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This is the BBC. This podcast is supported by advertising outside the UK. It's not often that you can pinpoint the moment in history when the whole world changes. A moment when everything collides. Science, politics, war and human life. Oh nine oh five thirty one thousand six hundred feet, air speed, 200 miles per hour, ten minutes to the AP. There are invisible particles that power our universe. They're all around us and part of us, oh, nine, 12.
Radio operator reports three planes have been spotted on the Brooke Adams. I'm not a scientist, but I've always imagined them as a miniature version of our solar system, the nucleus like the sun with electrons orbiting around like planets.
Within that nucleus, protons and neutrons are packed tightly together in an unimaginably small space bound by the strongest known force in existence. To meddle with that force is to question the fundamentals of our world as we know it. To break it is to tear the very fabric of the universe. The atom contains the power of infinite potential. And destruction of nine 15 in 15 seconds, bay doors open and little boy drops bombs away. On the morning of August six, 1945, it takes just 43 seconds for the deadliest bomb the world has ever known to find its target, Hiroshima, Japan, population 350000.
Point one second, the fireball has expanded to one hundred feet in diameter, combined with a temperature of five hundred thousand degrees Fahrenheit. One second, the fireball reaches the diameter of nine hundred meters. The blast wave slows to approximately the speed of sound temperature at ground level seven thousand degrees Fahrenheit. The mushroom cloud begins to form. The mushroom cloud hangs in the air today, it hangs over all of us. Just a few years before that day, unleashing the power of the atom was thought to be impossible.
But there was one man who saw it coming before anybody else. One man who was instrumental in figuring out the science that made it possible.
He was haunted by the bomb for the rest of his life, did he do all he could to stop it or did his efforts tragically bring about the very future he so feared? This is the story of Leo Salade and the bomb that changed our world forever. My name is Emily Strasser. From the BBC World Service, this is the bomb. Episode one, Moonshine. I spent most of my life obsessed with the atomic bomb. I have this vivid childhood memory of visiting my grandmother's house near Oakridge, Tennessee, above the bed where I slept, hung a photo of my grandfather standing in front of a mushroom cloud.
But it was something my family didn't talk about much, which makes sense really, since the whole community was bound by a culture of secrecy. You see, during World War Two, Oak Ridge was a top secret site for developing the atomic bomb. My grandfather, George Strasser, worked there enriching uranium. I never met my grandfather, George. He died before I was born, but I'd stare at his image on my grandmother's wall with a sense of uneasy for the bomb he helped to create.
As I grew older and came to understand the destruction and suffering that mushroom cloud represented. I started to feel the need to understand my grandfather, the choices he'd made and the work he'd done. But that meant facing up to what had been a part of facing up to what he'd help to build, and if I'm being honest, I didn't want to I was afraid of what I would find. Still, I felt compelled by some sense of duty and inherited guilt, so I began to research, I began to ask questions.
Trying to understand my grandfather and the history of the bomb itself led me back to the beginning, back before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, back before my grandfather, George got involved at Oak Ridge. It led me to Leo Szilard.
Although Germany has been drained by the First World War, 1920s Berlin pulses with energy, you can imagine how it must seem to Leo Szilard. He fled Hungary when regime change there made life impossible. Now here he is standing on a street corner as a young student, the horse drawn carriages of Budapest replaced by roaring traffic on broad boulevards. There are bright lights, noise, beggars, music and the greatest minds working in modern physics.
Leo Salade is here to study engineering, but he soon gets bored with that. He starts sitting in on a seminar with Albert Einstein and some of the great physicists of the world, and he's suddenly hooked by physics.
That's William Lonette, author of Genius in the Shadows.
Both Einstein and Salade were lateral thinkers in that they connected things from diverse sources and the two of them hit it off.
It's worth noting that Salada is not enrolled as a student when he first attends physics lectures. He simply starts showing up and he's so brilliant that he gets away with it.
In 1920, Albert Einstein is one of the most famous scientists in the world, he's internationally renowned for his theory of relativity. E equals M.C. squared. The very next year, Einstein will win the Nobel Prize. And here is young Leo, salade, untidy, a little frumpy, a keen sense of humor, but few social graces. He has none of Einstein's charisma and eloquence. But although psyllids, knowledge of physics is comparatively elementary, his intellectual boldness leads him to become friends with an icon.
This opens a whole new world for Leo. Salade was just a hugely curious person. That's Cynthia Kelly, founder and president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.
He was very interested in talking about theology and literature and the developments in the newspaper. And Einstein loved it. The two of them had a great sparring relationship. I mean, they'd love to brainstorm all these topics with each other. Salade was bold enough to go to Einstein and ask if he could walk home with him.
They lived in the same neighborhood and they struck up a friendship, salade transfers to study physics.
But in his spare time, he works on some pretty wild ideas from the mundane, a barber's chair that uses electric current to make hair stand up when it's cut to the sublime, theorising a utopian organization to provide world leadership seriously.
Salade would stumble around the university campus in Berlin from one bad project to the next, from physics, engineering and chemistry to economics, politics and fiction, from the smallest details of our universe to the greatest flights of fancy. So what was it that united all these projects? The thing about Leo Szilard was that he always had a sense of higher purpose. He wanted to make the world a better place in whatever way possible.
One of the things that really influenced him, he was a very good student. He knew many different languages.
This is an act of Orac, a science historian, read a great number of books that even a lot of adults wouldn't be able to comprehend or comprehend fully at a very young age.
And one of these texts was The Tragedy of Man, which is an 18th 60s epic poem in iambic pentameter that discusses philosophy and ethics and slurred reads us numerous times and he references it even into adulthood.
The situation was hopeless, according to the narrator of the poem, but not just salade. He saw that if there's any chance that you can succeed, you should succeed, and that that hope is something that should carry you forward. The phrase a narrow margin of hope is something that kept Leo Salade going his whole life. As it turns out, Leo Szilard is going to need all the help he can muster. The situation in the early 1930s in Germany was alarming economically, the country is in freefall.
Sellards comfortable life teaching at the university in Berlin vanishes before his very eyes. As early as nineteen thirty one, Salade becomes worried that Hitler will get into power, not because the forces of the Nazi revolution are so strong, but because public resistance was so weak. Today, we view these historical events with a knowledge of what was coming, but at the time nobody could see what course the 20th century would take. Looking back, it seems as if everything is following a pre written script, an inevitable chain reaction, a brutal dictator sparks a global war and kills millions.
The allied forces develop the most terrible weapon the earth has ever seen and drop it on a civilian population, all in the name of avoiding further war and bloodshed.
These events are facts, but the thing about a chain reaction is if one link goes missing, the chain breaks. There are so many points where had people taken different actions, it seems that history could have gone another way. And yet a chain reaction can't begin without that first spark in January of 1933 at all.
Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. It was only four weeks after Hitler came to power that an arsonist destroyed part of the German Reichstag, and the fire becomes an excuse for Hitler to target communists, intellectuals and, of course, Jews. The Nazis blamed a communist agitators for for the fire and use a decree to nullify many of the key civil liberties of German citizens. Anyone considered to be opponents of the Nazis could be imprisoned. It's a large Jewish faith puts his life at risk, he's an enemy in the country he calls home.
It's a pretty quiet day, a cold spring morning in Berlin, seemingly like any other.
The station is no more crowded than usual. People carry on with their business, catching trains away from the city or across the continent.
Anybody might think Leo Zijlaard is overreacting, fleeing the city as business hums along as usual. Leo Szilard is traveling first class partly because he enjoys life's little luxuries when he can afford them. But more importantly, he thinks it less likely that guards and soldiers will question first class passengers as the train rumbles past Dresden and follows the Elba River.
Leo Szilard begins to relax. He even drifts off to sleep early on Friday morning. He's roused by a voice of authority, a police officer. He's reached the Czech German border on.
Just imagine how salade must feel sitting in that small train compartment with all of his worldly possessions, watching a police officer scrutinize his passport, but luck is on his side.
After a few polite questions, the police officer salutes, clicks his heels and leaves.
The very next night, German troops at the border hold back people who are Jewish and seize their possessions. Hearing the news, Zavod becomes incredibly nervous about his own personal safety, not just for the immediate period, but for the rest of his life. To succeed in life, Salade later says you don't have to be cleverer than other people, you just have to be one day earlier.
And you have to wonder if Zijlaard had tried to leave just one day later, would we still have had the atomic bomb?
And if we did, whose hands would it have ended up in?
London, England, a city that has been relatively sheltered from the depression, crippling the rest of the world when salade arrives, all he has left is what he carries with him. But at least he's safe, although he has no way of knowing it yet. It is on these streets that he will have the revelation that will change the course of human history forever. But all that is still to come.
Far away from the chaos and noise of global politics, there's a world that's very different from the one we can see. This is the atomic level in nineteen thirty two scientists are taking their first steps to understanding this microscopic universe.
Scientists are still learning about the nature of atoms. They know the basic structure at the core, there's the nucleus with a positive charge surrounded by swirling electrons. Which have a negative charge in 1932, there's a major breakthrough, the neutron is discovered. This particle's name gives its nature away. It is neutral with no charge at all. Scientists realize that the atoms nucleus is, in fact made up of tightly packed protons and these newly discovered neutrons. The discovery of the neutron was one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century.
All of a sudden, scientists start to understand the world on a level they've never understood it before. It opens a world of possibilities. Why is this such a big deal, because what binds those protons and neutrons together is an unbelievably powerful force. There's so much energy contained in an atom just holding it all together. If scientists can figure out how to release that energy, that would be huge. But this is such a difficult task that it is repeatedly dismissed by the world's greatest physicists.
The power of the atom is in the nucleus.
To release it, you would somehow have to break the strong bonds holding it together. As tiny as an atom is, the nucleus is even tinier. Imagine a pea sitting in the middle of a racetrack. This is how small the nucleus is compared to the atom. It seems crazy to think it would be possible to hit that pea with enough power to break the strongest forces in the universe, to split it apart. And yet the O becomes obsessed with the potential power of atomic energy.
Meanwhile, 600 miles away, a nightmare is unfolding in Berlin, it haunts Leo Salade and he's kind of like, what kind of.
There are marches, flags, sirens, cries, and there is still at the epicenter of Nazi power, what was until recently the world's greatest center for modern physics. So art begins to wonder, what if the atomic war was waged by the Nazis? What would become of the world then more and more isolated and. What's most frustrating to Leo Szilard is that no one seems to take the possibilities and dangers of atomic energy seriously except for him.
It's all reading through the times, possibly in the bathtub where he liked to soak for hours, that he comes across the comment that will finally set him off. The newspaper article recounts a lecture to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in London in September.
Salade read in the Times about a speech by Ernest Rutherford, a Nobel laureate and an expert in all things atomic.
Now here's what it says. Remember, Rutherford appeared with a crack team of young Cambridge atom smashers people who knew more about the nucleus.
We find it was a much simpler thing then.
We suppose if those who heard him suppose that as a result of atom smashing steam engines and dynamos would soon be abolished, they were disillusioned. There's undoubtedly tremendous energy in the atom, but it takes energy in turn to release it.
I am always a believer in simplicity. Being a simple person myself.
Rutherford dismissed the possibility of releasing atomic energy and said anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of atoms was talking moonshine moonshine.
This English word is new to salade, but it gets under his skin. He knows exactly what it means. Nonsense, rubbish, madness. And he was annoyed. In Sellards mind, the wheels begin turning salade.
Always wanted to question the accepted norms of theoretical physics at the time and was thinking ahead of the curve and salade being kind of ever being contradictory, maybe, or just kind of waiting to explore and play devil's advocate and saying, well, just because you say it so doesn't mean it has to be so.
It is earnest, rather, for its dismissal. That leads to large Eureka moment after which nothing will be the same. Basically, Rutherford drove salade a little bit crazy, Salade knows in his gut that Rutherford must be wrong, but he can't explain exactly why. It must have been a feeling like having a word on the tip of your tongue. The idea is there, but just out of reach, Rutherford's position is clear. Even if it were possible to split the atom, it would take so much energy that it would hardly be worth the effort unless.
I've tried to understand what a scientific epiphany feels like, it's something most of us will only ever imagine. The connections are made between the synapses long before the actual moment of realization. One small piece of information subconsciously connects to another, then another, until it explodes into a moment of clarity and insight, a chain reaction in his mind. Charlotte is staying at the Imperial Hotel on Russell Square in front of his hotel in the busy street, Southampton Row.
It's raining a great, dull London morning in September.
So he's wandering the streets in London. He's out there thinking he did this a lot. He is out for a walk and he's kind of, you know, standing there at the street corner watching the lights change.
Maybe it's the passing of the traffic with all those missed collisions one crash could cause.
A pilot is waiting irritably at a traffic light.
As the light changed to green, he steps off the curb so large suddenly realizes how to free the power of the atom as the light turns from red to green.
Salad can see it all.
He's watching these lights. Change comes. Idea comes to him that you need an element.
That's when it's hit with one neutron could emit to what if you use neutrons, this newly discovered particle?
What if you fired them at the heart of the atom? And what if you could chip away a tiny piece of the nucleus, not just one neutron, but two if you know London street lights at the time, it was more of like kind of an absorption, like the colors would kind of lead into the others. And so we kind of see this kind of change and has this idea. That a nuclear chain reaction is possible. If you could, in fact, use a neutron to split a nucleus, it could release an extra neutron.
Imagine this time ten, a hundred, a thousand. Those neutrons might then split more nuclei, releasing more neutrons, splitting more nuclei again and again and again. In that moment, Salade becomes the first person to see how mankind could harness atomic power. The first person to grasp the power at humanity's disposal, it isn't just science fiction. It's real. As a scientist. It's hard for salade not to be excited by the possibilities of this idea. But his mind instantly sees the darker perils.
Adolf Hitler's Nazis with the power to destroy a city. To flatten their enemies in a single blast, to destroy hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of lives. It's a terrifying picture, and Leo Szilard is the only one who can see it, the only one who can prevent this future from becoming a reality. It brings back the lesson he learned on his escape from Berlin. He doesn't have to be cleverer than everyone else. He just has to be one day earlier.
The race to the bottom is on. The bomb from the BBC World Service is hashtag the bomb on social media, the show was presented by me.
Emily Strasser, the producer is Glenn Tansley. Our writer was Al Smith and her scripts were edited by James Robinson. Title music was composed especially for us by Trevor Gorecki's. Our sound design is by Richard Gould at Skywalker Sound. The program was mixed by Martin Williams with additional sound elements by Louise Wetmore. The production team is William Richards, Amelia Parker, Alice McKee and Amy Will. Our series editor is Martin Smith and our commissioning editor at the BBC World Service is Simon Pitts'.
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