Listening to the Dolphins: Leo Szilard on Nuclear War

LEO SZILARD’S short story “The Voice of the Dolphins,” published in 1961, imagines a history of the world written in 1990. The story begins with the sentence, “On several occasions between 1960 and 1985, the world narrowly escaped an all-out atomic war.” One of the 20th century’s greatest physicists, Szilard knew whereof he spoke: along with Enrico Fermi, he was responsible for creating the first nuclear chain reaction in 1942. Szilard understood very well the history, physics, and destructive power of the Bomb. He could have chosen to write a tense record of the 1945 explosion at Hiroshima, along the lines of John Hersey’s classic study, or he might have related the history of the Bomb’s invention à la Richard Rhodes. Instead, he chose to write a piece of fiction — dry almost to the point of tedium — about the geopolitical future of the Atomic Age.

His choice is fascinating, not least because it suggests that Szilard’s interests as a man of science extended far beyond the domain of physics into the social and political spheres. His actions belie the sort of caricature of scientists found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) and other midcentury texts — an autistic tinkerer who leads the world to the brink of destruction by solving a military problem without any thought for the consequences. On the contrary, Szilard’s fiction is a serious attempt to grapple with the ethico-political impact of the epochal invention he in large part helped to author.

Why should Szilard’s 1961 story be of interest to us today? What might it say about our global situation 30 years further on from the end of his own 30-year projection? Scientists today not only continue to be caricatured in popular culture but are also routinely dismissed, defunded, and depicted as political lackeys. To this disturbing trend, Szilard’s book provides a refreshing antidote. More importantly, “The Voice of the Dolphins” stands as a central hub in a century-long exchange — both scientific and fictional — on the likelihood of nuclear war. It offers a potent allegory that can help reinvent our understanding of the Bomb and its social effects.

According to William Lanouette’s 1992 biography of Szilard, Genius in the Shadows, Szilard dictated the first draft of the story over the course of a single day in June 1960. It is not a stunning literary work by any means, even after extensive reworking with his partner, Gertrud Weiss, and polishing by the editors at Simon & Schuster (who released Szilard’s 1961 collection The Voice of the Dolphin and Other Stories). Even so, it was a perfect vehicle for some of the ideas Szilard had been developing during previous years in interviews with Edward R. Murrow and others. One idea that caused quite a stir at the time was his suggestion that the United States and USSR should agree to obliterate one of each other’s cities in a calculated nuclear exchange, in order to deter an all-out war. By 1960, however, Szilard’s popularity in the media had begun to wane, his urgent messages ignored by major magazines and newspapers. Frustrated, he vowed that “[i]f they cannot take it straight, they will get it in fiction.”

The story focuses on a research institute in Vienna where a pod of captured dolphins is kept in a tank. The scientists learn to communicate with the dolphins, quickly realizing that they are far more intelligent than human beings. For example, the dolphins invent a strain of algae that is both a cheap source of protein and a drug that suppresses fertility in women, thus solving the problems of world hunger and over-population in a single stroke. Royalties from the sale of the algae make the institute rich. On top of this, the dolphins suggest a series of experiments for the scientists to perform that consistently win Nobel Prizes. Skillfully deploying its wealth and prestige, the institute proceeds to manipulate the course of world events through a range of subtle interventions behind the scenes, including the bribing of politicians.

Until roughly the midpoint of the story, we learn about the dolphins’ deeds secondhand, through the narrator. But then Szilard shifts into the perspective of the dolphins themselves. Long since bored with science and math, the only thing that keeps their attention is US politics, which they claim not to understand. The American staff is often perplexed and exasperated by the questions the dolphins ask, such as: “Is it correct to assume that Americans are free to say what they think, because they do not think what they are not free to say?” This query highlights a key theme of the story — that the acts and utterances of politicians are constrained by a failure of nerve and imagination.

The story proceeds by describing how the planet manages to avoid nuclear war — in particular, “the contribution that the dolphins made toward the establishment of lasting peace.” It is not often easy, however, to detect the dolphins’ interventions in world affairs. Sometimes we can infer their presence from a sudden change in the position of one of the parties to a negotiation. The views of prominent scientists also converge with those of the dolphins. At one point, the narrator refers to a comment by Albert Einstein regarding disarmament talks at the League of Nations in 1925; in the style of the dolphins, Einstein posed a rhetorical question: “What would you think about a meeting convened because an increasing number of people being knifed to death […] which proceeds to discuss just how long and how sharp shall be the knife?” In the end, after lasting peace is achieved, the dolphins abruptly die of a virus and the institute burns down, destroying almost all of its records. Having accomplished his aim of providing an object lesson on the value of disinterested science, Szilard, like the dolphins, goes silent.

“The Voice of the Dolphins” culminates a tradition of thinking about the threat and promise of nuclear energy. In 1908, the physicist Frederick Soddy gave a series of lectures at the University of Glasgow, later published as a book, The Interpretation of Radium (1909). After reading this tome, H. G. Wells immediately dropped his other projects to write a prophetic 1914 novel, The World Set Free, which he dedicated to Soddy. Developing Soddy’s views of the revolutionary power of the atom, Wells’s novel projects that, by 1933, this power would be harnessed to produce atomic engines, which, in turn, would lead to a massive expansion of industry and a complete reorganization of society. Ultimately, Wells predicts that, by 1956, an all-out atomic war would erupt, with weapons capable of pulverizing cities into rubble. In his last chapters, following the war, Wells imagines the emergence of a utopian world government led by a group of enlightened ascetics living on a higher plane.

According to Lanouette, Szilard read Wells’s The World Set Free around 1933, at the time he and Fermi were theorizing the atomic chain reaction. Wells’s prophetic book informed Szilard’s thinking in this area, in counterpoint to an editorial in the London Times by Ernest Rutherford, one of Soddy’s mentors, which had dismissed the notion of releasing the energy stored in the atom as “moonshine.” Szilard actually traveled to London to speak with Wells, his concerns focused as much on the possibility of a world government as on developments in nuclear physics. Given the epochal challenge of atomic power, Szilard’s idea was that there should be a group of humans of high intelligence (which he referred to as “The Bund”) who guided the politics of the world through subtle interventions — an idea later represented by the dolphins in their tank.

Thus, a discovery in physics by Soddy led to a fictional account by Wells, which led back to a discovery in physics by Szilard and Fermi, and ultimately to Szilard’s short story. One conclusion we can draw from this intellectual chain reaction is that Szilard had good reason to respect the power of fiction to caution and inspire. At the end of his life, fearful that physics had become an engine of war, and frustrated that his ideas for avoiding that war were not being heard, he turned to fiction.

“The Voice of the Dolphins” was for a time required reading at the University of Chicago Law School, and was very likely known to the members of LANAC (Lawyers Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control). Their work, described in Gilbert Steil’s new book The Collaboration Response (2017), was similar in many ways to that of the Vienna Institute in Szilard’s story. Vonnegut too, who lived in Chicago’s Hyde Park at the same time as Szilard, was likely aware of the noted physicist’s proselytizing for a Wellsian world government, as Ginger Strand’s 2015 book The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic suggests. It’s possible that Szilard’s ideas inspired the darker vision of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which in turn had an impact on an entire generation of young Americans.

Like Wells, Szilard and Vonnegut were drawn to the prophetic tropes of science fiction to articulate their — respectively utopian and dystopian — visions. For all their ideological differences, scientist and novelist were united in a conviction that the powers unleashed by fiction, like those hiding in the atom, hold the ability to change, if not the world, then our collective view of its promises and perils.


Duncan Holaday is a craft distiller in northern Vermont. Previously, he was Head of the Division of Research and Director of Graduate Studies at the NTU School of Communication Studies in Singapore.