The year is 1932 and a promising hungarian physicist, Leó Szilárd, has just finished reading the “The World Set Free” by H.G. Wells. First published in 1914, it foretold the invention of atomic weapons decades before the idea of releasing large amounts of energy from atomic reactions was considered even possible. In fact, as late as 1933, the famous physicist Ernest Rutherford was quoted as saying “anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of the atoms is talking moonshine”.
In addition to the amazing fact that Wells envisioned a specific application of atomic energy when the research in the field was still at its infancy; the book also predicts with astonishing accuracy the likely social impact of such a technological development. The combination of the modern industrial state with the enormous potential of the atomic energy would lead to the development of nuclear weapons capable of wiping out the entire human race. In an environment of fierce competition among nations, the introduction of atomic weapons would inevitably pave the way to the collapse of mankind. The only possibilities remaining were “either the relapse of mankind to agricultural barbarism from which it had emerged so painfully or the acceptance of achieved science as the basis of a new social order.”
This cautionary tale made a deep impression on Leó Szilárd and a year later,1933, he conceived the idea of neutron chain reaction. In 1942 and with the collaboration of Enrico Fermi, Szilárd managed to conduct the first human-controlled chain reaction. Yet, Szilárd was not only inspired by the scientific aspects of the novel, he also grasped the terrifying social consequences depicted by the story. In the late thirties, he drafted a letter explaining the potential military applications of nuclear power, warning of Nazi work in the field and encouraging further research in the US. He approached his old teacher and friend Albert Einstein and convinced him to sign the letter and send it to president Franklin D. Roosevelt. After reading the letter, Roosevelt gave it to an aide, General Edwin M. “Pa” Watson with the instruction: “Pa, this requires action!”. That short command led to the research into nuclear fission by the U.S. government and, eventually, to the creation of the Manhattan Project.
Alas, Szilárd would later become bitterly disappointed when the control over their research was firmly exercised by the military. Once the first atomic bomb was operational, he advocated a test explosion to make the japanese aware of the threat and give them a chance of capitulation before the bomb was used, but all his efforts were fruitless.
As for Wells’s, he lived long enough to witness the use of atomic weapons in the summer of 1945. As he had said earlier, his epitaph should have been: “I told you so. You damned fools”.
Like all good science-fiction, Wells’s work explored what the human intellect may achieve when powered by boundless imagination but also challenged us to consider its dangers and consequences. Sadly, we do not seem to pay enough attention.