If, in the 1930s, you had just imagined how a nuclear fission chain reaction might work, and knew that Nazi Germany was working on a bomb based on that same idea, what would you have done?
If you’re physics scientist Leo Szilard, you convince Albert Einstein to convince the president of the United States to build the bomb first.
When performance poet Jem Rolls discovered Szilard’s story (which somehow is not well known, said Rolls), he knew just what he should do — tell Szilard’s story from the stage.
Rolls has been performing his highly-acclaimed show — The Inventor of All Things — since 2015, and will be bringing it to Qualicum Beach on Friday, Sept. 29 at a Beaton house performance.
The NEWS caught up with Rolls a few weeks before the show to discuss how he found out about the enigmatic scientist, and what it is about Szilard that fascinates Rolls and audiences.
The show is an unusual one for a performance poet, said Rolls, both due to its length and its content.
Instead of slamming out insightfully worded abstractions in the space of a few minutes, this performance generally takes an hour (though he’ll be performing a longer, fuller version in Qualicum Beach) and sticks to Szilard’s life story.
Deciding to do a show about a nuclear physicist that no one’s ever heard of, which had to end with Hiroshima, was “a bold move,” said Rolls. But it was one that he felt he could first take at the experimental Fringe theatre festival that he frequents.
Rolls said he was marooned for Christmas in Dauphin, Manitoba, when he began a research journey that led him to Szilard.
“I had nothing to do apart from read some sort of cheesy books about the Nazis,” said Rolls. “And there was a cheesy-looking book on Nazi science that turnout out to not actually be that cheesy.”
That led him to Lisa Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, who first recognized nuclear fission. And they led Rolls to Szilard, “who just seems to be the most interesting and ridiculous and funny and bizarrely forgotten of all those people,” he said.
“Too much brilliance for one brain to contain is I think the best way I can explain him.”
A student of Albert Einstein, Szilard, who was Jewish, left Berlin the day before Adolph Hitler’s laws came into force, said Rolls.
“Shortly after that, still kind of terrified of the Nazis, he’s in London and he has the scariest idea ever… which was the chain reaction, and therefore the idea of a massive release of energy, and therefore the idea of either power or bombs,” Rolls said.
“Right from the off, he was terrified with this.”
Szilard went on to convince other scientists of the danger of atomic energy being turned into a weapon for use by the Nazis, and became a member of the Manhattan Project.
In addition to his brilliance, Szilard was also unpredictable, pompous, witty and compassionate, by Rolls’ estimation, making him a unique, fascinating character.
“It’s amazing that he’s forgotten,” said Rolls, though his obscurity may partly be the result of butting heads with the general in charge of the Manhattan Project, who subsequently got the government to investigate him.
Rolls said he’s gotten great reactions from the show, with some people stunned by the whole thing.
Rolls’ performance of The Inventor of All Things is at 7:30 p.m. at the Beaton residence in Qualicum Beach on Sept. 29, with the doors open at 7 p.m.
Tickets are $20. For reservations and to find out the address, email John Beaton at email@example.com.