The anecdote concerns Szilard's flash of insight concerning the recently observed naturally occurring fission of uranium, with neutrons (themselved only recently identified) as byproducts.
A single atom splitting released an incredible amount of energy for its mass. It was estimated that a single proton's mass, if completely converted into energy according to Einstein's famous equation, would release enough energy to make a very small mass such as a pollen grain jump enough to be visible under an ordinary microscope.
But a neutron, he realized, could easily wander into another nucleus and cause it to split. And if a typical split released two or more neutrons (the number was not yet known), a chain reaction could occur. And if this reaction was rapid, as Szilard had every reason to think it would be, an unprecedentedly energetic explosion might result. In other words, an "atomic bomb."
I also recommend Rhodes' Dark Sun, which carries the story forward into the thermonuclear era, and tells the story of the parallel Soviet effort, for which he gained access to former Soviet archives and surviving scientists.
It certainly grabbed me. That opening paragraph has stuck in my mind for close to twenty years since I first read the book.
Dark Sun gets delivered by Amazon on Weds.
with free shipping.
and no sales tax.
What a country!
If we talk about the father of nuclear fission, we have to make it the mother of nuclear fission. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ida_Noddack was the first to articulate the idea in 1934: “it is conceivable that the nucleus breaks up into several large fragments, which would of course be isotopes of known elements but would not be neighbors of the irradiated element”
If we shall thank someone that http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enrico_Fermi could escape from Italy it is Alfred Nobel. Thanks to the Nobel prize Fermi was able to get out of Italy with his family. And the rest is, as we say, history.
Fermi died 1954 at age 53 of stomach cancer in Chicago. I think that the reason was the sloppy safety regulations and that Fermi ingested alpha-emitters during lunch in the early days.