The atomic and hydrogen bombs were not ultimately the inventions of Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, the Manhattan Project, or even the Second World War itself. As Jonathan Schell notes in the first part of The Seventh Decade (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2007), they were the product of the human imagination and spirit — the same imagination and spirit that gives rise to art.
It was, in fact, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard to whom the idea of a practical bomb powered through atomic energy first occurred. If it had not been Szilard, it would likely have been another, perhaps a physicist in the employ of the German government; ultimately it is a question of chance when it comes to the person in whom inspiration and imagination manifest themselves. Schell writes:
In the beginning, the bomb was a thought. More specifically, it was a thought in the mind of the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, who, while crossing a street in London one day in 1933, came to believe that a nuclear chain reaction was possible, and that, if it were so, the very survival of human life would be in jeopardy. The thought was the marriage of a scientific experiment (James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron in 1932) and a work of science fiction (H.G. Wells’s futuristic novel of 1914, The World Set Free, in which he foresaw atomic war). A few years later, Szilard obtained patents on some of the processes involved in chain reactions and deeded them to the British Admiralty, which, he hoped, would keep them secret from the war-bound world. It was history’s first attempt at nuclear nonproliferation, and it of course failed. (Schell 20-21)
Richard Rhodes described the moment as well in The Making of the Atomic Bomb:
In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilárd waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilárd told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilárd stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woes, the shape of things to come. (Rhodes 292-293)
Once imagined, it had to be built. There is a peculiar determinism in the story of the bomb, and it’s a determinism that originates in Enlightenment thought itself. Before the sixteenth century, all experiments were thought experiments: “Scientific theories [in ancient times], like philosophic theories, won acceptance when they appealed directly to enough of the best minds. The hallmark of modern science, on the other hand, was the turn to empirical truth,” Schell writes:
The great sixteenth-century philosopher of modern science Francis Bacon [a near-exact contemporary of Shakespeare's -- GH] used a word that captured these fundamental aspects of scientific method better than the word “experiment” does. He spoke of “operation,” meaning both what we call experimentation and the productive power that flows from it. As he wrote, ” … nor can nature be commanded except by being obeyed. And so those twin objects, human knowledge and human power, do really meet in one; and it is from ignorance of cuases that operation fails.” When he stated his renowned dictum “knowledge is power,” he did not merely mean that new knowledge would endow the knower with new power, true as that was; he meant that the very acts of acquiring knowledge and acquiring power were one and the same. He rightly said that knowledge is power, not that knowledge brings power. …
The gulf between thought and action that characterized previous scientific efforts had been closed forever. Thereafter, to be a scientist was to be a doer, an actor, an “operator,” and even the purest science carried scientists deep into the zone of action. If they felt a curious, helpless inability not to introduce revolutionary change into the world — not to make the A-bomb, not to make the H-bomb — one reason was that by virtue of the nature of their quest, they had already left the quiet precincts of contemplation behind. (Schell 31)
“Information wants to be free,” said technology activist Stewart Brand in 1984, and this was as true in 1933 as it was fifty years later. The political and cultural history and uses of the bomb were similarly driven by this seeming determinism, as Schell goes on to explain, not least because the products of the human imagination, artistic or scientific, can’t be contained (however much “containment” or “nonproliferation” of either ideologies or offensive technologies was a policy of warmaking powers in the 20th century). It is also the ideology underlying this seeming determinism that informs the central paradox of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment: that myth is enlightenment, and enlightenment is myth. Schell argues that while there was never a decision to use the bomb, there was never a decision not to use it either: it was a fait accompli at the moment of Szilard’s epiphany.
To be continued. In the meantime, an early artistic response to the bomb, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1959):