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Joseph Rotblat



The young scientist
Joseph Rotblat was born in Warsaw, Poland's capital city, in 1908. He remembers the good days before World War One: his father ran a successful transporting business, young Joseph had a pony to ride, and there were idyllic summer holidays in the countryside. But when war came, Joseph's father was driven to distilling illicit vodka in the basement to make money for his family to survive.

But Joseph was determined to get an education. He had discovered what would become his life-long love of science, and was determined to become a physicist. So he worked as an electrician by day and studied by night, and in 1932 graduated from the Free University of Poland with a degree in science. He was immediately offered a research post in the Radiological Laboratory of Warsaw. He gained a doctorate in physics from Warsaw University in 1938. By then he had met and married Tola Gryn.

The British physicist James Chadwick, meanwhile, had discovered the neutron. (He was awarded a Nobel Prize for this work in 1935.) Chadwick worked at the University of Liverpool; when he heard of Joseph Rotblat he invited him to join the physics team there in 1939. Rotblat was delighted: the equipment at Liverpool was far better than anything in Warsaw. He was particularly interested in the physics laboratory's cyclotron (a machine for making particles move faster) and dreamed of building one in Warsaw one day. He went to Liverpool - the first time he had travelled outside Poland - with high hopes.

Turning points
1939 was the year in which two German scientists split the uranium atom, and set other scientists around the world on the pursuit of nuclear fission and the valuable energy it would release. Joseph Rotblat was among the first to realise that this reaction could be very fast and explosive, and could be used to make a massively powerful bomb. 'As soon as I had this idea, I tried to push it out of my mind. But I had the feeling that other scientists might not have the same moral scruples.'

But in September 1939 German troops invaded Poland. Joseph Rotblat had made a visit to Poland in August to arrange for his wife to join him in England. Because of a news blackout in Poland, the European war situation wasn't in the headlines of the Polish press, so the young couple weren't sufficiently aware how urgent the situation was. When Joseph Rotblat returned to work in Liverpool, he had no idea that his train was one of the last to leave Poland. After the September invasion, which was followed by a brutal suppression of Polish resistance, he tried repeatedly to get his wife out of the country, but each time the borders were closed ahead of her. He learned later that she was among the many Poles who lost their lives during the German occupation.

It was the invasion of Poland that made Joseph Rotblat suggest to James Chadwick that they should start work on developing an atomic bomb. He now realised the extent of Germany's military strength and brutality. He was afraid that the handful of physicists who had stayed in Germany might already be developing such a bomb, which Hitler would then use to force Nazism on the world. 'It was a terrible time for me, perhaps the worst dilemma a scientist could experience. Working on a weapon of mass destruction was against all my ideas - all my ideas of what science should do - but those ideas were in danger of being eradicated if Hitler acquired the bomb.'

It was the belief of Joseph Rotblat and many other scientists that the bomb would never be used. It would, they thought, be created for only one reason: to deter Germany. 'Later on, I realised that this concept of nuclear deterrence is flawed. For a start, it won't work with unreasonable people, and even reasonable people behave irrationally in war, especially if they face defeat.'

The atom bomb project in the UK began at once. The work was done in secret, under cover of other projects. 'We already had a good idea of the destructive power of the bomb. We knew about the blast effect. We also knew about radioactive fallout. But even so, we didn't believe an atom bomb could bring about the end of the human race. We calculated that up to 100,000 nuclear bombs would be needed to do that. And even in our most pessimistic scenarios we couldn't imagine that human society would be so stupid. But it turned out that they could.'

Turning points
In 1942 it was agreed between the governments of Britain and America that work on developing the bomb should be combined, and carried out in America, far away from the theatre of war. At the beginning of 1944 Joseph Rotblat went to New Mexico to work - with deep feelings of unease - on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. The project, however, was run not by scientists but by the US army. As Rotblat said later, 'possibly the worst mistake we made was to trust the military'.

The Project's military director, General Leslie Groves, had his own agenda, which by no means ruled out using the bomb once it had been made. He said openly that 'Russia was our enemy and the project was conducted on that basis' - despite the fact that Russia was fighting Germany too. And it was Groves who ordered the bomb-building project to continue even when it was clear there was no German bomb. As far as the US military was concerned the atom bomb would be a useful weapon - and now could be used against the Japanese

As soon as Joseph Rotblat heard confirmation, supplied by scientific intelligence reports towards the end of 1944, that the German scientists had abandoned their atomic bomb programme, he left the Manhattan Project and returned to Britain. As a fellow scientist said, this was 'to his everlasting credit'.

He had already tried to get his fellow scientists to think twice about pressing ahead with building a bomb. Some of them agreed with him, and tried to raise the matter with the President. But others couldn't resist seeing whether the bomb could be made and what was the extent of its power. And US physicist Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific head of the Manhattan Project, wrote uncompromisingly to Groves in October 1944: 'the laboratoryis acting under a directive to produce weapons; this directive has been and will be rigorously adhered to'.

Yet others, who had at first agreed with Joseph Rotblat, changed their minds when Japan entered World War 2 and news came of the cruel treatment of prisoners of war. 'It's the psychology of war,' said Joseph Rotblat. 'Once we enter war, our moral values are thrown overboard. We are encouraged to kill people. Even people who in the past had been friends became, in our minds, our mortal enemies.'

The Los Alamos military authority threatened Joseph Rotblat with arrest if he discussed with anyone his reasons for leaving. A condition of his departure was that he made no contact at all with his colleagues on the Project. And indeed he said nothing, either in the USA or when he got back to Liverpool early in 1945 (which was also the year he applid to become a British citizen, and his mother and sister and one of his brothers who had survived the war, were later able to join him).

But in August came the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he could not remain silent then.

'I didn't know anything until I heard the BBC announcement on August 6. It came as a terrible shock. My idea had been to make the bomb to prevent it being used, and here it had been used immediately after it was made, and against civilian populations.'

Starting to speak out
Joseph Rotblat saw that atomic bombs were only the first step on a potentially terrible path. People would now look for even more powerful bombs - the idea of the hydrogen bomb had already been conceived; an arms race would begin. He at once began his life-long campaign against nuclear weapons - and against war.

He started by giving talks all over Britain, trying to persuade fellow physicists to halt nuclear research. In 1946 he co-founded the Atomic Scientists Association of Britain, whose members were opposed to the military use of nuclear power. It worked with the newly-formed Federation of Atomic Scientists (now the Federation of American Scientists) to introduce a world policy for nuclear energy and weapons. Influenced by scientists, the very first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly was to set up a commission to deal with this issue; sadly, the hostility between the USA and the USSR prevented any commission from being set up.

'When we failed at government level, I thought I'd go to the people.' In 1947 Joseph Rotblat organised the 'Atom Train' touring exhibition (two railway carriages filled with exhibits and demonstration experiments)) which aimed to educate the public about nuclear energy and its risks, whether used militarily as a weapon or peacefully as a power supply. 'Scientists like me, who believe in the proper development and application of science, felt that the great discovery of nuclear energy was first known to the public as something destructive, and that gave a bad name to science. At the beginning we worked hard to show the beneficial aspects of nuclear energy, and it was taken up by industrialists.'

As far as Joseph Rotblat's own work was concerned, he immediately changed direction. He began to study radiation and its application to health, and from 1950 to 1976 was the much-respected Professor of Physics at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. Here his researches contributed to further understanding of nuclear hazards: he was able to show that the fallout from hydrogen bombs (thought to be 'clean') was in fact highly radioactive, and that radiation was a direct cause of cancers in fallout victims.

'A Statement on Nuclear Weapons'
The first test explosion of a hydrogen bomb was carried out by the USA in 1952, the year Britain exploded its first test atomic bomb. The Soviet Union exploded its first hydrogen bomb in 1953.

Joseph Rotblat first met the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1954, when they both appeared on one of the earliest BBC 'Panorama' programmes. It was about the hydrogen bomb. Bertrand Russell was very disturbed by the information Joseph Rotblat gave him, and at Christmas gave a radio broadcast called 'Man's Peril', about the consequences of nuclear war.

Convinced that since scientists had created the nuclear bomb, it was scientists who should try to prevent nuclear warfare, Russell got in touch with Albert Einstein, and asked for - and got - his support. Russell drafted the 'Statement on Nuclear Weapons'; and it was signed by Einstein only days before his death. It was also signed by ten other scientists, one of whom was Joseph Rotblat. The Statement was published in July 1955, and became known as the Russell-Einstein manifesto. (You can read it on this site: LINK TO DOCUMENTS)

It was more than a commitment to abolish nuclear weapons. It recognised the 'titanic struggle between communism and anti-communism', and the risks of war that it carried. It recognised the tremendous destructive power of the H-bomb. It recognised the appalling and lasting effects of large amounts of radiation. It recognised that an arms race had already begun. The manifesto put the question: 'Shall we put an end to the human race, or shall mankind renounce war?' and called on the world's scientists to 'assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction'.

On July 9 1955 Bertrand Russell and Joseph Rotblat held a press conference in London to publicise the Manifesto, attended by press from around the world. "Russell handled it beautifully,' said Joseph Rotblat, who chaired the conference at Russell's request. 'Gradually we could see that even hardened people became convinced that there was a point.' As Russell and Einstein had said, 'there can be no winners in a nuclear war'.

'Assembling in conference'
That call to scientists to meet and talk constructively about the perils of nuclear weapons and war was answered. Indeed, one meeting was held in London less than a month after the press conference. Invitations were sent to the heads of the world's universities, and to atomic physicists; but there were no funds for expenses, it was very short notice, and organisation was minimal and inexperienced. Only one physicist came from America, but, unexpectedly, a four-man delegation from the USSR arrived. The three-day conference went ahead, and completed its agenda of discussion subjects successfully.

But the future of such meetings was uncertain - until another answer came. A Canadian industrialist called Cyrus Eaton, who admired Bertrand Russell and supported global peace, came forward with an offer. He would provide the necessary funds for an international conference of scientists to discuss the nuclear issue. He asked one thing in return: that the conference should take place in the village of his ancestors and the site of his own summer home. That village was in Nova Scotia, it was called Pugwash, and it would give its name to what became a new and influential movement for peace.

The first of many Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs was held in July 1957. It was organised by Joseph Rotblat, who was the secretary-general of the Pugwash organisation until 1973; in 1988 he was appointed its president. He has described the Pugwash movement as 'an awareness of the social and moral duty of scientists to help prevent and overcome actual and potentially harmful effects of scientific and technological innovations', and added, 'We take this very seriously.' He was speaking in 1997, when he also said he believed that the past 40 years of the Pugwash Conferences (and associated smaller meetings, held in venues round the world) had helped to avert the danger of nuclear war during those decades. [More information on the official website of Pugwash International.

22 eminent scientists attended the first meeting: 7 from the USA, 3 from the Soviet Union, 3 from Japan, 2 from the UK, 2 from Canada, and one each from Australia, Austria, China, France and Poland. The Cold War was at its height, but the scientists were still able to discuss matters calmly: after all, 'as scientists we are trained to talk to each other in a manner based on reasoning, not on prejudices'.

Though the scientists themselves were able to meet in this civilised way, there were still problems in the outside world, which tried to influence the Pugwash programme politically. 'People would organise other conferences with, say, communist front organisations, and say "we're working for the same objectives, why not join us?" But if we did that, our credibility would have gone. Even so, we were suspect: at one time anybody who was willing to talk to the Soviets about peace was immediately branded as a communist fellow-traveller. Those scientists who agreed to come showed great courage - it could have affected their careers....Later Britain and America realised the importance of Pugwash, and tried to take over....But over the years we managed to establish ourselves as a truly and genuinely independent body, and people grew to understand and respect that.'

Pugwash meetings are informal and private, always held in an atmosphere in which people are able to speak freely. At the end, those attending agree on a summary of what has been achieved, and a statement is issued to the media. Then the scientists go home, and since they are eminent in their fields, people in their governments listen to what they have to say. Sometimes Pugwash delegates have been able to reach agreements ahead of official political negotiations. 'We felt, by talking to each other as scientists, that we were making a contribution to establishing some sort of peace in the world.'

This achievment didn't go unrecognised: in 1995 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Pugwash Conferences and Joseph Rotblat jointly. At the Nobel ceremony, the chairman praised Pugwash and Joseph Rotblat: 'While painting a clear picture of the great dangers, they have at the same time insisted that there was a way out. They have kept the vision of a nuclear-free world alive, while working unwearyingly for specific arms-limitation measures in the short term'. Characteristically, Joseph Rotblat shared his portion of the prize with the Pugwash organisation.

Scientists and responsibility
In 1997 Joseph Rotblat gave his last speech as Pugwash president before retiring at the great age of 89. There was nothing complacent in what he said. 'Was there a need to have done more? Should we have done more? I can't help feeling that the answer to both questions is Yes.... Many scientists are still not willing to face reality. Many discourage or actively hamper young scientists from being concerned with the social impact of science.'

He has always been clear about the responsibility of the scientist. The natural exhilaration that scientists feel when exploring new ideas led a group of them to take part in making weapons of mass destruction which put the whole world in danger. 'We scientists have to realise that what we are doing has an impact not only on the life of every individual, but also on the whole destiny of humankind.

'All of us who want to preserve the human race owe an allegiance to humanity; and it's particularly the job of scientists, because most of the dangers to the world result from the work of scientists.'

The main purpose of the Pugwash Conferences is 'to make sure that scientists' work isn't causing damage to human society and the environment'. But because of the way Pugwash works, there are only about 3,000 'Pugwashites' out of the world's several million scientists. 'How many of the rest have we imbued with our ideas? How many of them are now conscious of their social responsibility? My feeling is that the answer would be: not a lot.'

Yet ;scientists are well-qualified to take the lead in education for world citizenship. The ethics and logic of science are universal. They transcend geographic frontiers and ideological divides. Respect for facts and abhorrence of prejudices are inherent in the scientist's morality. All this makes the scientific community a model for a world community of nations.'

Joseph Rotblat's personal sense of responsibility and commitment went well beyond his scrupulous withdrawal from the Manhattan Project and the creation of the Pugwash movement. He was a co-founder of the UK Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958; the only parting of the ways was because CND committed itself to unilateral disarmament, whereas Pugwash worked towards multilateral. 'In such a complex problem, the danger of nuclear war, one needs not one approach but many. The Aldermaston marches were a very important part of the whole effort to avert danger.' From 1966 to 1971 he was a co-founder and board member of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). He helped to establish a professorship of peace studies at Bradford University. He was largely responsible for two reports on the effects of nuclear war on health for the World Health Organisation in 1984 and 1987. And he has written hundreds of articles and books, dealing with control of nuclear weapons, disarmament, the Pugwash movement - and the social responsibility of scientists.

A world without war
'A task not just for scientists but for everybody.' That is how Joseph Rotblat described the struggle for peace, in a public lecture in 1997. He had been explaining how even the elimination of nuclear weapons was not the whole answer. 'We can't erase from our memories how to make them. It would not take a nation long to rebuild nuclear arsenals.' But, he said, there is a long-term solution: never creating a situation in which even conventional weapons are used. In short, eliminating war altogether.

'Throughout the centuries we prepared for war, and what we had was war, not peace. We've got to do something about it. A war-free world is not such a crazy idea. We are already getting to it gradually. Look at the situation in Europe, its countries at war for centuries.'

'We are gradually realising the futility of war.... Now we must begin to think about security in global, rather than national, terms. We must get used to the idea that we are members of a world community... We have to develop in each of us a sense of loyalty to humankind that will be an extension of our present loyalties to family, city, nation.' And science - 'the same human activity that can bring the whole of humankind to an end' - can help; indeed, scientists, who are already citizens of the world, can lead our effort to learn to live without war. Technology, communication, transport can and often do bring the world together. 'If you want peace, prepare for peace.'

This is how Joseph Rotblat ended his talk, with words he had used when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize:

'The quest for a war-free world has a basic purpose: survival. But if in the process we learn to achieve it by love rather than fear, by kindness rather than compulsion; if in the process we learn to combine the essential with the enjoyable, the expedient with the benevolent, the practical with the beautiful, this will be an excellent incentive to embark on this great task. But above all, remember your humanity.'




  The young scientist
  Turning points
  Starting to speak out
  'A Statement on Nuclear Weapons'
  'Assembling in conference'
  Scientists and responsibility


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