The World Set Free, H. G. Wells’s futuristic novel simultaneously dystopian and hopeful, was published as Europe verged on war in 1914. It was dedicated, curiously, not to an intimate, nor even a person, but to another book: The Interpretation of Radium, by the University of London chemist Frederick Soddy, which Wells acknowledged as the principal source for his scientific material. In his book, Wells predicts the discovery of nuclear fission. His character Wells Holsten explores the phosphorescence of Italian fireflies, then moves to experiment with heating and cooling gases. Another character—a physics professor at Edinburgh—lectures on radioactivity. He declares that the atom, which ‘once we thought hard and impenetrable’, was in fact ‘a reservoir of immense energy’, capable of powering an ocean liner, lighting the city streets for a year, or—and here the professor waved a small bottle of uranium oxide—blowing the lecture hall and everyone in it to fragments. It is, unhappily, to this last purpose that humankind chooses to put nuclear power. World war breaks out in the mid-twentieth century. A plane from the Central European alliance strikes Paris with an atomic bomb. A French pilot vows to retaliate; he flies off to Berlin carrying three atomic bombs made from the radioactive element Carolinum. The moment of truth seems in retrospect almost quaint. As his ‘steersman’ guides the plane, the pilot (‘a dark young man with something negroid about his gleaming face’) straddles his box of bombs. Lifting out the first, ‘a black sphere two feet in diameter,’ he activates it by biting through a celluloid strip between the bomb’s handles, then heaves it over the side of the plane in the general direction of Berlin. He repeats the process with the second bomb, but the third one detonates while it is still clutched to his chest, turning pilot, steersman, and plane into ‘flying rags and splinters of metal and drops of moisture in the air’. Below, struck by the first two bombs, Berlin is laid waste.
All the atomic bombs dropped during Wells’s world war burrow into the earth, where they create a volcano effect, turning soil and rock molten and spewing forth radioactive Carolinum and vapor for weeks or months or years. After Berlin has been obliterated, the Germans punish Holland with atom bombs that ‘fell like Lucifer’ on Dutch dikes. The East End of London is destroyed, as is Parliament and an additional portion of Westminster. China and Japan bomb Moscow, the United States hits Tokyo, a Japanese attempt on San Francisco falls short but makes the Pacific steam, and, with the bombing of New Delhi—‘a pit of fire spouting death and flame’— India falls into anarchy. Everywhere the sky grows dark, blotting out the daylight. The ground fissures. Radioactivity drifts miles from the bombs’ targets, rendering nearly every major city and its environs uninhabitable.
In the end, however, Wells offers hope. A few humble statesmen bring their colleagues together in the north Italian countryside. The devastation of the world, the collapse of capitalism, government, and social cohesion, require the abolition of nation states and the advent of a ‘World Republic’. The leaders agree to ban atomic weapons and the means by which to make them. A governing council is elected by universal suffrage. (One renegade king tries to secrete away three atomic bombs, but he and his henchmen are discovered, and dispatched, by agents of the newly formed council.) ‘The moral shock of the atomic bombs had been a profound one’, Wells writes, ‘and fora while the cunning side of the human animal was overpowered by its sincere realisation of the vital necessity for reconstruction.’
All this seems promising. But there remains considerable bleakness in Wells’s vision. The man mostly responsible for devising the technology of the bomb, young Holsten who once played with fireflies, is tormented by his discoveries even before they wreck, then set free, the world. Perhaps what is done is done; he is helpless to alter the course of events, for, he says, ‘I am a little instrument in the armoury of Change’. Indeed, he despairs, ‘if I were to burn all these [scientific] papers, before a score of years had passed some other men would be doing this’. The book ends with the death of a selfless hero named Marcus Karenin. Before his death, Karenin’s caretakers at a hospital high in the mountains of Kashmir express optimism that humans have learned their lesson, bitterly taught by atomic bombs. Karenin is doubtful: ‘There is a kind of inevitable logic now in the progress of research ...If there had been no Holsten there would have been some similar man. If atomic energy had not come in one year it would have come in another.’ This logic would become familiar to the physicists who, through the 1920s and 1930s, closed in on the awesome and terrible potential of the atom’s nucleus.1
Wells was hardly the first, of course, to consider the potentially disastrous consequences of science and technology run amok. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) comes readily to mind. Less commonly read is the dystopian novel The Coming Race, published in 1871 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who is perhaps best remembered for writing the sentence, ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ The Coming Race concerns the discovery, beneath the surface of the earth, of a people called the Vril-ya, who have harnessed an enormously powerful force called vril. This substance gives the Vril-ya light, the ability to heal the sick, and control over the weather. Because it is at the same time so destructive, it has made war impossible: ‘If army met army, and both had command of this agency, it could be but the annihilation of each.’ Bulwer-Lytton concludes that a society so fearfully well adjusted must be deadly dull, unable to produce art, culture, or military heroes such as Hannibal or George Washington. Whatever the logic of Bulwer-Lytton’s position, it was not The Coming Race but The World Set Free that captured the imagination of an avid reader named Leo Szilard when he encountered Wells’s book nearly two decades after it had been written.
Szilard was a Hungarian-born physicist. Drafted during the First World War into the Austro-Hungarian army, he had survived only because he was sent home from his unit with what turned out to be Spanish influenza; while he was recovering in Budapest, his regiment was sent to the front and wiped out. After the war he left Hungary to study in Germany, first engineering, then physics at the University of Berlin. Albert Einstein was there, and Max Planck, and the chemist Fritz Haber, who had survived professionally his involvement in manufacturing poison gas and was back at work. Szilard’s was a restless mind that settled eventually on nuclear physics. He was also an avid reader, and in 1928 he read Wells’s The Open Conspiracy, which envisioned a version of Michael Polanyi’s scientific republic. The following year Szilard went to London to meet Wells, but only in 1932 did he discover The World Set Free. He denied the utility of Wells’s atomic vision—‘all this moonshine’, he wrote dismissively to a friend, echoing Ernest Rutherford—but he nevertheless included with this note a copy of Wells’s book, and he added that he had ‘reason to believe that in so far as the industrial applications of the present discoveries in physics are concerned, the forecast of the writers may prove to be more accurate than the forecast of the scientists’.3
Moonshine, and yet powerful explosions, the prospect of cities destroyed by atomic bombs: denial offset by scientific curiosity and the possibility that the work of physicists like him might bring the world to catastrophe or triumph. There were great scientific brains in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. In the Berlin suburb of Dahlem the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute housed Szilard’s brilliant teachers, and Gottingen remained the destination of choice for the brightest young minds in international physics. France had Frederic Joliot and Irene Curie, Denmark Niels Bohr, and Japan Yoshio Nishina. Despite the ravages of the Great Depression, the United States had potentially the greatest number of human and financial resources in physics. Yet Szilard had come and would later return to Great Britain, now home to Rutherford, James Chadwick, and Frederick Soddy. Many others would join him. Britain would become during the 1930s a place of remarkable scientific fertility, congenial home to a combination of soundly practical lab work and the grandly apocalyptic and finally resurrectionary vision of H. G. Wells.
Physics returned quickly to international status following the First World War. During the 1920s, one prominent physicist likened his professional colleagues to a colony of ants: individual ants carried new particles of information into the anthill, but when they turned away their fragments were snatched up and moved elsewhere by other ants eager to add new information to their own (mutable) piles of knowledge. The ants moved so often and so quickly that it was difficult to follow them. Charles Weiner has called this activity a ‘traveling seminar’, in which physicists drawn by conferences or long-term fellowships shuttled between Brussels, Copenhagen, Rome, Paris, Leipzig, New York, and Cambridge. The Italians were peripatetic: Emilio Segre spent time in Hamburg and Amsterdam, Franco Rasetti visited Lise Meitner in Berlin and Robert Millikan in Pasadena, Enrico Fermi taught in Ann Arbor. (All three men eventually settled in the United States. Segre and Fermi worked on the Manhattan Project, Rasetti refused to do so.) Hans Bethe joined the traveling seminar with a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship and went to Rome and Cambridge. He began his teaching career at Tubingen, went to Manchester then Bristol, and, in 1935, found a permanent position at Cornell University. Most nuclear physicists were similarly wide ranging.4
The Cavendish Lab, writes Weiner, was the physicists’ Mecca in the 1920s and 1930s. The best in the field were pulled there to visit, including Albert Einstein, Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Nishina, and George Gamow They came to work with Rutherford, of course. But the Cavendish also had the finest instruments in the world. Rutherford himself was by nature frugal, and before 1919 the lab had never exceeded £550 annually in expenditure for apparatus. That figure increased decisively into the 1930s. A variety of wealthy men contributed to the lab, but ultimately the growing needs of the scientists studying the nucleus outstripped private means, and the lab came to rely on assistance from the state. The British government was generous, so the Cavendish stayed ahead of its rivals.
The visitors also came to Cambridge to work with the lab’s staff scientists. Rutherford drew to the Cavendish men of extraordinary talent— innovative, painstaking in their methods, and adept with their newfangled instruments. ‘His boys,’ he called them. ‘Having no son himself,’ notes Robert Jungk, ‘he lavished all the vigilance, help, and affection he had to give on these aspiring young men.’ They included F. W. Aston, P. M. S. Blackett (who came originally to take a single course at the lab, then stayed on), the Japanese researchers Shimizu and Ishida, John Cockcroft, Norman Feather, and the Australian Marcus Oliphant, who would later help convince the Americans that an atomic bomb was feasible. Rutherford’s favorite, by most accounts, was the Russian Peter Kapitsa, who came first to the Cavendish in 1921 and established himself as a moving spirit there, a man in Rutherford’s image. Kapitsa liked driving fast on narrow English roads and plunging nude into English streams. More than once he pushed his lab machinery beyond its capacity, setting fire to cables and blasting overloaded electrical coils. (He wrote to his mother: ‘Today a new record was set for magnetic field strength. I would have gone higher but the coil burst. It was an impressive explosion.’) To this energy, to this intelligence and instrumental abundance, to this atmosphere charged with scientific excitement, the best physicists in the world were drawn.5
The pull was from Cambridge; the push came from the rise of political and religious oppression in Germany. Kapitsa, it may be recalled, was prevented by Stalin from returning to England following a visit home in 1934. The Soviets declared that ‘they could no longer dispense with his services, in view of the danger from Hitler.’ But the chief effect of Nazism’s advent was to drive scientists out of Central Europe, often first to Great Britain and then to the United States. Hitler came to power early in 1933. Almost immediately, groups of Fascist Brown Shirts demonstrated against university faculty who were Jewish or had married Jews, and within the first month of the regime orders from Berlin brought the dismissal of seven prominent scientists at Gottingen. Max Born, director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics and a later winner of the Nobel Prize, was put on paid leave; he used his salary to underwrite Jewish friends and relatives whose circumstances were worse than his. James Franck, who had won his Nobel in 1925, was initially spared despite his Judaism (recall that Franck had worked on gas during the First World War), but he soon resigned to protest that German Jews were being ‘treated like aliens and enemies of our country’. Between 1901 and 1932, one-third of Nobel Prizes had gone to German scientists. Roughly a quarter of these were Jewish. After 1933, nearly all Jewish scientists who wished to continue their work had no choice but to leave Germany. And not only Jews: the faculty at Gottingen was so demoralized that only a third of the mathematicians and physicists stayed in their jobs.6
Hitler looked upon Jews with murderous intent, and he had no particular use for physics. ‘If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of German science, then we shall do without science for a few years!’ he reportedly declared. He did not altogether mean it, for, as war approached, scientific and technological work considered by the regime essential to preparedness went forward without great ideological encumbrance. (Frank Pfetsch notes that Jewish scientists and those with Jewish spouses were able to work throughout the war at the Zeiss glass and optical plant in Jena.) But many scientists understood the attacks on Jews as violations of academic freedom generally, as evidence that religious intolerance could be readily transformed into contempt for intellectuals and their work. Science did not end in Germany between 1933 and 1945, but it was decisively compromised in the way that academic work always is when racism taints it, when powerful ideologues insist on selecting its practitioners and commanding its direction. ‘National Socialism’, wrote Joachim Fest, ‘represented a politically organized contempt for the mind.’ A year after the mass dismissals at Gottingen, the mathematician David Hilbert found himself at a banquet seated next to Bernhard Rust, Hitler’s minister of education. ‘Is it really true, Professor, that your Institute suffered so much from the departure of the Jews and their friends?’ asked Rust. Hilbert retorted: ‘Suffered? No, it didn’t suffer, Herr Minister. It just doesn’t exist anymore!’7
Dismissed outright, put ‘on leave’ from their universities and institutes, treated with unspeakable rudeness by colleagues and former friends (the Berlin University physiologist Wilhelm Feldberg was summoned one morning in April 1933 and told, ‘Feldberg, you must be out of here by midday, because you are a Jew’), and horrified by portents foretold by widespread book burnings that May, Jewish scientists, a good number of them nuclear physicists, made exodus out of Germany. Many found welcome in Britain. Albert Einstein was in California when Hitler took power and the Reichstag burned. He had long faced anti-Semitism in Germany, including from physicist colleagues, but had nevertheless thrived at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. The triumph of Nazism, however, made him doubtful of returning. While in New York, he found in a German newspaper a photograph of himself captioned ‘not yet hanged’. News that his home near Berlin had been searched and its garden dug up settled the matter: he gave up his German citizenship, stopped briefly in Belgium, then went to Christ Church, Oxford, for a stay. He did some lecturing and appeared, in October 1933, at a Royal Albert Hall rally on behalf of scientific refugees. That same month he sailed for the United States, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Max Born, the eminent physicist dismissed from Gottingen, moved first to the Italian Tyrol. There he fielded invitations from, among others, Oxford’s Frederick Lindemann, who arrived in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce to recruit him, and P. M. S. Blackett of Cambridge, whose offer Born accepted. It was a demotion, from head of a prestigious institute to ‘research student’ status, but Born found his new post stimulating and enjoyed the experience. In 1935 he was given the Chair of Physics at Edinburgh. Born hated Nazism, but he could not bring himself to work on the atomic bomb; he would shun the path taken by many of his colleagues and spend the war in Scotland.8
Fritz Haber had shown his zeal for Germany during the First World War, when he not only pioneered the manufacture of chemical weapons but found a new technique for making ammonia, a vital component of high explosives. After the war, he evaded the Locarno Treaty’s ban on poison gas by experimenting on animals, in the process developing the pesticide Zyklon B, which would be modified somewhat and used to murder millions of his fellow Jews in the Nazi extermination camps. This loyal service was not enough to win him Hitler’s favor. Though Haber was not himself dismissed, his Jewish staff were fired, and his work thus seriously restricted. Haber had been widely condemned by British scientists for his work on gas, but in 1933 the scientific republic had grown attentive to the oppressions of Nazism toward all its members, and what his son calls ‘the old-boy network’ secured for Haber a position at Cambridge. Rutherford, however, refused to meet him, and others in his lab treated him coldly. On a visit to Switzerland the following year Haber died of a heart attack.9
Franz (later Francis, then Sir Francis) Simon trained at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, specializing in low-temperature physics. He was Professor of Physical Chemistry at Breslau when Hitler came to power in early 1933. The same Frederick Lindemann who tried to entice Max Born to Oxford arrived at Simon’s door that spring and offered the German a place in Oxford’s Clarendon Lab. ‘How would you like to go to England?’, Simon asked his wife, Charlotte, that evening. ‘Rather today than tomorrow,’ she answered. Managing to take with him not only his family but vital equipment from his Breslau lab, Simon left for Oxford over the summer. The salary was low, the lab shockingly primitive, but jobs in wealthier places, despite Simon’s qualifications, were in short supply. The family found a house in north Oxford that became a refuge for other Jews living in the city or passing through, and Simon’s colleagues and students were welcoming. By 1938 work had begun on a renovation of the Clarendon, inspired in part by the promise of Simon’s research.
When war came in September 1939, Simon and his Birmingham colleague Rudolf Peierls, not yet naturalized citizens, were forbidden to work on the top-secret military project, radar. They were shunted instead to the exploration of an atomic bomb, considered sufficiently fanciful as to allow research on it by non-citizens. (Naturalized later that year, Simon stayed with the bomb project, and also spent a good deal of time trying to get other German-Jewish scientists released from the internment to which the British government now subjected them.) Simon worked on separating out the light isotope Uranium 235, which was much more likely to fission than its more stable, and thus more common cousin U-238. Filtering gaseous uranium through an extremely fine membrane seemed to Simon the best way to achieve separation; one day in 1940 he stole the family’s metal kitchen strainer, smashed it flat, then used it to capture carbon dioxide from water vapor—a model for his means of filtering uranium. Simon’s ‘gaseous diffusion’ method was ultimately used to produce fissionable uranium for the Hiroshima bomb. Simon was also instrumental in persuading Winston Churchill that a bomb was feasible. Simon himself went to Los Alamos to help in the bomb work, returning to Oxford, and low-temperature physics, once the war was over.10
Leo Szilard, the reader and promoter of H. G. Wells, undertook a similar odyssey, from Central Europe to England and, finally, to the United States. He was the conscience and the gadfly of the physics community during the 1930s and after. By turns warmly supportive of colleagues, irascible, impatient unto captiousness, and either absent-minded or callous in his treatment of subordinates—the maids in his hotel complained that he refused to flush the toilet after use—Szilard came early to the conclusion that ‘something would go wrong in Germany’, as he put it. During the 1920s (it may be recalled) he worked in Germany, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, and on the side invented and applied for patents of devices for home refrigeration. He visited the United States in early 1932, then returned to Berlin, and was there in January 1933 when Hitler assumed the chancellorship. ‘I lived in the faculty club of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute,’ he remembered, ‘and I had my suitcases packed’; he meant this literally. He left Germany a month after the Reichstag fire. He went first to Vienna, where he met Sir William Beveridge, head of the London School of Economics, who happened to be staying at Szilard’s hotel. Szilard prodded Beveridge to help German academics, recently dismissed or soon to be, find jobs at British universities, and Beveridge agreed, establishing, following his return to London, the Academic Assistance Council with Ernest Rutherford at its head. Szilard then came to London in part to help with the placement work. Soon, Szilard noted, ‘practically everyone who came to England had a position, except me’.
Szilard’s wide variety of interests ill suited him for a single job, and his personal eccentricities made him a difficult colleague. He spent his mornings thinking about physics and other things as he sat in his hotel corridor bathtub; during the afternoons and evenings he walked the streets of London, also thinking. He considered a switch from physics to biology, but by then developments in physics—the exploration of radioactivity and the prospect of a chain reaction, prophesied by H. G. Wells—were too compelling to abandon: ‘I decided’, he remembered, ‘to play around a little bit with physics.’ It was summer 1934. He wandered over to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, whose physics director he knew slightly, and asked if he might have lab space and the use of some radium that was not otherwise needed over the summer. Working with T. A. Chalmers, a member of St Bartholomew’s physics department, Szilard experimented with the splitting-off of neutrons and published two important papers in the journal Nature that September. The papers gained him enough recognition to win him a fellowship at Oxford. But he felt the war looming. In 1937 he gave up half his fellowship to spend six months in the United States. The following year, listening to news of Munich on a friend’s radio in Urbana, Illinois, Szilard decided to stay in America. Britain had served his purposes, but if war came he might not be considered patriotic enough for war work, given his status as a foreigner. Transplanted once more, this time for good, Szilard would play a crucial role in initiating the Manhattan Project, though his disenchantment with its inevitable result indicated that he had not forgotten the fate of Wells’s World Set Free.11
Max Born met Klaus Fuchs at Edinburgh in 1937. Fuchs was, Born remembered, ‘a very nice, quiet fellow with sad eyes’. Dorothy McKibben, whose job it was to greet and help settle the scientists who came to Los Alamos in 1943 and after, thought Fuchs ‘one of the kindest and best-natured men I ever met’. Assigned to the British delegation at Los Alamos, Fuchs was cooperative, hardworking, and serious. He spoke infrequently— ‘penny-in-the-slot Fuchs’, Genia Peierls called him—and willingly babysat other people’s children, having none of his own. He was pale and roundshouldered, nearsighted, and a chain smoker.12
Fuchs was not Jewish, but he was nevertheless one of Hitler’s victims and his gifts. His father was a Lutheran pastor who later cast his lot with Quakerism, a pacifist in a society with limited tolerance for peacemongering. Klaus’s mother and sister both committed suicide. At the University of Leipzig, where he studied math and physics, Klaus became a political activist, first as a member of the Socialist Party, then as a Communist sympathizer who openly opposed Fascism and organized left-wing militants to do battle with the Fascist Brown Shirts who descended like plagues on German campuses. He was at the University of Kiel when Hitler took control of the country. One February day in 1933, a group of Brown Shirts arrived to harass professors and intimidate left-wing students. One of them spotted Fuchs, who was known to have informed on the Nazis previously. The Brown Shirts beat Fuchs badly and threw him into the Kiel Canal.13
If Fuchs had had doubts about formally associating himself with the German Communist Party, they now dissipated. A few days after he had been beaten in Kiel, he took a train to Berlin and declared himself to the Party leadership there. ‘I was ready to accept the philosophy that the Party is right,’ Fuchs said later, ‘and that in the coming struggle you could not permit yourself any doubts after the Party had made a decision.’ The Party decided he should go to England to finish his education. He arrived in Bristol that summer bearing a large bag of dirty laundry; he was housed by a local family with Party ties, and given an assistantship at Bristol University by a physicist there. He moved to Edinburgh, and Max Born’s lab, four years later. Fuchs now did solid work for Born and seemed less angry than when he had first come. Still, he was German and a Communist, so he was swept up in the net of British internment in May 1940 and transported to a camp in Canada, where he uncomfortably shared a barracks with Nazis. Released at the year’s end, Fuchs returned to Edinburgh, but soon thereafter he received an invitation from Rudolf Peierls at Birmingham, asking that Fuchs join him for work on a secret project. ‘We knew what it was,’ recalled Born. ‘I told him of my attitude to such kind of work and tried to warn him not to involve himself in these things. But he was filled with a tremendous hatred, and accepted.’ He was given security clearance to begin work on the atomic bomb in May 1941.14
‘When I learned the purpose of the work,’ said Fuchs later, ‘I decided to inform Russia and I established contact through another member of the Communist Party.’ Fuchs was given over to a handler named S. D. Kremer (Fuchs knew him as ‘Alexander’), who was military attaché at the Soviet embassy in London. Fuchs gave him copies of his reports on isotope separation and critical mass. He would later pass much more information, in London, New York, and New Mexico.15
The experiences of physicist refugees in the United Kingdom during the 1930s obviously varied, and so did their responses to being uprooted. Max Born loathed Hitler, but wanted nothing to do with making an atomic weapon. Leo Szilard had no hesitation contributing his expertise to the bomb project, so great was his hatred for Nazism and so avid his interest in solving scientific puzzles, yet he believed that the bomb should belong to the world or to no one; the trick was to arrive at the conclusion of Wells’s The World Set Free without first living its apocalyptic narrative. Klaus Fuchs, like Szilard, thought the bomb was no single nation’s property, and that the Soviet Union in particular must be told its secrets. Yet the process of exodus might perhaps have had some common influence on those who undertook it. For their departed homelands, they felt anger, sadness, worry, resentment, and affection. Germany had not turned against them, they reasoned: the Nazis had. Their efforts to destroy Hitler, to help Britain win the war, were fueled by a hope of redemption for their land and people. The metaphors they imagined were surgical—cut off the diseased limb that was the regime, excise the rot or infection or tumor, and thus save the patient, without altogether erasing his memory of his illness. Toward the country that took them in they felt gratitude, suspicion, inferiority, confusion, and delight. They were safe, but usually poor. They had places in laboratories, but generally far lower in status than those they had occupied in Germany. The food was wrong, the buildings too, and when they spoke English their accents might be mocked. (Sir Francis Simon, self-mockingly, styled himself ‘vice-president of the Broken English-Speaking Union’.) And many of them were interned by the British government as ‘enemy aliens’ once the war began, and even after their release were forbidden to work on the most sensitive military projects. So, ironically, a good number found themselves working to turn ‘moonshine’ into a war-winning nuclear weapon.16
Above all, the refugee scientists must have felt their identities at least bifurcated, sensing that they were two people at once—or more, if they then went to the United States, as many did. Such a bifurcation can be disorienting. A man’s nationality is not the whole of his identity, of course, but when he is removed from his language, his home, his favorite coffee house or beer hall, his tools and his newspaper and the streets where he once walked freely, he cannot help but lose something essential of himself. And yet, is there a better citizen for Polanyi’s Republic of Science than a scientist with more than one national loyalty? Belonging no more to just one nation, the refugee has seen the tragedy of nationalism and the potentialities of cosmopolitanism. His perspective is broader, his sensibility more generous. The late Edward Said wrote several times of the twelfth-century Saxon monk Hugo of St Victor, who once said: ‘The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.’ So it was with the refugee scientists who came to Great Britain during the 1930s.17
It is not fully clear to what extent, or when, the nuclear physicists understood that their findings might be weaponized. Szilard was at least intrigued at the prospect of an atomic bomb. On receiving the Nobel Prize for discovering radioactivity with his wife, Irene Curie, in 1935, Frederic Joliot described ‘nuclear transformations of an explosive character’—language difficult to misunderstand. Still, even in 1939 many leading physicists remained in denial about the implications of their work, among them Einstein, Niels Bohr, and one of the discoverers of fission, Otto Hahn, who insisted that a nuclear explosive ‘would surely be contrary to God’s will!’18