Autobiography of the Bomb: Chapter One

Autobiography of the Bomb
Photo by Norbert Kowalczyk on Unsplash

The received story of the building of the atomic bomb is well-known, a story of triumphant scientific advancement. But there is another story about the (mostly) Jewish physicists who built the bomb, a story about the moral and psychological complexities that confounded them, and the heavy price they paid for their exhausting labor in a confused political environment, a story that is steeped in the mythological and religious symbolism of their Jewish culture. It is the personal story of the men who built the bomb, their passions, the clashes of their immense personalities, their naivete, their sense of power, their arrogance, their ambition and their despair, the messy, chaotic understory of scientific achievement, which was in fact a runaway train of human calamity. This story is an Autobiography Of The Bomb, a historical fiction about the men who built the bomb and were in different ways destroyed by it.

Chapter One
The End Of The World in Russell Square

You may think you know me but you don’t.  Our acquaintance only goes so far.  You see how I act, but you do not know my thoughts and feelings.  You do not know me from the inside.  And so I often feel misunderstood and unfairly judged.  You can infer a great deal about people from their actions.  But literature confers one great advantage over life.  It allows you to see a person as if from within.  Perhaps this is only illusion.  Only the philosophers can answer that.  The Buddhists say the mind is an illusion just as the world is an illusion.  That does not speak to my condition, as the beatniks say.  Indeed I find it kind of insulting.

So allow me to tell you a story.  For the most part, I will let the characters in this story speak for themselves.  I say characters as if they were not real people, but they are.  Only you must consider this. No story can tell the whole truth.  The purpose of a story is to make sense out of the chaos of facts.  In the process it turns people into characters.  That is not a bad thing.  On the contrary.  So.

As Leo Szilard stepped off the curb at Piccadilly Circus, a nuclear weapon exploded in his mind and incinerated the future of humanity.  In the unspeakable gravity of the moment, time stopped and the world considered its options. 

A tiny, almost negligible change in the course of events can have a catastrophic effect on the future.  The world can travel along any one of a number of different routes and still end up in much the same place.  If Einstein hadn’t invented the Special Theory of Relativity, Henri Poincare would have done it soon enough.   If James Watt hadn’t perfected the steam engine, there were others right behind. 

If Leo were to walk away from his epiphany, wouldn’t some other bright young fellow walk his way into it soon enough in some other European city on some other crowded street?  Or would the moment pass, submerged beneath the conscious mind of science only to be forgotten, and leave the nations of Europe content to bludgeon their armies of young men to death with only gunpowder and steel projectiles on the battlefield?

By the time Leo’s foot touched the street in Piccadilly Circus, he had triggered a chain reaction of scientific invention that would bring the atom bomb into being.  His apprenticeship to the bomb had begun.  He would soon become a journeyman and then a master craftsman.

At a quiet coffee shop in Russell Square, I sipped a hard, dark demitasse of espresso from a ceramic cup and spoke to my companion, Otto.  I felt a maddening irritation at a hard-to-reach place in my mind, an intellectual itch I could not scratch.

“Hitler has thrown us out, Otto,” I said.

“Hitler has set us free, Leo.”

“Possibly.  Possibly.  At any rate I want to work.  I have got to work.  I cannot sit in this wet English air and sip their insipid coffee every afternoon.  It will drive me to drink.”  I lowered my voice and spoke too quietly almost to be heard.  “You know, I had a most remarkable thought yesterday.”

“Excuse me, Leo, but you look like hell.  Is something wrong?”

“Yes, something is wrong.  Something is terribly wrong.  Tremendously wrong.”

“Well, what is it?  Can you tell me?”  Otto smoothed his napkin in his lap and toyed with a spoon.

I sighed and my breath caught in my chest.  “As I said, I had the most remarkable thought yesterday.”

“Ah, so you do not wish to tell me.  I understand, my friend.  Tell me your most remarkable thought.”

“I am telling you if you will listen.”

“You are telling me what’s wrong?  Or you are telling me your most remarkable thought?”

“I am telling you both, for god’s sake.”

“Very well.  I am listening.”  Otto crossed his legs to one side as if he suspected this might take a while.

“Well you see it went like this…”

“Oh, is it a dream?  Are you telling me a dream? I have very little time for dreams now that they have been wrenched from the hearth of folklore and fairy tale and dropped onto the chaise longue of Mr. Freud’s Viennese unconscious.”

Otto was waiting for an acknowledgment of his well-turned phrase, but I had no time for that.  “No, I am not telling you a dream.  I am telling you this most remarkable thought I had and why I look like hell!”

“I’m sorry, old man.   Proceed.”    (Otto had grown quite fond of idiomatic English and could not be dissuaded from practicing it on me to whom it sounded like a tenor singing sharp.)

So, I proceeded to explain to my companion as I sipped the acid black liquid how the world might be destroyed scientifically.  “They have found the neutron, Otto.  They have found it!”

“Found it.  You mean it has been hiding?”

“They have proved its existence.  The neutron!  The neutral particle that can penetrate the electron shell around an atom and strike at the nucleus.”

“Well, bully for them.  Whoever they are,” said Otto.  (Really he sounded like an ass.)

“My god man, don’t you understand?”

“Yes, Leo, I understand.  I have been to school.  I have studied atomic physics.  But it does not keep me up at night.”

I felt myself grow sad and my eyes began to sting.  I reached for a white handkerchief from my back pocket and dabbed the corners of my eyes in order to give myself time to control my feelings.

“Dear Leo, I am dumbfounded.  You speak of physics, but there are tears in your eyes.  Are you sure you are quite alright?”

“If you mean, am I in my right mind.  I must tell you I have no idea.  I only know I must tell you this thought of mine before it drives me utterly mad!”

“Then do so at once!”

“The point is they have split the atom.”

“Leo, this is old news. You are making no sense to me.”

“But there is new news. “

“There is new news from the old court?  My dear man, tell me this new news.”

“Are you quoting Shakespeare at me, Otto?”

“Is it Shakespeare?  I thought it was Racine.”

“Very well, I shall find someone else to whom I can tell my troubles.  You are clearly of no use to me.”

“No, Leo.  I am merely trying to cheer you up.”

“They have bombarded the nucleus of lithium atoms with a beam of neutrons.  This fellow Chadwick at Cambridge.  They have bombarded lithium releasing a tiny packet of energy.  And along with this burst of energy, they have produced a brand-new neutron streaming out of the atom.  Which can then go on and bombard another atom.”

“They have?”

“Yes, by god, they have!”

“Ah, how elegant.  A lovely result.  I am really very impressed.”

“Are you indeed?”

And here I took a pen out of my coat pocket and did a set of calculations that involved the conversion of matter into energy using Einstein’s quaint but useful equation.  Quickly, for Otto’s sake, I arrived at the exact amount of energy emitted by the splitting of one atom of lithium through the surgical strike of a neutron at its nucleus.

“And this is why you look like hell, Leo?  Why you have dark circles under your eyes?  Why your tie clashes so dreadfully with your shirt and your coat?  Why there are food stains on your sleeve?  Why your eyes dart about like the eyes of a criminal?

“You do not understand, Otto!”

“What, Leo?  What do I not understand?  Enlighten me.”

I lowered my chin to my chest and spoke as quietly as I could.   “There is a distinct possibility… now just hear me out…a distinct possibility that when you split an atom with a neutron you produce TWO NEUTRONS!  TWO!”  My chin began to rise.

“Well, what of it?”

“And those TWO neutrons then split two atoms creating FOUR neutrons.  And those four neutrons then split four atoms creating EIGHT neutrons.”  I looked Otto straight in the eye.  “And it goes on and on like a chain reaction until you have split a BILLION atoms and released a billion packets of energy.”  I waved the piece of paper with my calculation in the air like a white flag of surrender.  “And then a BILLION SQUARED atoms.  Is there a name for this number?  I do not know.”

“It is called ten quintillions, Leo.”

 “Thank you, Otto.  Releasing ten quintillion packets of energy.”  My chin rose still further and the pitch of my voice rose and its timbre grew thin as my neck tightened.

“Ah.”   The smile on Otto’s face tightened into a grimace.  He turned his head to the side as if he had received a blow or bad news of a lover.

“You will have created an explosion with more destructive power than all the bombs detonated in the Great War.”

 “Enough to destroy cities?”  Otto leaned forward as if he might grab me by the collar in order to steady himself.

“Enough to destroy all of Europe!  Enough to bomb it right off the face of the earth and leave a smoking radioactive crater where a two-thousand-year-old civilization once thrived.

“Who would dare to do such a thing?  No one in his right mind…”

“Hitler, Leo, that little pig Hitler!  That strutting peacock, murderous, little jumped-up tin soldier Hitler!”

Otto fell back in his chair and looked up at the heavens.

“Yes, Otto.  Precisely.”

“Let’s find a pub, Leo.  I need a drink.  I need several drinks.”

“You see my point, Otto.”

“Yes, we must stop it.  We must ban the research.  Prevent it from proceeding.  It is far too dangerous.”

“No, Otto. You have misunderstood.”  I shook my weary head.  “You are making unwarranted assumptions like a schoolboy on an essay test.”

Otto examined my face for signs of idiocy or stroke.

I wondered whether I should continue or stop now.  I spoke almost to myself.  “Rutherford and Chadwick, they run around their Cambridge lab, they have minions, they have trolls, they have funding.  If they want to build an apparatus, it is built before you know it.  What have I got?  I barely have a roof over my head here in London.  I go begging hat in hand.  “Give me a job in your research lab.”  Or, “Give me some money for my own lab.”  I could work wonders, Otto.  I have good ideas in my head.

“Leo, are you saying…”

“Yes, I am saying!  I want to split their godforsaken atom.  I want to engineer this chain reaction.  So I can walk into the Prime Minister’s office and say, ‘Here you are, my good man.  Here is a bomb for you.  Here is a weapon you can use on the bloody Germans if they fail to mind their piggish Nazi manners.’  They have thrown me out of Berlin.  And not just me. All of us.  Von Neuman.  Pauli.  Einstein has left.  Edward Teller!”

(Did I hear my name?  Is that my cue?  Am I summoned to speak?  Perhaps not yet.)

“They have thrown me out too, Leo.”

“Of course they have. We are all in the same boat.  I want to find this chain reaction.  I want to be the one.  It is nearly driving me crazy.”

“Perhaps it does not exist.  Perhaps it is only a nightmare vision from which you will awaken and then you can get on with your life.”

“I do not think it is safe to think like that, Otto.  I think that is a dangerous thought.”  I sat quietly for a moment, and then I could feel my face light up.  “Otto, I shall file a patent!”

“Leo, sit here with me and drink your coffee.  I think perhaps you need to see a doctor.”

“No, I shall file a patent on this chain reaction of neutrons!  I shall own the rights.  And then I may do as I please with it.  Give it to the King of England, sell it to the highest bidder or put it in a safe and throw away the key.”

“Are you out of your mind?  You think you can patent an atomic particle?  It is a force of Nature.  It does not belong to you.  It belongs to the world.”

If Nobel could patent his TNT, then I can patent my neutron reaction.  That is the beauty of capitalism.  Everything is for sale.”

“I think you are mad.”

I jumped up from the table.  I stood on my toes and raised my fists in triumph.  “Excuse me, my good fellow, I must go home now and get to work!”

In my rooms in the Imperial Hotel I sat in the bath for hours on end thinking about the phenomenon of neutron bombardment and the requirements for a nuclear chain reaction.  I ate only when necessary and walked only occasionally in the wet air that seemed to encase the British Museum and Bloomsbury, picking up a newspaper every now and then to read of the poison cloud descending over Germany.

Read more selected chapters from Autobiography of the Bomb and read Chapter Eight: My Girlfriend is a Red.

About the Author

Jim Shankman

Jim Shankman has published novel excerpts, short fiction and one-act plays with Litbreak, Azure, Poydras Review, Apricity, Lumina and Popcorn Fiction. His novel “Tales Of The Patriarchs” is available at "The Screenwriter Dies Of His Own Free Will" won a Best Playwriting Award in the New York International Fringe Festival. "Teardown" received a Julie Harris Playwriting Award from the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild. "Billy And The Killers" and "Heartless Bastard" had their world at HERE in NYC. Jim has a degree in philosophy from Princeton University and an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College.