Saturday, November 8, 2008

New Book--"Joseph Rotblat - A man of conscience in the nuclear age"

Sir Joseph Rotblat
November 4th, 1908 to August 31st, 2005

"Joseph Rotblat - A man of conscience in the nuclear age"


Hamish Johnston

November 7th, 2008

Rotblat — who was born 100 years ago this week — is the subject of a new book by Martin Underwood entitled Joseph Rotblat - A Man of Conscience in the Nuclear Age, which will be published early next year by Sussex Academic Press.

If you are intrigued by the brief description of Rotblat's life on the mural, Underwood has written a preview of his book.

Rotblat was born to a Jewish family in Poland on 4 November, 1908. He studied physics and became assistant director of the Atomic Physics Institute of the Free University of Poland in 1937. He was fortunate to be in the UK when war broke out in 1939, but was unable to get his wife Tola out. She is believed to have died in the Warsaw Ghetto.

While working with James Chadwick at Liverpool University, Underwood writes that Rotblat was "wrestling with his conscience" because he realized that he could make a contribution to the development of the atomic bomb.

Rotblat decided to join the Manhattan Project in 1944 because he believed that the only way to stop Hitler from using the bomb, was for the Allies to develop their own weapon. However, after less than a year, he left Los Alamos…and I'll let Underwood describe the rest of this fascinating life.

"Joseph Rotblat - The Conscience of this Nuclear Age"


Dr. Martin Underwood

Institute of Physics


Professor Sir Joseph Rotblat was one of the most distinguished scientists and peace campaigners of the post second world war period. He made significant contributions to nuclear physics and worked on the development of the atomic bomb. He then became one of the world’s leading researchers into the biological effects of radiation. His life from the early 1950s until his death in August 2005 was devoted to the abolition of nuclear weapons and peace. For this he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. His work in this area ranked with that of Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell and this article is an attempt to summarise his life, achievements and outline his views on the moral responsibilities of the scientist. He is a towering intellectual figure and his contributions to mankind should be better known and more widely understood.

Early life and times in Poland

Joseph Rotblat was born to a Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland on November 4 1908 one of seven children (two not surviving child birth). His father, Zygmunt built up and ran a nationwide horse drawn carriage business, owned land and bred horses. His early years were spent in what was a prosperous household but circumstances changed at the outbreak of the First World War. Borders were closed and horses requisitioned leading to the failure of the business and poverty. After the end of the War he worked as a domestic electrician in Warsaw and had a growing ambition to become a physicist. Without formal education he won a place in the physics department of the Free University of Poland gaining an MA in 1932 and Doctor of Physics, University of Warsaw, 1938. He held the position of Research Fellow in the Radiation Laboratory of the Scientific Society of Warsaw and became assistant Director of the Atomic Physics Institute of the Free University of Poland in 1937. During this period he married a literature student, Tola Gryn.

Before the outbreak of war, he had conducted experiments which showed that in the fission process neutrons were emitted. In early 1939 he envisaged that a large number of fissions could occur and if this happened within a sufficiently short period of time then considerable amounts of energy could be released. He went on to calculate that this process could occur in less than a microsecond and as a consequence would result in an explosion. The idea of an atomic bomb occurred to him in February 1939 (this is discussed in 'My early years as a physicist in Poland' reprinted in 'War and Peace: The life and work of Sir Joseph Rotblat' p39-55). Also in 1939 he was invited to study in Paris (through Polish connections with Marie Curie) and with James Chadwick at Liverpool University winner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the neutron. Chadwick was building a particle accelerator called a 'cyclotron' to study fundamental nuclear reactions and as he wanted to build a similar machine in Warsaw he decided to join Chadwick in Liverpool.

Liverpool University

Rotblat travelled to England alone in 1939 as he could not afford to support Tola there. At Liverpool University, Chadwick awarded him the Oliver Lodge Fellowship and now, with sufficient funds, returned home in the summer of 1939 with the intention of bringing his wife back to England. He planned to return to England in late August 1939 but Tola fell ill and he returned to Liverpool alone with the expectation that she would follow. However, war broke out as Poland was invaded by Germany on September 1 1939 and Tola was stranded. Rotblat made increasingly desperate attempts to bring her out of Poland through Belgium, Denmark or Italy but these attempts failed as borders closed across Europe. She is believed to have died in the inhumane conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto. This event affected him deeply for the rest of his life.

Towards the end of 1939 he began experiments in Liverpool that demonstrated that the nuclear bomb was feasible, but it would require a massive technological effort to produce sufficient quantities of the Uranium isotope required to manufacture a bomb.

Rotblat was wrestling with his conscience during this period and when back in England asked himself the question "What should I do? Should I begin to work or not ?" clearly meaning working on the bomb (see 'Leaving the Bomb Project' reprinted in Joseph Rotblat: Visionary for Peace’ p281-288). He considered himself a 'pure scientist' and it was not right to work on weapons of mass destruction. However, he was well aware that other scientists need not necessarily share his convictions and in particular German scientists. Put simply, if Hitler had the bomb he would win the war. When Poland was overrun he decided to work on the bomb. His belief was that we needed to work on the bomb in order that it should not be used. In other words, if Hitler can have the bomb, then the only way in which we can prevent him from using it against us would be if we also had it and threatened to retaliate. And this was the argument which he used at the time to enable him, in all conscience, to begin to work. In the beginning of 1944 Rotblat went with the Chadwick group to Los Alamos, New Mexico to work on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. He was to return to Liverpool in late 1944 and in 1945 to become Director of Research in Nuclear Physics following a series of dramatic and life changing events.

Manhattan Project

Rotblat arrived at Los Alamos in March 1944 and soon became ambivalent about his involvement and he made no significant contribution to the development of the bomb and even complained of having nothing to do (this is discussed in the British Library recorded interviews and stated explicitly by Brian Cathcart in his obituary in ‘The Independent’ 2 January 2002). However, this time at Los Alamos was the pivotal intellectual experience of his life while the loss of Tola can be seen as the central emotional experience. He said "I was in Los Alamos for less than a year. Well, I came in the beginning of 1944, and left by the end of 1944. As soon as I came to Los Alamos, I realised that my fear about the Germans making the bomb was ungrounded, because I could see the enormous effort which was required by the American(s), with all their resources practically intact, intact by the war - everything that you wanted was put into the effort. Even so, I could see that it's still far away, and that by that time the war in Europe was showing that Hitler is going to be defeated, and I could see that probably the bomb won't be ready; even that Hitler wouldn't have it in any case. Therefore I could see this from the beginning, that my being there, in the light of the reason why I came to work on it, was not really justified. But nevertheless, I could not be sure that the Germans would not find a shortcut maybe and they could still make the bomb. Therefore I kept on working together with the other people, although I was very unhappy about having to work on it. But as soon as I learned, towards the end of 1944, that the Germans have abandoned the project, in fact a long time before, I decided that my presence there was no longer justified, and I resigned and I went back to England."(see 'Leaving the Bomb Project' reprinted in 'Joseph Rotblat: Visionary for Peace' p281-288).

Chadwick was highly concerned that a Briton was the first to leave the Manhattan Project and the Americans regarded him as a security risk. An incompetent effort was made to 'fit him up' as a Russian spy, fearing that he would fly to Russia (he had learned to fly while in America) and divulge the secrets of the bomb. The Americans continued to regard him as a security risk and he was denied an entry visa for many years.

St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College

Rotblat was appalled at the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps as a part of his reaction to the horrors of the atomic bomb he became interested in the medical uses of nuclear radiation. In 1950 he was appointed Professor of Physics to St. Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College until retirement in1976. During this period he made significant contributions (together with Professor Patricia Lindop) to the understanding of the effects of high energy radiation on mice. He built a 15 MeV electron linear accelerator to enable the study of the biological effects of high energy gamma rays on living organisms. He made significant contributions to the understanding of the effects of radiation on living organisms, especially those of fertility and aging. He also became interested in the effects of radiation from the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. In particular he researched the hazards associated the bone seeking isotope Strontium 90 with a view to establishing safe levels of exposure. He researched the nature of the fallout from the American nuclear test at Bikini Atoll and made public the type of bomb used (a fission fusion fission device) and the large amounts of radiation released. Rotblat became increasingly more politicised resulting in his growing involvement in the campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons, for which he is best known.

Pugwash and Nuclear Disarmament

In 1946, Rotblat took the lead in setting up the British Atomic Scientists Association to stimulate public debate and included many leading scientists. It adopted a non-political agenda and was wound down and ended in 1959, but Rotblat went on to be a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He collaborated with Bertrand Russell and helped launch the "Russell-Einstein Manifesto" in 1955. Russell had written to Einstein saying that "eminent men of science should draw the attention of world leaders to the impending destruction of the human race" (The Russell-Einstein Manifesto reprinted in 'Joseph Rotblat: Visionary for Peace' p263-266). The 'Russell-Einstein Manifesto' called for a conference of scientists to discuss nuclear disarmament and the abolition of war. This led to the first Pugwash conference in July 1957, funded by a Canadian railway millionaire, Cyrus Eaton, on the condition that it met at Eaton’s home in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. Twenty-one international scientists attended, together with a lawyer, from ten countries, East and West.

Conferences followed almost once a year with most participants being distinguished scientists from Great Britain, the USA and Soviet Union. The key founding principle was that participants attended as individuals and not representatives of government. Observers, however, from organisations such as the United Nations, UNESCO were welcome. Rotblat was Secretary-General of Pugwash from 1957 to 1993, Chairman of British Pugwash from 1980 to 1988 and President of Pugwash from 1988 to 1997.

Pugwash has never cultivated extensive publicity but has been highly influential and, for example, was instrumental in achieving agreement on the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. Also, Pugwash can be credited with helping to establish links between the US and Vietnam in the late 1960s, the negotiation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Rotblat can claim credit for these landmark achievements.


Joseph Rotblat made massively important contributions to science, to combating the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the promotion of peace. Bertrand Russell, in his autobiography, summed up his work with these words: "He can have few rivals in the courage and integrity and complete self-abnegation with which he has given up his own career (in which, however, he still remains eminent) to devote himself to combating the nuclear peril as well as other, allied devils". His achievements were recognised with the award in 1992, with Hans Bethe, of the Einstein Peace Prize. In 1995 he was elected to The Royal Society and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year shared with the Pugwash Conferences. He was appointed KCMG in 1998. However, he could well have been most proud of Mikhail Gorbachev’s statement that Pugwash conferences and papers helped guide foreign policy resulting in the reduction in temperature of the Cold War.

Joseph Rotblat at 89 said, "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." From his Nobel Lecture in Oslo, "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 by fear, by kindness rather than by 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" (J. Rotblat 'Remember Your Humanity' reprinted in 'Joseph Rotblat: Visionsry for Peace' p315-322). Joseph Rotblat was a truly great man and the conscience of the Nuclear Age.

References and sources:

Joseph Rotblat's papers (some 4 tonnes in weight !) are currently being processed by the University of Bath and the archives will reside in Churchill College, Cambridge. I am told that this process will take about 2 more years to complete.

I have used 2 sound archive resources:

British Library Sound Archive (call number F7208). This is an exhaustive, some 20 hours, series of interviews given to Katherine Thompson in his own home between May 1999 and 2002. An invaluable source although full transcripts, to my knowledge, are not available.

National Security Archive-Cold War Interviews (November 15,1998, Episode 8, SPUTNIK). This is a non-governmental, non-profit organisation of scientists and journalists providing a 'home' for former secret U.S. Government information obtained under The Freedom of Information Act. Full transcripts are available on the internet.

And this book...

Joseph Rotblat: Visionary for Peace


Reiner Braun, Prof. Robert Hinde, David Krieger, Harold Kroto, Sally Milne [editors]

ISBN: 9783527406906

Sir Joseph Rotblat (1908-2005), British physicist and one of the most prominent critics of the nuclear arms race, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 in conjunction with the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an organization of scientists which he headed at the time, for their efforts towards nuclear disarmament.

'Joseph Rotblat - Visionary for Peace' is dedicated to the life of this unique scientist and humanist. It contains contributions by Nobel Laureates, eminent scholars and prominent politicians who, each from their own perspective, shed light on the life and work of this distinguished scientist.

An introduction by the editors is followed by five central articles on Rotblat's biography, the impact of his work on science and peace and the Pugwash organization. The third part of the book consists of over 20 commentaries, written by the likes of Martin Rees, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jack Steinberger, Mohamed ElBaradei, Paul J.Crutzen, and Mairead Corrigan Maguire.

Joseph Rotblat died August 31st, 2005

"Sir Joseph Rotblat: Driving force of the disarmament group Pugwash and Nobel Peace Prize-winner"


Brian Cathcart

September 2nd, 2005

The Independent

Joseph Rotblat, physicist: born Warsaw 4 November 1908; Research Fellow, Radiological Laboratory, Scientific Society of Warsaw 1933-39; Assistant Director, Atomic Physics Institute, Free University of Poland 1937-79; Oliver Lodge Fellow, Liverpool University 1939-40, Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics 1940-49, Director of Research in Nuclear Physics 1945-49; Professor of Physics, London University 1950-76 (Emeritus), Vice-Dean, Faculty of Science 1974-76; Physicist to St Bartholomew's Hospital 1950-76; Secretary-General, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs 1957-73, President 1988-97 (Emeritus); CBE 1965; Chairman, British Pugwash 1978-88; FRS 1995; Nobel Peace Prize 1995; KCMG 1998; married 1937 Tola Gryn (deceased); died London 31 August 2005.

Probably more than any other individual, Joseph Rotblat deserves to be called the conscience of science in the nuclear age. A physicist who walked out of Los Alamos before the first atomic bombs were completed, he went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his inspired and unrelenting efforts to secure nuclear disarmament. His life's work was to mobilise fellow scientists in the cause of peace, as he believed they had unique responsibilities deriving both from their special knowledge and from the role of science in creating nuclear weapons in the first place.

In the 1950s he played an important role in alerting the world to the global dangers of radioactive fall-out and he subsequently helped found and lead the Pugwash organisation, promoting new ideas for disarmament, often to the irritation of governments in both East and West.

Although he lived in Britain for most of his life, an exile from his Polish homeland where his wife died in the concentration camps of the Second World War, Rotblat remained little known to the British public until the award of the Nobel Prize in 1995. But in the world of science, both as a practitioner and as a campaigner, he had long enjoyed international standing.

Joseph Rotblat was born in Warsaw in 1908, the fifth of seven children of a prosperous Jewish paper merchant and his wife. Joseph's early years were spent in some luxury, but things changed very abruptly with the outbreak of the First World War, when the family business was ruined by the closing of frontiers and the requisitioning of its horses for the army. The Rotblats fell into poverty and even hunger, and at one stage they survived by selling vodka distilled illegally at home.

Peace in 1918 brought little relief, indeed the family's fortunes never recovered, and young Joseph eventually trained to be an electrician. By night, however, he studied for a university physics degree and in the early 1930s was accepted to do research at the Warsaw Radiation Laboratory.

This was still the age of "string and sealing wax" in nuclear science, and Warsaw's facilities were primitive. Joseph Rotblat used later to recount how he conducted experiments involving two pieces of equipment kept on different floors, which meant hurling himself down flights of stairs to complete his observations in time. Only when he developed stress fractures in his legs was he given more apparatus.

In 1939 Rotblat received two invitations to study abroad, one from Paris and one from Liverpool University, and despite the strong Polish connection with Paris (through Marie Curie) he chose the latter. The Nobel Prize-winner James Chadwick was building a "cyclotron" particle accelerator in Liverpool and Rotblat wanted in due course to create one in Warsaw.

By now he was married, to Tola Gryn, a literature student whom he had met in 1930, but he travelled to England alone because he could not afford to support her there. Before long, Chadwick gave Rotblat a fellowship, doubling his income, and in that summer of 1939 the young Pole returned home meaning to bring his wife back with him. When the time came to leave Warsaw in late August, however, she was ill and remained behind, expecting to follow within days, and so once again the outbreak of war brought calamity. Tola was trapped, and all Joseph's desperate efforts in the ensuing months to bring her out through Belgium, Denmark or Italy came to nothing, as each country in turn was closed off by the war. He never saw her again.

At Liverpool University, meanwhile, Joseph Rotblat soon found many of his colleagues vanishing to do secret war work, mostly on radar. He himself was also wrestling with a war project, though not one with government blessing. Like many nuclear physicists, he had been alarmed by the discovery in Germany on the eve of war that uranium atoms were capable of "fission", a splitting process that released energy. Follow-up work quickly suggested that this was unlikely ever to be useful in weapons, but Rotblat was one of a minority of scientists who remained unconvinced and, with Chadwick closely following his work, he began to investigate the subject himself.

Two other scientists, Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch, were pursuing a similar line of thought at Birmingham University, and in the event it was they who crystallised the matter, producing in the "Frisch-Peierls Memorandum" of 1940 the first blueprint for an atomic bomb.

The memorandum set in motion a much bigger British feasibility study into which Rotblat's work was drawn, and in time all of this was merged into the Manhattan Project to design and build the bomb in the United States. The heart of the project was the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico and Rotblat was wanted there, but there was a delay because the Americans were insisting that all the British team, which included a number of refugees, should have British citizenship. Rotblat, still meaning to return home after the war, refused to renounce his Polish nationality. That it was the Americans who eventually had to relent is evidence of the man's stubbornness.

Although in scientific terms he made no significant contribution to the work on the atom bomb - indeed, he complained at times of having nothing to do - for him, as for so many others, that time at Los Alamos was the pivotal experience of his life. Arriving in March 1944, he soon felt ambivalence about his involvement. On the one hand, he had served notice that he wanted to return to Poland as soon as possible and on the other, he was more troubled than most about the morality of working on a weapon of mass destruction.

These moral doubts grew as time passed. He wrote later that he had been shocked to overhear a senior American official claim that the real purpose of the bomb was to gain dominance over the Russians after the war, and also that he was convinced of the danger of a post-war nuclear arms race by conversations at Los Alamos with the Danish physicist Niels Bohr.

His initial rationale for being involved, which he shared with many others, was a fear that the Germans might develop the bomb first and, towards the end of 1944, as it became clear that this was not a danger, his reservations increased still further. At the same time, of course, Germany's defeat was becoming steadily more likely, and his desire to go and look for his wife and for the rest of the Rotblat family was also strong.

With these doubts and worries in mind, at the end of 1944 Rotblat asked to leave the laboratory and was grudgingly given permission. He was one of only two scientists to quit Los Alamos in this way. Before he could go, however, he had to clear himself of a charge of espionage. Security staff had compiled an inch-thick file on him, brimming with tales of security breaches and including one suggestion that he intended, on his return to Europe, to parachute into Russia with the secrets of the bomb.

Behind this lay a lot of fantasy and a few unsensational facts. On visits to nearby Santa Fe, he had befriended a young Englishwoman who was in New Mexico for treatment for a hearing problem. Evidently Rotblat had been more open about his work than he should have, and she had been equally indiscreet, discussing him with a friend. This friend, a Santa Fe woman with a gift for embroidery, convinced herself and the security agents that the Pole was up to no good.

Eventually he satisfied the authorities that he was not a Soviet agent, and left. Unable to reach Poland, however, he was still in Liverpool in August 1945 when he heard the news of Hiroshima, at which point his life's great mission began.

At first he worked through the Atomic Scientists' Association (ASA), set up early in 1946 to educate British public opinion about matters nuclear and to make the case for international control of atomic energy. Rotblat was very soon at the heart of matters, organising, fund-raising and speaking. He was the dynamo behind the ASA's most ambitious project, the Atom Train, a touring exhibition which proved a popular success. It told of the dangers of the new nuclear world and the potential benefits in terms of energy and medical treatments, and asked in conclusion: "Which is it to be?"

Events soon gave their answer, as the Cold War and the nuclear arms race began, and the ASA swiftly became marginal. Rotblat's own life also moved on. Although his wife was dead, against the odds several members of his family, including his mother, survived the Holocaust. They wanted to move to Britain and, to help make this possible, he finally abandoned his hope of returning home and adopted British citizenship.

His scientific career, too, entered a new phase. In 1949 he left Liverpool for St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, swapping particle accelerators for a quite different field of study, health physics. Though many of his old colleagues told him he was mad, he made a resounding success of it, completing in the years that followed a series of landmark studies with Patricia Lindop on the effects of high-energy radiation on mice.

It was the issue of global fall-out that made Rotblat a figure of international importance, and the key event came in 1954, when an American H-bomb test in the Pacific showered radioactive dust on a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon. All those on board required hospital treatment and one subsequently died. Looking at the evidence, Rotblat deduced that the bomb had been a three-stage weapon in which the essential fusion reaction was not only initiated by a fission explosion, but was followed by one as well. This meant that it was vastly more "dirty" than the public had been told, and when Rotblat after some delay published this fact there was uproar.

As concern grew about fall-out, Rotblat became involved with Bertrand Russell in the search for ways to end testing and ultimately remove the threat of nuclear war. He played an instrumental role in the publication of the "Russell-Einstein Manifesto", which called for an international conference of scientists to this end.

Rotblat was soon approached by a Canadian millionaire, Cyrus Eaton, who offered to host such a conference in his home town of Pugwash, Nova Scotia. So it was that 22 leading scientists, including notably a vice-president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, gathered there in 1957 to discuss peace. Since then there have been more than 200 Pugwash conferences in many cities, all of them observing the same principles: those present represent only themselves, and their discussions are confidential.

The organisation's influence is thus hard to measure, though few would question it. At times, such as the early 1980s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it kept open lines of communication when the Cold War was at its coldest. At other times it created new lines - it was Pugwash that provided the first link between Henry Kissinger and the North Vietnamese, as early as 1967.

Above all, it provided a forum for discussion that stood outside East-West conflict, making possible new analyses of the nuclear stand-off and of the ways in which tension might be reduced and calamity avoided. In time these ideas found their way into public debate and sometimes government policy. Its independence, however, attracted suspicion and occasionally it was denounced as a stooge organisation by one side or other.

Down the years, as Secretary, Chairman and then President, Rotblat remained the driving force of Pugwash and his office, first at Bart's and later in Great Russell Street by the British Museum, was the hub.

Lean and handsome even in old age, and with a strong Polish accent and old-world manners, he could exercise enormous charm, but behind it always lay an indomitable determination, even ruthlessness. It was said of him that he was a great man to have on a committee, provided he was on your side, for he had a prodigious memory and there was nothing he did not know about the tricks of procedure. The story is also told of an Israeli scientist late with a paper for a Pugwash publication, who unwisely paid a visit to Rotblat and found himself locked in a small room until the article was complete. Rotblat's own work rate was phenomenal, running to hundreds of books, pamphlets and articles, and it is no surprise that he had little in the way of a private life, never remarrying and living quietly and modestly in north London.

In 1995, 50 years after Hiroshima, all this work and achievement was finally honoured when he and Pugwash were together awarded the Nobel Prize, and for the first time Rotblat, who always thought himself a rebel and an outsider, enjoyed the public recognition and acclaim that were his due. Three years later, long after the honour was due, he was knighted.

Biography and external links of interviews

Nuclear weaponry

"Science, Knowledge, Wisdom, Life"

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