Joseph Rotblat is known primarily for his contributions to the understanding of nuclear physics and his work on the development of the atomic bomb as part of what was referred to as the Manhattan Project. What is less well known about his life was his role as a proponent of peace during the dangerous cold war period following World War II. In fact, after spending only one year on the Manhattan project, he walked out and was suspected of being a Soviet spy on account of his opposition to the project.
Rotblat was a leading researcher on the biological effects of radiation and from the early 1950s to his death in 2005 he was a strong proponent of the abolition of nuclear weapons and the promotion of peace. He played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1995.
He was born in Warsaw, Poland on November 4, 1908 and had what he personally described as a happy childhood. At that time, Poland was divided and Warsaw was under the control of the Tsar of Russia. His father was a successful businessman and horse breeder. This prosperity was severely impacted by the First World War, for the borders were closed and horses were requisitioned by the government without compensation. So severe was the family’s decline that they endured extreme poverty.
Rotblat became an apprenticed electrician, and began his own business installing electrical lighting when the concept of electrification was in its infancy. He had a penchant for science and had an active imagination. In 1929, he joined the Free University of Poland. It was an unusual environment in that the staff held socialist views. The Free University had close ties with the Miroslaw Kerbbaum Radiological Laboratory of the Polish Scientific Society where Madam Curie served as the honorary director. Rotblat joined the Radiological Laboratory where he met the man who would be his mentor, Ludwig Wertenstein.
Wertenstein had spent two years in the Cambridge Laboratory where he worked with Ernest Rutherford, who discovered the atomic nucleus and James Chadwick, who discovered the subatomic particle, the neutron. In addition to his scientific credentials, Wertenstein was a linguist and a poet. From and ethical and moral standpoint, he was a humanist. It was the depth of Wertenstein’s moral character and his belief that a scientist always owns the responsibility for the products of his endeavors that strongly helped form Rotblat’s own thinking.
His early research involved the area of radiation detection, and built Geiger counters for this purpose. At the University of Warsaw he studied inelastic collisions and discovered the presence of Cobalt 60 (a radioactive isotope) in experiments in which he was bombarding gold with neutrons.
Neils Bohr, a leading nuclear physicist and a pioneer in the area of nuclear research, suggested that uranium 235 was the element responsible for atomic fission, and in 1939 the idea of a fission bomb was conceived. Rotblat joined Chadwick in Liverpool, and became recognized for his abilities along with his notable colleagues.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and war was declared. Unfortunately, Rotblat’s wife, Tola, was trapped in Poland despite his attempts to rescue her. Tola inevitably died in the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. Rotblat was not informed of her death until 1945; he was devastated by this news. On account of his close proximity and personal experience with the disastrous and destructive impact of Hitler’s’ regime, Rotbalt felt that Hitler needed to be deterred. In fact, he presented the feasibility of a uranium-fueled bomb to Chadwick. He wrestled with his conscience for although he felt that it was imperative to deter the Hitler’s onslaught, he felt strongly that it was not his job to work towards such a weapon of mass destruction.
Ultimately, Rotblat was invited to join the Manhattan Project in the US and he accepted. He moved to the Los Alamos Labs in New Mexico in 1943. He worked in the Oak Ridge Lab specializing in uranium isotope separation – a critical step in making the bomb. The Manhattan Project was under the direction of Robert Oppenheimer and had such notable scientists on board as Edward Teller, Richard Feynman and Enrico Fermi. Early on, Rotblat had ambivalent feeling about his involvement in the project.
He once attended a meeting in which General Groves, military head of the Manhattan Project, declared that the primary reason for developing the bomb was to defeat Stalin and subdue the Soviets. This explanation troubled Rotblat, for it seemed to have no connection to Nazi Germany. In addition, he concluded that the enormous resources required to successfully create a fission device was beyond Germany’s capability. He joined forces with Niels Bohr, who also wished to prevent an arms race with the Soviet Union, in trying to convince the allies to place the project under international supervision. This recommendation was ignored.
By the end of 1944, Rotblat resigned from the project. In 1985, Rotblat presented his point of view in the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists in an article entitled, Leaving the Bomb Project (see handout). In this piece, he claimed that the notion of using his knowledge to effect mass destruction was totally abhorrent to him. An excerpt of this paper is shown below.
“My concern about the purpose of our work gained substance from conversations with Niels Bohr. He used to come to my room at eight in the morning to listen to the IBBC news bulletin. Like myself, he could not stand the U.S. bulletins which urged us every few seconds to purchase a certain laxative! I owned a special radio on which I could receive the BBC World Service. Sometimes Bohr stayed on and talked to me about the social and political implications of the discovery of nuclear energy and of his worry about the dire consequences of a nuclear arms race between East and West which he foresaw. All this, and the growing evidence that the war in Europe would be over before the bomb project was completed, made my participation in it pointless. If it took the Americans such a long time, then my fear of the Germans being first was groundless. When it became evident, toward the end of 1944, that the Germans had abandoned their bomb project, the whole purpose of my being in Los Alamos ceased to be, and I asked for permission to leave and return to Britain. Why did other scientists not make the same decision? Obviously, one would not expect General Groves to wind up the project as soon as Germany was defeated, but there were many scientists for whom the German factor was the main motivation. Why did they not quit when this factor ceased to be? I was not allowed to discuss this issue with anybody after I declared my intention to leave Los Alamos, but earlier conversations, as well as much later ones, elicited several reasons.
The most frequent reason given was pure and simple scientific curiosity-the strong urge to find out whether the theoretical calculations and predictions would come true. These scientists felt that only after the test at Alamogordo should they enter into the debate about the use of the bomb. Others were prepared to put the matter off even longer, persuaded by the argument that many American lives would be saved if the bomb brought a rapid end to the war with Japan. Only when peace was restored would they take a hand in efforts to ensure that the bomb would not be used again. Still others, while agreeing that the project should have been stopped when the German factor ceased to operate, were not willing to take an individual stand because they feared it would adversely affect their future career.
The groups I have just described-scientists with a social conscience-were a minority in the scientific community. The majority was not bothered by moral scruples; they were quite content to leave it to others to decide how their work would be used. Much the same situation exists now in many countries in relation to work on military projects. But it is the morality issue at a time of war that perplexes and worries me most. Recently I came across a document released under the Freedom of Information Act. It is a letter, dated May 25, 1943, from Robert Oppenheimer to Enrico Fermi, on the military use of radioactive materials, specifically, the poisoning of food with radioactive strontium. The Smyth Report mentions such use as a possible German threat, but Oppenheimer apparently thought the idea worthy of consideration, and asked Fermi whether he could produce the strontium without letting too many people into the secret. He went on: “I think we should not attempt a plan unless we can poison food sufficient to kill a half a million men.”I am sure that in peacetime these same scientists would have viewed such a plan as barbaric; they would not have contemplated it even for a moment. Yet during the war it was considered quite seriously and, I presume, abandoned only because it was technically infeasible. After I told Chadwick that I wished to leave the project, he came back to me with very disturbing news. When he conveyed my wish to the intelligence chief at Los Alamos, he was shown a thick dossier on me with highly incriminating evidence. It boiled down to my being a spy: I had arranged with a contact in Santa Fe to return to England, and then to be flown to and parachuted onto the part of Poland held by the Soviets, in order to give the secrets of the atom bomb.
From 1945 – 1950 Rotblat was in charge of nuclear physics in Liverpool. He was so appalled by the use of nuclear weapons against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that he devoted his energy to the development of medical applications using nuclear radiation. In collaboration with Chadwick, the radioactive isotopes of iodine and phosphorus were found to have useful application. In addition, he collaborated with George Ansell in developing the use of radioactive iodine for the treatment of thyroid problems, a treatment protocol used to this day. He continued this kind of work – beneficial application of his knowledge of nuclear physics – at Bartholomew’s Medical College where he worked for twenty-six years starting in 1949.
On the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Rotblat was devastated, for he had hoped that the weapon would not work or that it would be used as a demonstration project in order to show the Japanese the awfulness of this weapon. He strongly believed that scientists should not be involved in the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons. In 1946, he set up the Atomic Scientists Association (ASA) to stimulate public debate around the issue of nuclear weapons. The association had a non-political agenda geared towards educating the public on the peaceful uses of radioactivity.
Rotblat established a relationship with Bertrand Russell. On December 23, 1954, Russell made a radio broadcast highlighting the dangers of nuclear testing; he was firm in his conviction that scientists should take the lead in informing the public. To this end, he convinced Einstein to help draft a manifesto. The Russell-Einstein Manifesto (see handout) was signed by ten scientists including Rotblat.
Rotblat was tireless in his efforts to draw attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear testing. He set up the Pugwash conferences that ultimately had twenty-two participants, international in scope. The participants included physicists, chemists, biologists and one lawyer. The focus of this conference was in the areas of radioactive fallout, abetting the arms race and the social responsibilities of scientists.
On December 10, 1995, Rotblat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his vigorous and extensive effort to facilitate peace and understanding in a troubled world. A brief excerpt of his acceptance speech (see handout) is the following –
The practical release of nuclear energy was the outcome of many years of experimental and theoretical research. It had the great potential for the common good. But the first the general public learned about this discovery was the news of the destruction of Hiroshima by the atom bomb. A splendid achievement of science and technology had turned malign. Science became identified with death and destruction.”
He died in 2005. He was an extremely ethical and a profoundly thoughtful human being, who courageously lived up to his convictions and exerted a positive influence on the public understanding of the dangers of nuclear weapons and helped awaken scientists to their responsibilities to the society and people they serve.