how long the chapters will be so we move a few things to a later chapter. But because of our experience drafting this project over the last week, we aren’t estimating the number of words or pages we expect an idea to take.

We have a sense of what we want to accomplish before we leave, and we’re pretty sure that, even if everything goes well, we would need three more days than we have. That said, we’re appreciative of the time we do have remaining here at Ragdale.

Today, we also pause to consider Leo Szilard, who was born on this date in 1898. As a Manhattan Project physicist, perhaps the first one, he fits into our “In the Footsteps” series, and he’s someone who’s long interested us.

Born in Hungary, he attended the Institute of Technology in Berlin, where he hung out with the likes of Albert Einstein and Max Planck. With that kind of company, it’s no wonder he ended up thinking, by 1933, after fleeing the Nazis and landing in London, about how a sustained nuclear reaction might work. There are several stories, most told at one time or another by Szilard himself, about how his idea that fission might lead to a bomb came to Szilard, but it’s clear that he was at least partly inspired by reading H. G. Wells’ The World Set Free. By the late 1930s, he was teaching at Columbia University, thinking uranium would be the right element for such a nuclear reaction, and soliciting Einstein’s endorsement of a letter he wanted to send to President Roosevelt. The letter from Einstein to Roosevelt led to the development of the Manhattan Project, and hence the suggestion that Szilard was the first physicist on the project.

Szilard moved on to the University of Chicago, where he helped Enrico Fermi build the first controlled nuclear reaction and held the patent with Fermi for that first nuclear reactor, which they referred to as a “pile.” In this coming week’s regular Wednesday post, we offer a sneak-peek of Anna’s AWP presentation on creative nonfiction in the nuclear age, which mentions this historic event of December 2, 1942, an event that, in a real sense, marked the beginning of the nuclear age.

Metallurgical Lab (Fermi on left in first row, Szilard in light coat second from right)

As the United States grew closer to having a useable nuclear weapon, Szilard became concerned about its use against Japan and pushed unsuccessfully for a test demonstration. He was also disturbed that the military would have control over nuclear weapons and that scientists were not being involved in policy.

Shortly after the war, Szilard gave his attention to biology and even fiction writing, with a collection of short stories related to his experiences and the Cold War and in which dolphins tell the story of our demise. He also met with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev and suggested a hot line between the White House and the Kremlin and, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, rushed to Geneva in hopes of establishing a dialogue between the president and the premier. Only a few months after joining the Salk Institute in 1964, Leo Szilard died in his sleep from a heart attack.

Enrico Fermi, Szilard’s partner in the first nuclear reactor, died of stomach cancer at age 53. Szilard later developed bladder cancer. Szilard’s cancer didn’t kill him, though it might have if he hadn’t undergone radiation and then, much to his doctors’ chagrin and by his own treatment design, more radiation. He had radioactive silver implanted in the tumor. Such implantation radiation treatment was highly unusual then but has since become one common way to treat prostrate cancer.

Szilard’s unconventional thinking didn’t stop with his science. He was known for soaking in a hot bath in the mornings to think and to take breakfast. Taking a hot bath today, perhaps with a glass of wine, might be the most fitting way to celebrate Szilard’s birthday. In 1951, he married Dr. Trude Weiss after they had been pen pals and confidantes for more than twenty years. We like this part of the story especially, in large part because we, too, knew each other twenty years before running off and doing something foolish like that. Szilard and Weiss, though, would spend most of the marriage living apart, something with which we’re not unfamiliar.

Szilard’s legacy, then, as a nuclear scientist and a human being is, like so many of the people about which we are drawn to write, a complex one. He was the Humanist of the Year in 1960, mingling in the ranks of Margaret Sanger and, later, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, Helen Caldicott, Margaret Atwood (who will be at AWP in a few weeks), and Bill Nye. Not a bad group overall and certainly eclectic.

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