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When Speaking as a Scientist is Not Enough: Leo Szilard on Playing with Dolphins

HSS member R. Scott Sheffield’s personal reflections on Leo Szilard’s allegory of science.

“You must see that in a sense all science, all human thought, is a form of play.”
-Jacob Bronowski, Ascent of Man (1)

Voice of the DolphinsOnce upon a time scientists learned to communicate with dolphins and the world was never the same again. This was the premise of Leo Szilard’s “The Voice of the Dolphins,” the title story in his collection of science fiction short stories published in book form in 1961. The cover of the 1992 expanded edition of the book captures the impish essence of Szilard’s story by depicting the dolphins at play, with their sonic voices dispersing in ever-widening circles in the water. In “The Voice of the Dolphins” Szilard metaphorically articulates the voice of science, synonymous with the voice of reason for Szilard, in a time of Cold War ideological dogmatism. The absurdity of nuclear annihilation seemed only too possible to him at the time and “The Voice of the Dolphins” was his playful, fictional attempt to show a way out of the morass of mutual assured destruction (MAD). From our vantage point today, however, Szilard’s story offers the historian of science a unique opportunity to explore Szilard’s conceptualization of science and evaluate the efficacy of his beliefs about the nature of science. To see, in other words, if “The Voice of the Dolphins,” when viewed as an allegorical presentation of Szilard’s scientific voice, somehow resonates in a post-Cold War world.(2)

I think it is worth our time to ponder for a moment Szilard’s fear of ideological dogmatism and its negative effects on the practice of science. The Cold War may be over, but attempts to control science in the name of ideologically dogmatic beliefs are all too real in this so-called post-ideological world. Szilard’s allegory of science as it appears in “The Voice of the Dolphins” speaks to this issue and articulates a belief that we may have forgotten, one that may be worth remembering, the idea of a public discursive space for science. Exactly what this means is certainly open for discussion, but it might be a discussion worth having.

Inspired by research on dolphin language skills, “The Voice of the Dolphins” is a detailed future history of how man’s ability to communicate with dolphins transformed the world between 1960 and 1988.(3) Szilard’s story begins during the last days of the Eisenhower Administration. After the atomic bomb was developed, an anonymous narrator tells us, the slogan “scientists should be on tap but not on top” guided governmental policy making.(4) However, a presidential advisory committee made one recommendation that came to fruition in 1963, the establishment of a joint Russian-American Biological Research Institute in Vienna.

The institute attracted a number of young but distinguished Russian and American molecular biologists, so the story goes, who began producing research on a most surprising topic, “the intellectual capacity of dolphins.” Scientists at the institute discovered that not only could they communicate with dolphins, if the dolphins were given “Sell’s liver paste,” but that dolphins were more intelligent than humans.(5)

Soon, with the help of the scientists at the institute, the dolphins began to produce brilliant scientific insights and political guidance. The first great “discovery” made by the dolphins was a mutant alga called “Amruss” that was both a good protein food source and a birth control drug. The profits from “Amruss” enabled the institute to independently fund itself to influence political developments around the world. The institute invested in commercial-free television stations that broadcast programs such as “The Voice of the Dolphins,” a program devoted to “clarifying” the world’s political problems. According to a bulletin describing the show, political discussions needed to become more like scientific discussions.

After about a year of this new kind of discussion, the dolphins began to make some minor political suggestions, with some success. When a crisis in Iraq in 1970 threatened a catastrophic end to the atomic stalemate that had existed between the United States and Russia, the dolphins took action; the institute issued a list of the cities in the United States and Russia targeted for destruction. The effect of this in both the United States and Russia was to heighten awareness of the cost of nuclear war and, as a result, both countries pulled back from the brink.

Between 1980 and 1985, however, the world again came very close to destruction. The fear of nuclear war became so great in the U.S. that wealthy people moved to Arizona and New Mexico to build elaborate homes equipped with bomb shelters and transferred their money to neutral countries like Switzerland.(6) The economic and social burden of the arms race slowly convinced many in America that disarmament was the only rational choice, and in 1987 an informal conference was convened in Vienna under the auspices of the dolphins that led to “controlled-arms reduction.” The dolphins, according to the story, had led the world to almost total disarmament, and in this safer world, where money was not wasted on arms, the world economy flourished and a new, utopian age of prosperity began.

The dolphins at the Vienna Institute, unfortunately, succumbed to a mysterious virus, and a little later the institute itself burned down. Inquiries into exactly what had transpired at the institute led many to speculate that there had never been any communication with the dolphins, and that, in fact, the “voice” of the dolphins was that of the scientists at the institute.(7)

As John Canaday has pointed out, the multiple voices in “The Voice of the Dolphins” makes Szilard’s story a literary and personal act of ventriloquism. As literary ventriloquism, the story represents Szilard’s attempt to escape his sense that he, and the voice of science in general, were not being included in Cold War political discussions.(8) Beyond the immediate Cold War context of the story, however, the story can also been understood as a fictional elaboration on a problem Szilard faced throughout his life: maintaining a discursive space for what he thought of as rational, scientific discourse. As a Jew in Hungary in 1919, he experienced the anti-Semitism of the Horthy regime when he and his brother were harassed at the Budapest Technical Institute.(9) He escaped this environment by pursuing a science career in Berlin. As a graduate student at the side of Albert Einstein in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, he again experienced fascist ideological politics. He responded by conceiving of a youth movement inspired by science that he hoped would save science from the irrationality of ideological politics. He called this organization “Der Bund,” and it was Szilard’s first attempt to deal intellectually with the issue of maintaining, in his view, the non-ideological values of science in a highly charged, dogmatic ideological environment.(10) Indeed, the fearful years of Nazi fascism in the Thirties, when coupled with Szilard’s recognition of the importance of James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron, pushed Szilard to obsess on the idea of “nuclear transmutation” (his early nomenclature for nuclear fission). His fear that the Nazis would come to possess nuclear power moved him first to patent his ideas on the subject with the British Admiralty, then to encourage other scientists like Frederic Joliot to keep their work secret, and finally to persuade the United States government to pursue the development of the atomic bomb. All of this can be seen as attempts by Szilard to save science and the positive fruits of science, atomic power in particular, from the ideological fanaticism of the fascists.(11)

Inside the bureaucracy of the Manhattan Project, the discursive space of rational science, as Szilard conceived of it, faced another challenge – the secrecy and ultra-nationalism of the United States government, personified in General Leslie Groves. Szilard actively resisted and confounded Groves over the compartmentalization of research related to building the first nuclear fission reactor at the University of Chicago. In addition, during the war and after, Szilard openly confronted bureaucratic, nationalistic, and militaristic views on the use of the atomic bomb and scientific research (American and Russian) whenever they conflicted with his rationalist and internationalist understanding of science. To Szilard, bureaucracy, nationalism, and especially McCarthy-style nationalism and militarism, which echoed Nazi fascism, were all threats to the discursive space of scientific rationalism.

SzilardIf we see “The Voice of the Dolphins” as the culmination of Szilard’s personal confrontation with political dogmatism, several aspects of the story become more comprehensible. First, the isolation and insulation of the “Research Institute” in “The Voice of the Dolphins” can be seen as another attempt by Szilard to save the discursive rational space of science from political dogmatism.(12) Second, Szilard’s strange distinction between political “persuasion” and scientific “clarity” in his description of the TV show becomes an important qualifier in understanding Szilard’s allegory of science. It represents Szilard’s attempt to create a sense of separation between the discursive space of scientific rationality and political dogmatism. “Scientists rarely think that they are in full possession of the truth…,” according to the story. Instead, they seek “clarity.” Politicians, on the other hand, seek to “persuade” people and often believe that they are in possession of the “Truth,” leading to dogmatic political ideology.

Szilard’s distinction between scientific “clarity” and political “persuasion” begs the question of his conceptualization of scientific rationality, a key component in Szilard’s allegory of science.(13) While the published version of “The Voice of the Dolphins” does not directly elaborate on this point, an unpublished appendix to the story does. In this appendix Szilard outlines “The Operations of the American Research Foundation” (ARF), a sister research facility set up in the United States, according to the story.(14) Although the thickness of Szilard’s description of the ARF makes it difficult to see, the appendix focuses on science as creative intellectual play. Szilard felt this important aspect of the practice of science was being lost and in the appendix he brainstormed on how it might be fostered within the ARF.(15) Szilard emphasized the importance of scientific creativity more directly in a 1964 interview:

The creative scientist . . . has much in common with the artist and the poet. Logical thinking and an analytical ability are necessary attributes to a scientist, but . . . they are far from sufficient for creative work. Those insights in science which have led to a breakthrough were not logically derived from pre-existing knowledge; the creative processes on which the progress of science is based operate on the level of the subconscious.(16)

Both the appendix of “The Voice of the Dolphins” and this interview clearly illustrate that Szilard understood scientific rationality as an amalgam of logic and creative intuition, with no distinct, logical, a priori, dividing line between humanistic and scientific discourse.(17) Because science was essentially a creative exercise for Szilard, it was also an antidote to any system of control, ideological or otherwise, because its logical pursuits were not predetermined by the dogmatic premises of any belief system, only the playful whimsy of the subconscious as it interacted with nature.(18) Scientists, therefore, were not the puppet masters, the social engineers, controlling the world with their knowledge. They were merely a voice of reason interacting with the world and occasionally cajoling the world to seek a better place. After all, who could be afraid of dolphins?

Tragic visions of mushroom clouds and dogmatic nationalist symbolism may make it impossible to again see science in the playful way that Szilard saw it. We may never again be able to have the faith that Szilard had in the power of science to “save the world,” as he put it, nor should we.(19) And certainly it is not possible to forgive Szilard’s scientific elitism, also an inherent part of his vision of science.

I believe that any consideration of a public discursive space for science today should no devolve into a return to an angry, dogmatic belief in scientific infallibility. Philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century, and, in particular, discourse analysis, has rightly critiqued this belief.

Nevertheless, since the beginning of the Cold War, public discussions that involve science all too often portray science as just another overt discursive political act and all too quickly reduce scientific discussions to political dogmatism. Both of these extremes deny what Szilard thought was essential in science, the tentative nature of truth and creative play. Maybe it is time to reconsider these concepts and create a new allegory of science for the post-ideological world that once again puts truth in play and conceives of science as an important part of public discourse. Perhaps then we may begin to remember the value of public science without visions of mushroom clouds and dogmatic, nationalist (or any other) symbolism prescribing the place of science and the role of scientists in society.

1 Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (Boston: Little Brown, 1973), 432.
2 This essay is a small part of a much larger article I am writing that analyzes all of Szilard’s science fiction. This essay and the larger article owe much methodologically to N. Kathrine Hayles’s, The Science of H.G. Wells, John Canaday’s Nuclear Muse, Bruce Clarke’s article in Configurations entitled “Allegory and Science,” and his larger edited work with Linda Henderson, From Energy to Information: Representation in Science and Technology, Art, and Literature, and to many others too numerous to list here.
3 Dr. John C. Lily, a NIH marine biologist, is actually mentioned in the story. See also William Lanouette with Bela Szilard, Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992), 415.
4 Leo Szilard, “The Voice of the Dolphins” in The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961), 20. The fact that the Institute was placed in Vienna, not exactly in proximity to any ocean, gives us our first clue that the dolphins may be fictitious.
5 Szilard, “The Voice of the Dolphins” in The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories, 22.
6 Szilard himself went to Switzerland after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
7 “The Voice of the Dolphins” was Szilard’s only utopian work. All the rest of his stories are better characterized as dystopian.
8 John Canaday, The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombs (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 236-237. Because of the absence of humanists at the research institute in the story, Canaday, in the end, reduces the “voice” of dolphins to the elitist, insular, narrative voice of the story that does not seem to recognize the validity of any other type of discourse, especially humanistic discourse. Based on a close examination of Szilard’s personal history, his characterization of the process of science in all of his science fiction stories and other writings, his autobiographical “Recollections,” and an examination of the sociology of science as Szilard knew it in Berlin in the nineteen twenties, I am presenting a less harsh interpretation of Szilard’s understanding of science. Leo Szilard, “Recollections,” in Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts, Spencer R. Weart and Gertrude Weiss Szilard, eds. (Cambridge, Mass.: The M.I.T. Press, 1978). Hereafter cited as “Recollections.”
9 Lanouette, Genius in the Shadows, 48-49. Tibor Frank in particular has argued that the year 1919 was an important year in Szilard’s life because of what he experienced in Budapest. See Tibor Frank, “Ever Ready to Go: The Multiple Exiles of Leo Szilard,” Physics in Perspective, 7 (2005): 204-252.
10 A detailed analysis of Szilard’s “Der Bund” is a part of a larger work that I am writing that re-evaluates Szilard’s political science. The best analysis of Szilard’s political thinking after World War II is found in Michael Bess, Realism, Utopia, and the Mushroom Cloud (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), 41-90.
11 For Szilard atomic energy was a positive fruit of science in the sense that it could be used to power the world and help humanity escape the inevitability of entropic heat death, the focus of his early work in information theory. Only in the hands of ideological fanatics, like the Nazis or ultra-nationalistic United States capitalists and Russian Marxists, did atomic energy become poison fruit in his view.
12 The Salk Institute was perhaps the closest Szilard ever came to seeing his idea of a research institute become reality.
13 Szilard’s thoughts on scientific rationality were mostly aphoristic. He never produced a systematic, analytical account on scientific rationality, as his friend Michael Polanyi did. However, as I argue in my larger work on Szilard’s science fiction, Szilard’s other science fiction stories and his autobiographical “Recollections” offer important insights into his philosophy of science and the sociological origins of his conceptualization of science.
14 Leo Szilard, “Appendix No. 2” (Unpublished), The Voice of the Dolphin, Leo Szilard Papers, Mandeville Special Collections 32, Box 34, Folder 2, 1.
15 This was not a new theme for Szilard. In the late forties, he wrote two short stories which make this same argument. “Science is My Racket,” Leo Szilard Papers, Mandeville Special Collections 32, Box 31, Folder 2, and “The Tombstone of Science,” Leo Szilard Papers, Mandeville Special Collections 32, Box 32, Folder 7.
16 Tristram Coffin quoting Szilard, “Leo Szilard: The Conscience of a Scientist,” Holiday, 35 (Feb. 1964): 68.
17 Szilard’s reference to the Hungarian classic The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madach in his allegorical presentation of science in his “Recollections” and his recognition of H.G. Wells’s influence on his thinking about nuclear fission are examples, in my view, of how Szilard continuously blurred the dividing line between humanistic and the scientific thinking in his presentation of scientific rationality. Szilard always recognized the importance, if not the epistemological primacy, of literature. He always acknowledged that H.G. Wells’s The World Set Free (1914) shaped his thinking about the importance of nuclear power and that Wells’s political ideas in The Open Conspiracy (1929) converged with his own. In the end, both the logic of his conceptualization of science and his acknowledgement of the connection between his scientific ideas and literature indicate that he understood the nature and importance of subconscious creativity in all human endeavors.
18 Szilard’s “Recollections,” dictated by Szilard at about the same time he wrote “The Voice of the Dolphins,” reveal a metaphorical understanding of science as “childlike” that must be fully analyzed to understand the playfulness of Szilard’s allegory of science in his science fiction.
19 Szilard, “Recollections,” 3.


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