Communicating Under Water

Dolphins

In Szilard's fiction, conversation between scientists and dolphins leads the world to nuclear disarmament. Image courtesy of istockphoto.

Leo Szilard. The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961. 122 pp.

Leo Szilard. The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories, expanded edition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992. 182 pp.

Leo Szilard was famous for his war work with Enrico Fermi on the Manhattan Project: the two led the group that created the first working nuclear reactor and produced the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. After World War II, Szilard publicly spoke out against the use of the atomic bomb and urged nuclear disarmament. Less high profile than his public speaking was his writing, which often pitted the virtues of science against dogmatic ideologies. Since attempts to control science in the name of ideology are all too real in our so-called post-ideological world, revisiting cold-war history through the lens of Szilard's science fiction provides an insight into our own predicaments.

The stories in this collection reveal Szilard’s disillusionment following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and capture an era when the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed only too possible. The title story, “The Voice of the Dolphins,” is the longest and most significant science-fiction piece in both editions and showcases Szilard’s entertaining futuristic visions, political musings, satirical political jabs, and bizarre, overly mechanistic “solutions” to the problems of the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) world of the 1950s and 1960s. His story reminds us of the moral and political dilemmas inherent in the cold war, many of which still plague us today, and illustrates how Szilard understood scientific rationality—as an amalgam of logic and creativity.  For Szilard, science was a logical, creative exercise—an antidote to any system of control, ideological or otherwise. The logical pursuits of science could not be predetermined by the dogmatic premises of any belief system, while its creativity was grounded in the playful whimsy of the subconscious as it interacted with nature.

Recalling the novels of Edward Bellamy and H. G. Wells and inspired by emerging research on dolphin language skills, this utopian future history describes how man’s ability to communicate with dolphins transforms the world between 1960 and 1988. Szilard's story begins during the last days of the Eisenhower Administration, with the establishment of a joint Russian-American Biological Research Institute in Vienna. Scientists at the institute discover that they can communicate with dolphins if the dolphins are given “Sell’s liver paste,” subsequently learning that dolphins are more intelligent than humans. With the help of the scientists at the institute, the dolphins begin to produce brilliant scientific insights and offer political guidance to the world.

The institute invests in numerous commercial-free television stations that broadcast spots 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 need to become more like scientific discussions. It reads, “Scientists rarely think that they are in full possession of the truth, and a scientist’s aim in a discussion with his colleagues is not to persuade but to clarify.” Using this “scientific” model, the TV show and the institute provide clarifying discussions about the world’s political problems, such as global population growth and bringing democracy to South America. 

Despite the best efforts of the dolphins, however, the world comes very close to destruction between 1980 and 1985. The fear of nuclear war becomes so great in the United States that wealthy people move to Arizona and New Mexico to build elaborate homes equipped with bomb shelters. Fortunately, the economic and social burden of the arms race slowly convinces many in the United States that disarmament is the only rational choice. In 1987 an informal conference convenes in Vienna under the auspices of the dolphins, and with their help the United States, Russia, and China finally agree to gradual “controlled-arms reduction.”

In the end, according to the story, the dolphins lead the world to almost total disarmament by 1988 and a new, utopian age of prosperity. Unfortunately the dolphins at the Viennese institute succumb to a mysterious virus, and a little later the institute itself burns down, leading many to speculate that there had never been any communication with the dolphins. It seems the rational “voice” of the dolphins that had led the world to utopia had actually been that of the institute scientists themselves.
           
The original collection published in 1961 included the stories “My Trial as a War Criminal,” Szilard’s satirical jab at himself and the politicians responsible for dropping the bomb; “The Mark Gable Foundation,” a somewhat dystopian future history full of bizarre inferences about the sociological effects of technological development; “Calling All Stars,” a rationalist commentary by computer beings on the irrationality of nuclear war; and “Report on Grand Central Terminal,” an absurdist, alien post-apocalyptic tale. The expanded edition of Szilard’s stories published in 1992 also included “The Mined Cities,” a classic MAD tale of Russian and U.S. cities mined for destruction to prevent nuclear war, along with a long biographical introduction by historian Barton J. Bernstein.

These stories offer insights into Szilard’s creative, playful mind and his lifelong struggle to promote the virtues of science in the face of relentless ideological dogmatism—whether the political dogmatism of Nazi fascism or the nationalistic dogmatism of the United States and Russia during the cold war that led the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Because of the atomic bomb and other negative intended and unintended uses of scientific and technological knowledge since 1945, perhaps it will never be possible again to see science in the completely utopian, playful way Szilard represents it in these stories. However, Szilard’s fear of ideological dogmatism and its negative effects on the practice of science—a constant theme in his life and writing—make reading these stories worthwhile. Szilard’s lively insistence on the importance of believing in the tentative nature of truth and the creativity of science reminds us of the value of public science in the service of humanity, an idea well worth remembering.

R. Scott Sheffield is an associate professor of history at Brevard College in Brevard, North Carolina.