Part of the reason I made the trip to London in September was a single goal; to stand at a particular traffic light near the British Museum and take a photo of myself standing there. Later when I told people about the reason, most thought it was silly, and perhaps it was. But all of us have a romanticised impression of certain people, places and events in our mind which other people could find silly. In this particular case, the person, place and event involved were profound even if little known to the general public. In fact this light was so important for me that I had made up my mind to visit London once in my lifetime for the sole purpose of standing at the light, if not for anything else. What was so special about this traffic light?
It was 1933. Adolf Hitler had come to power in January, The Depression was raging and the future looked bleak to many. On the morning of September 12, 1933, on a miserable, wet, quintessentially English autumn day, at the intersection where Russell Square meets Southampton Row, Leó Szilárd waited irritably at a traffic light waiting for it to change from red to green. He had just attended a lecture by the great English physicist Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford, known to many as the father of nuclear physics, was discussing the newly prophesied release of energy from atoms, most notably by science-fiction pioneer H G Wells in his book The World Set Free. In his baritone voice, Rutherford, acknowledged master of the atomic domain, dismissed this fanciful idea as nonsense. Any thought of releasing the energy locked in atoms, he said, was “moonshine”.
Szilárd was irritated by this flippant repudiation. Accomplished as he was, how could even the great Lord Rutherford know what the future held in store? Szilárd, peripatetic Hungarian genius, imperious habitué of hotel lobbies, soothsayer without peer among scientists, had himself thought deeply about nuclear matters before, most often during his extended morning bathtub ablutions. Now waiting for the light to change, Szilárd pondered Rutherford’s words…I will let the acclaimed nuclear historian Richard Rhodes do the talking here. It was the riveting description of this event in Rhodes’s magnificent book that engraved it in my mind like nothing else:
“In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard 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 Szilard 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. Szilard 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”
Time cracked open indeed. What Szilard realised as he stepped off that curb, was that if we found an element that when bombarded by one neutron would release two neutrons, it could lead to a chain reaction that could possibly release vast amounts of energy. Leo Szilárd had discovered the nuclear chain reaction before anyone else, six years before the discovery of nulcear fission and any inkling that anyone could have had about the release of atomic energy, let alone the woeful apocalyptic future that would await the world because of its release.
I first read Rhodes’s book in 2000. The book begins with this story. The description is so riveting, the tale so profound and evocative, the person so singular and the implications so prophetic, that I resolved to visit Szilárd’s traffic light, my traffic light, even if I had to once make a trip to London for just that. Since then, the event has been etched in my mind like words in red hot steel. Seven years later I got a chance.
The traffic light itself is completely non-descript, standing among dozens of other non-descript lights. We almost missed it; as I mused aloud about my great disappointment to my friend in a cafe and wished I had a map, a Spanish tourist sitting at the next table saved my life and procured one. The intersection was there. We had missed it by a block. Back we went and indeed there it was, with not an indication that a famous and prophetic physicist had seen into the future at that light some 75 years ago.
As it turned out at the time, Szilárd’s choice for the element he was thinking about turned out to be wrong. Nuclear fission would be discovered only six years later in Germany after a series of close misses in Italy and France. But Leo Szilárd went down in history as the man who saw death before anyone else, a glimpse into mankind’s Faustian pact with fate, the shape of things to come.
Ironically, when the first atomic bomb test was conducted in the New Mexico desert in the deathly stillness of the morning, in the midst of war and hope, the flash was so bright that it would have been seen reflected off the moon. It was, literally, “moonshine”. The rest was history.
But I lived one of my dreams that day at that traffic light in London. Szilárd’s traffic light. My traffic light.