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[00:00:00]

This is the BBC. This podcast is supported by advertising outside the UK. In the 1930s, the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University is the most prestigious place in the world for experimental nuclear physics.

[00:00:23]

The Cavendish is the domain of the Lord Ernest Rutherford and Leo Szilard has managed to get an appointment to speak with the Nobel laureate just a few years earlier, standing on a street corner on a soggy day in London. Leo Szilard had a vision that would change the course of human history.

[00:00:42]

Salade foresees the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction. What if you could chip away a neutron from the nucleus of an atom and that could trigger a similar release in another atom and another? This could release a previously unthinkable amount of energy, enough to power a submarine or fuel a power plant or build the world's most destructive bomb.

[00:01:17]

These are powerful possibilities, but still a long way off, the first step is to split the atom and that has never been done. There's huge skepticism that it is even possible. Just before Sellards epiphany, Lord Ernest Rutherford, the man known as the father of nuclear physics, had publicly dismissed the idea Salade is proposing as moonshine. Split the atom to release energy. It's too far fetched, rather, for things too difficult with the technology available. Rutherford isn't alone.

[00:01:57]

Even the great and famous Albert Einstein, a friend of Sellards, says the idea of breaking down atoms with neutrons is like trying to shoot birds in the dark in a country where there aren't many birds.

[00:02:13]

On June 4th, 1934, Zijlaard walks into the Cavendish Laboratory to call on the Great Lord Rutherford and to try to convince the father of nuclear physics that everything he thinks about atomic energy is wrong.

[00:02:31]

I'm Emily Strasser from the BBC World Service. This is the Bob. Episode two, The Race to the Bottom Sellards instinct tells him the chain reaction is possible, but his mind is abuzz with questions. How can a person fracture a nucleus? What environment could sustain the chain reaction after that initial splitting? What element will prove capable of this reaction? In the meantime, salade faces another problem he knows all too well how devastating it could be if his idea ends up in the wrong hands.

[00:03:14]

This is Jennet Conant, a historian and author. When Hitler came to power in January 1933, the first thing he wanted to do was to start building up the army, which was forbidden. But he immediately flouted that provision and began secretly rearming in the very earliest days of the Nazi takeover, and they rapidly expanded their arms production. For the first time, there's a sense in Europe that the war to end all wars of 1914 to 1918 might just have been a warmup up to this point.

[00:03:55]

Berlin has been the center of modern theoretical physics at the moment. No one has thought of splitting the atom, let alone developing nuclear bombs. But if they do, there is a real risk that German scientists could be at the vanguard, which means Hitler would have the full powers of atomic energy at his disposal. Well, there are many scientific questions, so large ones to answer. He realizes the stakes are too high to think about science in isolation.

[00:04:23]

Even more importantly, he needs to keep his vision secret so the German government doesn't find out and unlock the chain reaction first. This spurs Leo Szilard to file patents on his idea these early patents are riddled with corrections and crossed out words almost as if he is thinking on the page. Cynthia Kelley understands that patents are a way to protect his inventions. While his patent anticipates that neutrons are going to be important in a chain reaction, Zijlaard does not really understand how a reactor would work.

[00:05:04]

Salade has the intuition, but not the answers. He doesn't know if what he's proposing is actually possible, let alone which elements might best respond to his ideas and demonstrate a full chain reaction. But there's a more immediate problem, he needs to connect somehow with a university, which is how he ends up at the Cavendish Laboratory face to face with the great Ernest Rutherford. Just before Sellards epiphany, Lord Ernest Rutherford, the man known as the father of nuclear physics, had publicly dismissed the idea Salade is proposing as moonshine.

[00:05:41]

They couldn't be more opposite. Rutherford is a large, accomplished, gregarious man interested in practical possibilities. Leo Salade is short and dark, a foreigner and a man most captivated by the potential of what could be. It's a large, true mistake is to reference Rutherfords research in his own pitch. Who does he think he is? It's clear Rutherford is already irritated with this strange man who has turned up in his office.

[00:06:10]

Salade keeps making his pitch about chain reactions and neutrons, but he doesn't trust Rutherford and doesn't share his full vision for the chain reaction.

[00:06:20]

Zijlaard comes off as vague and arrogant, with no way to prove himself limited credentials and no official backing. Salade still believes he can overcome impossible odds. He asks Lord Ernest Rutherford for a job.

[00:06:36]

Finally, Rutherford is so annoyed he just throws out from the office.

[00:06:41]

Solanas Brilliant is not always diplomatic.

[00:06:46]

There's Nobel Laureate Hans-Peter said. Liz Salade was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. His mind worked quickly and profoundly, and he was able to come up with ideas that most of us appreciated only after many hours of talk. This was his strength and, of course, also his weakness. He was always ahead of his time. Although he can clearly see how a nuclear chain reaction could work, in theory, Salade has to do it in practice and the clock is ticking.

[00:07:29]

He's going to have to take matters into his own hands. His most pressing need as a source of radiation, he realizes that there will be a ready supply at any hospital since radiation is commonly used in cancer treatment.

[00:07:46]

So he negotiates an unconventional appointment at St. Bartholomew's, a teaching hospital in east London nicknamed St. Barts.

[00:08:00]

Just because an atom can be split does not mean the chain reaction is a given which element will actually be able to achieve. This is still one of the big questions in his mind. Salade manages to scrape together the money for a small supply of Brillion, which he believes at this time is the most likely candidate. But before he even attempts a chain reaction, he needs to see if he can make atoms release neutrons. This isn't the same thing as splitting the atom, but it's an important step in the right direction.

[00:08:33]

He takes an ounce of radium, wraps it in a thin sheet of beryllium and wraps that in silver.

[00:08:43]

Then he listens to the Geiger counter to Zijlaard. That sound is pure magic. Each click represents a neutron shake free from the atom. It's the sound of the implication is on the right track. I never wanted to tell the story of the bomb or of my grandfather's role in creating it. I was in my early 20s when I first found the courage and the desire to begin asking questions about the grandfather I'd never known. I'm interested in the way secrecy functions on multiple levels, cultural, institutional, personal privacy, salade secrecy was a way of protecting ideas for keeping them out of the wrong hands.

[00:09:48]

But I suspect throughout the bomb effort at large, in addition to protecting sensitive information from enemies, secrecy served to protect workers like my grandfather from the knowledge of what they were doing. If they didn't know the purpose of their work, how could they be held responsible for it? How could they question it? It has haunted me to know that my family helped build weapons of mass destruction, and it's that connection that's brought me again and again to questions of secrecy, denial, guilt and responsibility.

[00:10:27]

What's so fascinating to me about Leo Zijlaard is that even though he pursued secrecy for his ideas, he never used it to excuse himself. He didn't choose to say, I didn't know when. The consequences of the bomb reach their devastating climax in Hiroshima. At each step of the journey, he always chose to take action. He never let himself plead ignorance. He never let himself look away. Well, right from the start, the discovery of chain reaction was coupled and in his mind, with the increasing aggression in Germany and right away, he was desperate to keep what he thought of as his brainstorm out of German hands.

[00:11:17]

He had an elaborate sense of the importance of secrecy, and he kept insisting that the patent be made a military secret.

[00:11:27]

And in September 1935, he's invited to visit the Woolwich arsenal at the Woolwich arsenal. He meets with Army researchers and explains to them his idea for creating a new and awesome weapon using atomic energy after his experiments at St. Bart's.

[00:11:47]

What salade needs next isn't knowledge or a place to work. He needs to keep his patent secret. The patents are like a handbook to his ideas, a step by step guide. If German scientists read them, they'll know what he knows. He's offered his idea to the leading physicists in the country. Next, he turns to the British army. But they're not interested either. Even after his success at St. Bart's door after door slams shut, he's alone, almost out of ideas, almost.

[00:12:24]

He takes the train to Oxford to see a man called Frederick Lindman. Frederick Lindemann is a British physicist, a close friend of Winston Churchill, Frederick Lindemann was a very significant figure by the 1930s.

[00:12:45]

He's a leading physicist in England, but he's sort of wangled his way into becoming science adviser to the British government. He is meeting with all kinds of people, holding super secret conversations about British science and advanced technology. So he's a very important figure.

[00:13:06]

And Lindemann agrees to explain some Lorence ideas to the British Admiralty because he was part of Churchill's inner circle.

[00:13:16]

Zijlaard had real hopes that he could perhaps enlist the science minister in his cause and get him interested in the chain reaction.

[00:13:28]

And thanks to Lindemans recommendation, Silens patent has finally declared a military secret.

[00:13:36]

Lindemans letter is what tips the balance. Finally, nearly a year after filing his patent, Salade has it classified as a military secret success. But somehow the world doesn't feel any safer. As he becomes increasingly uneasy about the risk of war in Europe, salade travels to the United States, assuming rightly that he probably won't be coming back in a hotel room in New York City, he writes to the Admiralty with two requests.

[00:14:20]

First, it's not necessary to keep his chain reaction secret. Second, it's probably not worth keeping the patent at all. It just won't work.

[00:14:33]

He comes to see where the greatest minds of his generation have already written off the idea.

[00:14:47]

When Zijlaard hears about Kristallnacht, the night of Broken Glass, it seems to break something inside him because this is the point where his belief in the chain reaction begins seriously slipping. Five years on, from his moment of inspiration, what does he have to show for it? Doubt, failure, loneliness and Hitler is only getting stronger. In the winter of nineteen thirty eight, the days are cold and dark. As Christmas approaches, Leo finally surrenders and retreats into his own gloom.

[00:15:36]

This should be a comfort. If the bomb isn't possible, he doesn't need to be worried.

[00:15:43]

But he keeps feeling there is something he has missed, something just out of reach. And who is he anyway? And nobody. Maybe Rutherford and Einstein were right. It seems unlikely the breakthrough will ever come into Lards mind. This is the end of the road for the nuclear chain reaction. His promising idea has crumbled to dust and the world is plunging towards violence. But news from Berlin is about to change everything at the precise moment that Salade picks up his pen on the other side of the Atlantic.

[00:16:30]

History is being made. Autogen and Fritz Strassman, our physical chemist, working in Germany to try to figure out what radioactive elements are produced when the heaviest of natural elements were bombarded by neutrons. Hot and Strassman succeeded and identified no fewer than 16 different radioactive substances when they bombarded uranium. At first, Hunza Strassman couldn't believe these results. Their former colleague, Lisa Meitner, recognized they might have split the uranium atom. And that's precisely what they've done. They have split the atom.

[00:17:13]

And what these scientists have demonstrated that they don't really understand this yet. No one does, is that a nuclear chain reaction is possible.

[00:17:25]

Leo Salade was right. The bomb from the BBC World Service is hashtag the bomb on social media, the show was presented by me.

[00:17:42]

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 Weale. Our series editor is Martin Smith and our commissioning editor at the BBC World Service is Simon Pitts'.

[00:18:15]

We really appreciate it. If you could leave us a rating, a review, wherever you get your podcasts and subscribe so that you get new episodes on your device as soon as they become available. They discovered that I didn't have a uterus. Life doesn't always turn out the way we're expecting. And when he told me that I couldn't have babies, everything just stop. But sometimes the human spirit turns out to be bigger than the challenges we face. Linda, what did you say when you heard about your sister's diagnosis?

[00:18:49]

The first thing I said about you can have mine on the Outlook podcast. We bring you stories that are uplifting, moving, inspiring, and seeing my mom cry in the entire month with all that had been going on. But when the plane's doors close, she started to sob stories told by the people who lived through it. And from that day, I said to myself, You know what? I'm not invincible. I'm going gonna try and stay alive.

[00:19:16]

The Outlook podcast from the BBC World Service. I would just say don't do it. I mean, what have you got to lose? Just search for BBC Outlook wherever you get your podcasts.