The Bomb had its critics long before it became a reality. During the early years of the twentieth century, scientists warned that radioactive materials, if effectively harnessed, could create enormously powerful explosives. Picking up this theme, H. G. Wells, one of the most popular and influential writers of the era, produced a novel in 1914, The World Set Free, featuring a war with “atomic bombs.” this war was so devastating that, to avert the world's destruction in a future conflict, its survivors formed a world government which, thereafter, ushered in an unprecedented era of peace and economic progress. Concerned that innovations in science and technology were fast outstripping advances in political institutions, wells repeatedly argued that an “open conspiracy” of farsighted, rational people must move beyond the war-making state to build a genuine world community.
This notion of a society of the righteous, committed to saving the world from its own folly, had deep roots in world history. It can be traced back at least to the fourth century, to the Babylonian Talmudic teacher Abbayah. According to this Jewish savant, in each generation there existed at least thirty-six righteous people (lamed-vav tzaddikim, in Hebrew) upon whom the survival of the world depended. Jewish fiction and folklore took up the idea of these hidden saints, who played a prominent role in kabbalistic folk legend of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and in Hassidic lore after the eighteenth century.
In 1898, with the birth of Leo Szilard, the legend began to acquire a basis in reality. Raised in a Hungarian Jewish family of comfortable circumstances, Szilard was a sensitive, creative, and precocious child. After World War I, he studied in Berlin, where he took his Ph.D. In physics with Albert Einstein. As he watched the rise of fascism in Germany, Szilard hatched an abortive plan to create a small group of wise, unselfish men and women to preserve civilization from the disaster that loomed. Years later, he attributed what he called his “pre-