Below is a chapter from Phong Nguyen’s recently published work of fiction, Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History. Mimicking the style of a history textbook, Nguyen crafts stories of famous historical figures and imagines what might have been if, say, Christopher Columbus had discovered Shanghai instead, or if Adolph Hitler had been accepted into art school. Read an interview with the author in The Margins.
Albert Einstein (1879–1955), theoretical physicist and discoverer of the theory of relativity, played a curious role in the failed Manhattan Project (1940–1945). Soon after his sixtieth birthday, while working at Princeton University, he was visited by former student Leó Szilárd (1898–1964), who had been conducting groundbreaking research on nuclear chain reactions based, in part, upon Einstein’s own physical research. Szilárd approached Einstein with the proposition that they compose a letter warning President Roosevelt of the possibility of Germany developing nuclear weapons. Knowing this would mean the government would be compelled to develop nuclear weapons of its own, Einstein demurred. Anticipating heinous future acts of war featuring unfathomable civilian casualties, Einstein regarded it as his duty to not contribute to the development of those weapons.
The following excerpt concerns the intersection of the lives of Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd, and what Szilárd regarded as his former teacher’s failure to support his cause. The article was originally written in 1959 by Szilárd, to explain the disappointing conclusion of his work at the Manhattan Project.
Einstein couldn’t write his name. He had the intention, but not the will. He got so close as to hold the pen, poised shakily, over the letter, which I had written to warn President Roosevelt of the possibility of developing a doomsday weapon that could wipe out a city with a single drop. I knew, though, that it would never be heeded unless it came with the authority of Einstein, the leading scientist of our generation.
I stood in Dr. Einstein’s office, on the top floor of the Institute for Advanced Study, near a window overlooking the pine forest. Young trees, that’s what I noticed. Different from a Hungarian forest, as American things were always different from Hungarian things. Not so impressive, those trees, except for the rust-colored floor of the forest, from all the dead pine needles that had been sent down over their small years; brighter even than autumn’s orange.
It was August of 1939, on the cusp of the season, and the very molecules in the air were agitated. As I waited for him to sign, I opened my mouth as if to speak, then thought better of it. I would never say it, but I thought it: Would it be easier, Einstein, if you were not German?
“I am sorry, Leó. I must hold out hope that we can defeat the Nazis without such a weapon, which would bring me nightmares for the rest of my life,” Einstein said, putting down the pen, and offering a signature rise of the eyebrow.
“But the world knows you, Albert. What can I do? What can I do with this terrible knowledge, that such a weapon is made possible by science that I developed?” I appealed to his sense of common purpose, as a fellow scientist.
He closed his eyes, then, and bent his head. He put the pen back in its holder. “Leó, my friend,” said Einstein. “Now you know what it is to have a monster.”
In 1905, when Einstein was twenty-six years old, he discovered the equation for mass-energy equivalence. This is the version of the story as told to me by Einstein himself:
Sitting at his desk at the patent office in Bern, Albert Einstein stared, squinting, at the plaster wall. Somewhere, a superhuman was pursuing a renegade beam of light, almost catching it, but falling back, and then, at such a speed, held up a mirror to see what was reflected. What did he see? Albert wanted to know. No one could answer him; and few even cared to take up the exercise for mental sport.
The riddle was no different from dozens of others that Albert had asked himself over the years, during his idle moments, except that he could not leave it. It was like a toy soldier he had picked up as a child, which he’d been handling for so long that it had become a household idol.
Weeks, months passed in contemplation, and Albert found no peace from it. Looking up then from his reverie, Albert noticed that all of his coworkers had gone home, and the sun was about to set outside his west-facing window. Where had Michele gone off to? He wanted to ask him about this puzzle; he knew nothing would come of it, but it would make for stirring conversation. He stood up, slid on his jacket, and left the office, heading to the house of his friend Michele Besso.
He arrived at Michele’s home after dark, in the cool of May. He walked in with barely any attempt at a greeting, eschewed small talk, and went immediately into his imagined scenario, this favorite thought experiment. What would the lightspeed superhuman see who, in his vanity, attempts to admire his own face in the mirror? Would the pace at which the light reflects off his face distort the picture? Would he appear farther behind than he really is, because of the speed at which he is moving? Would he see glimpses of the recent past, his reflection calling forward to him from history? Or would he see nothing at all? The two men volleyed notions back and forth like tennis balls, but the question remained stubbornly unresolved.
As it grew late, the possibility of discovering the solution, and the significance of that solution in proportion to their exhaustion, was narrowing. The answer, Einstein supposed, must wait for another lifetime. Meanwhile the question would have to endure.
On the way home by streetcar, however, Einstein happened to catch, out of the corner of his eye, the clock tower. He concentered all his thought on that clock, and the streetcar in which he rode, accelerating away at not-quite light speed; the clock, the car; the turning of the hands, the tires wheeling into the distance. He projected himself in the place of the clock, where time moves at exactly the pace of the hands on its face. Then, he watched himself soaring off into the distance, turning back to see, not a mirror, but a clock face slowing down, stopping entirely, as the light it emitted failed to reach his lightspeed body.
The next day, Einstein again intruded on the solitude of his friend Michele, this time by brashly announcing, “Thank you, I’ve completely solved the problem.”1
“Oh, yes? Is there a solution?” Michele had just gotten into his workclothes, and had a sheen of wet on his hair, and a fresh look to him. He was amused by the sudden appearance of the dishevelled genius at his door.
Einstein slouched into the armchair in the foyer, which most days we used as a place to lay old coats and wet umbrellas. “An analysis of the concept of time was my solution. Time cannot be absolutely defined, and there is an inseparable relation between time and signal velocity.”2
Michele’s first reaction was to smirk. “So in order to answer your riddle, you have to do away with time altogether . . .” And just like that, Michele understood implicitly the catastrophic depths of this revelation.
When Einstein told me of the moment when he first discovered the constant speed of light, it’s relationship to mass, and the extraordinary amount of energy that could be produced by a small amount of matter, he claimed that he had no inkling of its potential for being used for bombs. But when Einstein came to the home of his colleague Michele Besso that evening, and explained what would become his greatest revelation, I imagine that Michele, the more practical of the two, sighed a sigh so wide and deep it could have swallowed us all.
Einstein’s monster, I knew, could not remain caged for long. So I proceeded without the help of Albert, and without the full support and funding of the White House. I was given a small office in Manhattan, which implied without a doubt that they had no expectation of my success. From my liaison in Washington I learned that the War Department had taken to jeeringly referring to my small operation in an office building on the Lower East Side as “the Manhattan Project,” a title which I appropriated in a moment of quixotic pride.
I was able to acquire a staff, but no matter how steadfastly we worked, we were too small, our resources too meagre, to conduct substantial research on nuclear fission, a new direction in physics and one demanding the attention of the greatest scientific minds of our time.
Though Einstein had not lent his name to my cause, he visited our office on occasion. He had been my teacher in Berlin, so if I were prone to flattery I might have chalked it up to his admiration of my research. But I could not help but wonder why this great man would take the train all the way from Princeton every couple of weeks, just to visit one of many of his former students. In retrospect, it is clear to me that Einstein did not come by our lab to give his blessing to this birth, but rather, knowing it would be born no matter what, wished at least to babysit his monster.
That a functional doomsday weapon could be built in five years, from conception to prototype, I realize, was preposterous to begin with. By 1944, Germany had been defeated, and the Nazis were far behind us in research, despite having a great deal more resources devoted to the development of these weapons. Yet I could not abandon the Manhattan Project. I was inspired by the story of Einstein’s discovery of mass-energy equivalence, and now that Maleva had passed away, she could not add, “Yes, Einstein’s perserverence paid off in the end; but in the meantime, oh, how miserable he made all of those around him!”
We were both Ahab; the difference was that Einstein, when he set out on the ink-black sea, knew not what monster he had been pursuing. I knew exactly the markings on the white whale; could recognize its every scar; but I could not spear it with the tools I had—too blunt and flimsy to do anything but provoke the beast.
Years later, from a conversation with Niels Bohr (one of the few physicists who would still associate with the disgraced scientist I’d become), I learned that Einstein believed that such a weapon would be developed in his lifetime. He had written to Niels that, “When the war is over, then there will be in all countries a pursuit of secret war preparations with technological means which will lead inevitably to preventative wars and to destruction even more terrible than the present destruction of life.”3
How humbling, how innocent it seems to me now, for my former mentor to believe that I could build a weapon so devastating as to change the nature of war itself.
When Roosevelt died, there was no time in our office for mourning. Truman took office, and the timeline for the Manhattan Project rapidly accelerated. My charges and I went from being tucked away and forgotten by the government, to being told, on a surprisingly cool late- summer day, when the fans were still turning, but to no purpose, “It is time.” There would be no test run, and there was only enough uranium to build a single prototype. The President wanted it to be dropped on the enemy, and the war ended decisively.
Against my better judgement, and against the vow of secrecy I had made to the President himself, I sought to consult Einstein on this fatal step. I found myself once again at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a supplicant at the doorway of genius. This time I endured no wait, I suffered no disappointment. He grabbed his suit coat and ushered me out of the office; I followed him to the pine forest, where he padded down to what appeared to be his favorite path, worn to the dirt.
At first, he said nothing. Deeper into the woods, the trees were older; some of them older than the man walking beside me. There was a rope bridge overhanging a brook, such as you could see all over the mid-Atlantic states in the middle decades of the Twentieth Century, now completely overlain by concrete. Then, before stepping onto the bridge, he turned toward me and said, “Don’t, Leó.”
How he knew what I was about to tell him, I can only guess. Perhaps he had connections in the War Department. Perhaps he was a spy for Russia (he had, at one time, been a member of several Communist groups). Or perhaps he simply had an intuitive sense of the narrative of science; that one thing leads to another, and that it all ends with a great entropic emptying into the void.
“It is not up to me, Albert,” I confessed. “It is an order given by President Truman himself that the atomic bomb is to be tested on the city of Hiroshima.”
Einstein sunk lower into his collar than before, as though a chill wind had just passed over us. “President Roosevelt would have forbidden the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, were he alive.”4
“Were he alive,” I said. “But there’s no use in such speculation. We have to deal with the conditions we have here and now.”
“But the conditions we have here and now are unthinkable, Leó. Science does not belong to us—I cannot fault you for pursuing the knowledge. But to use this knowledge . . . ” Even when inveighing, Einstein used a flat, rational tone. “Science does not belong to us, but neither do the lives of men and women, to snuff out at our convenience.”
“Would you then oppose the bombing of Japan?” I asked, testing my own resolve, my indignation at any trace of doubt that what I was about to do was the right thing.
“I will always condemn the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.”5 He took a step forward, onto the bridge.
I could not help but notice that, as he walked shakily along the boards of the rope bridge, he spoke about it as though it had already taken place, as though there was nothing to be done. Despite lacking absolute existence, the persistence of time could be a persuasive force.
The slogan for the mission was “no surprises.” So much could go wrong. A crash, a lightning strike, an electrical outing, a false discharge. Any number of triggers might have detonated the charge, and left us a pinch of ash in the urn of history. By our very nearness to the beast, we risked our destruction.
The Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress, had been selected personally by Colonel Paul Tibbets, who would fly the bomb over Hiroshima. In her wake, there would follow another B-29, called Necessary Evil, which would photograph and document the event for science. Because I had spent so much of my life in development of the science behind the creation, I wanted to be present for its birth. I refused outright to deliver the plans for the bomb unless I was guaranteed a spot on the Necessary Evil.
It was a risky move, to make such demands, and it caused me grief later on, as a Senate committee questioned my intentions in withholding the blueprint and my loyalties as a citizen. But the great wingless bird was about to leave its nest, and all the mother can do is watch and pray it takes flight.
Before taking off, I joined in the last-minute inspection of the bomb. A simple projectile; I was struck again by its deceptive ordinariness. With one fatal drop of this teardrop-shaped steel structure, I remember thinking, man will finally have wounded God.
A few of the boys had drawn obscene pictures on the side of the MK1, which they code-named “Little Boy,” with the same spirit of smug cheer in which an athlete might name his largest teammate “Tiny.” A more puritan mind might have considered this profane, as though a dirty picture of a naked woman diminished the austerity of the act. But, to me, the influence of the woman upon the bomb was not nearly so ugly as the influence of the bomb upon the woman, and it was the nuclear heat pulsing like a restless demon from within it that despoiled those crude lines, which were, by comparison, divine.
The hatch opened with a pneumatic hiss. The launching device lowered and aimed. Little Boy slid out. The dragon’s tail tilted down. The demon egg dove and tumbled, and tumbled and dove.
In the city of Hiroshima, word had already reached many of the people of a bombing raid on its way, though no one could say precisely when. And then, as the shadow of Enola Gay passed over the paper buildings, I had the sensation of holding a match to a model city, igniting the curiosity of a boy unappeased by his imagination only; who needs to feel the fire in order to believe in its heat.
The men and women of Hiroshima had been bombed before, and the more jaded of them simply went about their business, indifferent to the threats. So that, when Little Boy touched down, there was a small crowd gathered around the crash site.
It was supposed to detonate before touching the ground. But after a moment, nothing. Enola Gay and the Necessary Evil circled like vultures, flying lower when it became clear there would be no detonation, the camera still rolling.
It landed, thud, in Edo Street near the Imperial Gardens, but not before passing through a high-arching tree, throwing peach blossoms down in a slow-falling aftermath. No boom, no blast, no gust. Little Boy’s crash-landing cracked the street beneath it, rolling ever so slightly, then settling.
A young girl in school uniform, an elderly man carrying fishing gear, an amorous couple still dressed in last night’s wrinkled eveningwear, a city official halting his frantic gesturing, all stopped to gather and stare at the monolith. Some people backed away, or ran, or hid behind what shelter they could find, but a few of the spectators to the scene moved in on the object, slowly. The schoolgirl reached out her arm, and touched the metal with the flesh of her forefinger, and didn’t draw it back until her nerves had time to report back its heat.
Would it be unfair to them to say that they looked like apes staring upon a UFO? Very well then, I am unfair. But when it comes to Einstein’s monster, we are all apes looking on, fascinated and confused, waiting to see what will happen.
When Szilárd learned of the failure of the bomb to discharge, and to create the chain reaction necessary to cause the destruction of Hiroshima, as he tells it, his first thought was, in a word, “Einstein!” But despite volumes of FBI data on the elderly German physicist, there is nothing to directly suggest that he was anything but a humble man of science; his resumé was not that of a saboteur.
Yet the failure of the Manhattan Project was the beginning of the end for nuclear research. After Japan’s surrender, the allied powers determined that nuclear technology was unstable and unpredictable. The science for building such a bomb was theoretically sound, but in the frenzy to end the war, the United States had nearly committed a sin of global scale, and used its misfire to make a public denouncement of doomsday technology. The Truman Doctrine, articulated only a few years after the failed mission of the Enola Gay, held that all nations must work together to prevent the development of nuclear weapons by any individual nation, a policy which will remain in place as long as human society can suppress its inclination toward self-ruin.
Chapter 12: Einstein Saves Hiroshima
Suggestions for Class Discussion:
If Szilárd had gotten Einstein’s support, the Manhattan Project had been fully supported, and the Enola Gay’s mission had been completed successfully, would the United States be seen differently throughout the world? If Einstein anticipated Szilárd’s innovations in nuclear chain reactions, would he have withheld his own groundbreaking scientific research? Does the scientist have any responsibility to the greater humanity, or is his obligation to progress only?
1 Albert Einstein, qtd. in Feinstein, Jonathan. The Nature of Creative Development. Page 324.
2 Albert Einstein, qtd. in Isaacson, Walter. Einstein: His Life and Universe. Page 123.
3 Albert Einstein, qtd in Clark, Ronald. Einstein: The Life and Times. Page 698.
4 “Einstein Deplores Use of Atom Bomb.” New York Times. 19 Aug. 1946. Page 1.
5 Otto Nathan & Heinz Norden, eds. “Einstein on Peace.” Page 589.
“Einstein Saves Hiroshima” was first published in Front Porch Journal, and appears in Pages From the Textbook of Alternate History (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2014).