One of the most consequential communications in modern history took the form a letter sent by Albert Einstein to American President Franklin Roosevelt on August 2, 1939.
“Sir: Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations.”
They go on to describe how a “nuclear chain reaction” could be produced that could result in the development of “extremely powerful bombs”. They further warn that German scientists were engaged in this work and were actively preserving sources of uranium in Czechoslovakia.
The message was not lost on Roosevelt, who was said to have declared to his aides, “This requires action.”
He responded to Einstein shortly after receiving the letter:
“I found this data of such import that I have convened a Board consisting of the head of the Bureau of Standards and a chosen representative of the Army and Navy to thoroughly investigate the possibilities of your suggestion regarding the element of uranium.”
This led to the development of the Manhattan Project, a massive research project which eventually involved 130,000 people at over 20 sites around the United States (and Canada) requiring an investment of 27 billion (current day equivalent) dollars. Although the purpose was to develop weaponry to ensure success in the Second World War, it also resulted in advances in the understanding of nuclear technology and energy.
Although many will have reservations about the motivation or eventual outcome of the project, it’s an impressive story as to how history can turn on a single, well placed communication.
What’s not widely appreciated is that the original motivation to write the letter came not from Einstein, but from Leo Szilard.
Szilard was a Hungarian born physicist and former pupil of Einstein. As a student at
the University of Berlin in the 1920s, he impressed Einstein (no small feat), who awarded him highest honours for his doctoral dissertation. The two then began a seven year professional collaboration that resulted in a number of inventions, including the Einstein-Szilard linear induction pump. Szilard went on to distinguish himself independently, and is credited with conceiving the concept of the neutron chain reaction, which led to pioneering work in atomic energy.
During the 1930’s, his belief in the power and potential of nuclear energy was not universally shared among the scientific community. Szilard was becoming concerned about the increasing research and military interest emerging in Hitler’s Germany. In an attempt to enlist support and sound the alarm, he turned to his old friend and mentor.
During the summer of 1939, Einstein was vacationing on Long Island. Szilard would drive from where he was working in Manhattan to visit his former teacher, who would greet him in rumpled clothes and invite him to tea on his porch.
There, Szilard presented available research, his theories and concerns, eventually convincing Einstein of the threat. Together, they decided to take action, and enlisted the help of Alexander Sachs, an economist and close advisor of the President, who agreed to take a letter personally to Roosevelt. They agreed the best approach would be a short, direct communication, signed by Einstein alone.
This account has much to teach us about social responsibility of scientists and the importance of effective communication between the academic and political communities. However, the message that struck me, and which is most relevant to a medical education blog, relates to the relationship between a student and their trusted teacher-mentor. None of these events would have transpired if there had not been a relationship of trust between Einstein and Szilard.
Here at Queen’s, we have many examples of very effective mentoring of our students by engaged faculty members. An example that recently came to my attention involves a cardiologist colleague of mine, Dr. Adrian Baranchuk, whose mentoring of two students Bryce Alexander and Sohaib Haseeb has recently resulted in a review article in Circulation, one of the most prestigious journals in the cardiovascular world (Haseeb S, Alexander B, Baranchuk A. Circulation 2017;136:1434-48). In fact, Dr. Baranchuk has a long history of supporting countless students and residents. These collaborations have resulted in many publications and, more importantly, continuing mentoring relationships that now extend across the country.
Universities should strive to not only transfer knowledge to our students, but to help them develop as responsible and free thinkers who will themselves contribute to society and, in turn, pass along those values, perhaps eventually even teaching the teachers. These intergenerational, continuing mentor-mentee relationships are essential to those goals, as the Einstein-Szilard story illustrates. I’m pleased to report that, thanks to dedicated teachers like Dr. Baranchuk, it’s also very much alive at Queen’s.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education