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Sir Joseph Rotblat

Sir Joseph Rotblat

Joseph (Joe) Rotblat was born in 1908 in Warsaw, the fifth child of seven. His father, Zygmunt, was a businessman and until the First World War the Rotblat family was prosperous. After the war, however, the business failed and the family became very poor. Rotblat became an electrician. His ambition was to become a physicist, however, and after studying at night he was awarded a masters degree in physics in 1932 at the Free University of Poland and then became a research assistant in the Warsaw Radiological Laboratory.

In March 1939 he went to work at Liverpool University, invited by James Chadwick, the physicist who discovered the neutron, an important step in the discovery of the fission process which led to the development of the atom bomb.

His main work was on the energy of neutrons emitted during the fission of uranium nuclei. In August 1939 Chadwick offered Rotblat the Oliver Lodge Fellowship. Tragically, he was unable to get his wife Tola out of Poland before the Germans invaded on September 1, 1939, and she died during the war.

By 1941 Chadwick’s team at Liverpool had established that an atomic bomb was theoretically possible. At the beginning of 1944 Rotblat went with the Chadwick group to work at Los Alamos, near Santa Fe, New Mexico, the home of the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb.

By late 1944 it was clear to American Intelligence that the Germans would not develop an atom bomb. As soon as he discovered this, Rotblat quit the Manhattan Project, the only scientist to do so for reasons of conscience. He left Los Alamos under a cloud. Chadwick was not pleased that a Briton was the first to leave; and there was also a security complication.

Rotblat had learnt to fly while at Los Alamos and left the laboratory without the security people knowing. They suspected that he might fly to Poland and give away secrets about the atom bomb. The Americans, regarding him as a security risk, refused to give him an entry visa for years.

Rotblat had worked on the bomb because he was afraid that the Germans would produce one first. He saw no reason to continue when he knew that they would not. Moreover, he discovered that there was a hidden political agenda for the Manhattan Project — nuclear weapons were to be part of the looming power-political struggle between the US and the Soviet Union.

He was appalled when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing some 250,000 people. In his opinion, it was not necessary to use them against the two cities.

By the time the bombs were used, Rotblat was back at Liverpool University as a senior lecturer in the physics department and director of research in nuclear physics. Perhaps as a reaction to his work on the atomic bomb project, he became increasingly interested in the medical uses of nuclear energy. In 1950 he moved as a medical physicist to St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School to be Professor of Physics. He stayed at Bart’s until he retired in 1976.

In the medical school Rotblat worked on the effects of radiation on living organisms, specifically studying ageing and fertility effects. He soon became interested in the health effects of radiation from the radioactive fallout produced by the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.

Of particular concern to him were the hazards of the bone-seeking radioactive isotope strontium-90. His aim was to determine safe levels of exposure to ionising radiation. Though he was keen to publicise radiation hazards, he was particularly careful not to exaggerate the risks.

In 1955 Rotblat analysed the fallout from an American nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, deducing that it was a three-stage hydrogen bomb — he called it a fission-fusion- fission bomb — which had a particularly large explosive yield and released a vast amount of radioactivity into the atmosphere. He published his results in a scientific journal, infuriating the Government, which wanted information about nuclear weapons to be kept strictly secret.

His tendency to upset the Establishment may well explain the reluctance of the Royal Society to make him a Fellow, an honour he did not receive until the beginning of 1995.

In November of the same year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, shared with the Pugwash conferences, the organisation of scientists which Rotblat was instrumental in establishing in the mid-1950s.

Pugwash evolved directly from the “manifesto” drawn up in 1955 by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein. Russell wrote to Einstein that “eminent men of science should draw the attention of world leaders to the impending destruction of the human race” in a nuclear war. The manifesto was signed by an international group of extremely eminent scientists; among them Frederic JoliotCurie, Linus Pauling and Hideki Yukawa as well as Rotblat. Rotblat, then the vice-president of the British Atomic Scientists’ Association, was well known to Russell. The Russell-Einstein manifesto called for a conference of scientists to discuss nuclear disarmament and the abolition of war.

The first Pugwash conference was held in July 1957 and funded by Cyrus Eaton, a Canadian tycoon, president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, on the condition that it met at Eaton’s home in Pugwash, Nova Scotia (hence the name of the organisation). Twenty-one international scientists, mainly physicists and one lawyer, from ten countries, East and West, attended, many of them famous enough to have direct influence with their governments.

The 1957 conference took place at the height of the Cold War. At that time it was the only significant high-level contact between East and West. It was also the first time that senior scientists discussed political issues arising from the application of science, specifically the application of nuclear physics to the development of nuclear weapons.

Since 1957 at least one Pugwash conference has been held each year. All in all, there have been more than 200 general conferences and specialist work-shops involving participants from some 60 countries. Rotblat attended almost all of them.

Pugwash has avoided publicity and is, therefore, not well known, but there is no doubt that it was influential in, among other things, achieving agreement on the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty; establishing contacts between the US and Vietnam in the late 1960s; the negotiation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention; and in the discussions leading to the negotiation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Rotblat must be given credit for these remarkable achievements. He was the first secretary-general of Pugwash and became its president in 1988. He also wrote several histories of Pugwash.

When relations between the superpowers improved during the 1980s the influence of Pugwash waned, although it has remained significant.

Soon after he left Los Alamos Rotblat realised that most natural scientists do not grapple with the major ethical issues resulting from the applications of science and that, although this is most clearly illustrated by the activities of military scientists, it also applies to natural scientists working in many non-military fields.

He argued that the lack of ethical concern among scientists contributes to a serious and consistent misuse of science and technology, bringing into question the integrity of scientists and helping to explain why they are too often regarded with suspicion and distrust.

Rotblat used statistics to support his argument. There are around 2.5 million research scientists and engineers in the world. He used to emphasise that, of these, about 500,000 work only on military research and development. If only research physicists and engineers, those at the forefront of technological innovation, are included, more than half are working for the military, improving existing weapons and developing new ones. And these are the best of the bunch, generally with higher salaries and much larger funds for research than their fellows in civil research. Considerably more funds are given to military research and development than civil research and development receives.

It was a great disappointment to him that fewer than 5,000 scientists have attended the Pugwash conferences — a fifth of one per cent of research scientists.

Although Rotblat was most aware of the misuse of nuclear physics, in his later years he became concerned about the possible military use of biological science, particularly genetic engineering. He argued that genetic engineers may well develop the ultimate in genocidal weapons. While nuclear physicists and engineers were responsible for developing yesterday’s genocidal weapons — the nuclear weapons — tomorrow’s genocidal weapons will, he predicted, come from the work of biologists.

In recent years Rotblat became increasingly concerned about developments in nuclear weapons policies that, he thought, are putting the world in increasing danger of a nuclear conflict. He was particularly worried about recent developments driven by the current US administration, though other countries appear to support these major policy changes. He mainly opposed the policy to use a nuclear weapon in a pre-emptive strike against a non-nuclear nation.

The general public does not, he argued, seem to be aware of these increasing dangers. To raise this awareness, he gathered together leaders of different non-governmental organisations working in this field and created a weapon of mass destruction awareness programme. The programme was launched in London on September 21 last year by Rotblat and the former Soviet President Michael Gorbachev.

Rotblat’s dedication to Pugwash and the energy he put into the organisation amazed all who knew him. The way he combined Pugwash with his scientific work, about which he was similarly motivated, was extraordinary. Although he travelled extensively on Pugwash business, he did not miss one of his lectures for the first bachelor of medicine course at Bart’s, which he delivered with great enthusiasm from 1949 until he retired in 1976.

In addition to numerous papers on nuclear physics and radiation biology, Rotblat wrote nearly 30 books, most on various aspects of the control of nuclear weapons and the prevention of war.

Apart from his FRS and Nobel prize, Rotblat received numerous awards and honorary doctorates in many countries. He was appointed CBE in 1965, received the Albert Einstein Peace Prize in 1992 and was knighted in 1998.

Professor Sir Joseph Rotblat, FRS, Nobel Prize for Peace 1995, president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, was born on November 4, 1908. He died on August 31, 2005, aged 96.