February 11, 1380 – Italian scholar Poggio Bracciolini is born in Terranuova, Tuscany. He is best known for his discovery, in 1417 in a German monastery, of the only surviving manuscript of De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”), an instructional poem written by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, explaining the philosophy of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus’s work helped set the stage for modern science, denying supernaturalism, insisting on natural causes of physical phenomena, theorizing that all things are made of atoms, and proposing a solution to the puzzle of free will. Bracciolini died in 1459, aged 79.
February 11, 1898 – Physicist Leo Szilard is born in Budapest, Hungary. He was the first to conceive of the nuclear chain reaction, patented the idea for the nuclear reactor, and (having emigrated to the US just prior to World War II) wrote the letter (signed by Albert Einstein) that convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to develop the atomic bomb. After the war, Szilard delved into biological research, and was one of the founders of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He was named Humanist of the Year in 1960 by the American Humanist Association. Szilard died in 1964, aged 66.
February 11, 1918 – The Edison Company releases the silent film The Unbeliever, starring Raymond McKee and Marguerite Courtot. This World War I propaganda film is possibly the first motion picture featuring an atheist protagonist, albeit it in a negative light–in the story, the arrogant “unbeliever” goes off to war, sees Jesus Christ in a battlefield vision, has a conversion experience, and returns home with a new relationship with God.
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