GENIUS IN THE SHADOWS: A Biography of Leo Szilard: The Man Behind the Bomb by William Lanouette with Bela Silard (A Robert Stewart Book/Charles Scribner’s Sons: $35; 587 pp.). A law of nature as plain as gravity is that physicists’ knowledge of the atomic world exists in inverse proportion to their knowledge of the social world. Read biographies of physicists such as Einstein and Richard Feynman and you will be amazed at how consistently theoretical brilliance and social ineptitude seem to go hand in hand. Nowhere is this law better exemplified than in Leo Szilard, the man who first thought of the chain reaction that gives atomic bombs their oomph, who later persuaded Franklin Delano Roosevelt to produce them and who finally worked assiduously against their proliferation. Assisted by Leo Szilard’s brother Bela Silard, William Lanouette, a journalist and public-policy analyst, describes a man who lived to “botch,” his term for contemplate. Szilard would do it in bathtubs for two or three hours each morning, on street corners, in parks and at parties (if the conversation bored him, he would simply walk out of his host’s house in mid-sentence, “seeking new friends,” as Lanouette puts it, “in the multitude of his own thoughts”).
Notorious examples of Szilard’s social insensitivity include his response to his wife-to-be’s question “Should I study physics or medicine?” (“You are too dumb to go into physics”) and his earnest work on a new device to “improve” haircuts (simply electrify the barber’s chair, wait for the customer’s hair to stand on end, then mow it off). Lanouette sometimes stands in syrupy awe of his subjects: A passage on how Szilard looked up to Einstein as a father figure, for instance, segues into a passage on how Einstein admires his father figure--God. Fortunately for our palates, though, this male-worship society is based less on sweet talk than on piquant criticism. “But Herr Professor,” Szilard interrupts Einstein at one lecture, “are you opposed to this statement or don’t you understand it?” “Yes, yes,” mutters a cowed Einstein, peering up to Szilard. “Really, you are quite right.”