a tribute by Andy Oppenheimer
Professor Josef Rotblat, the renowned physicist who co-founded the Pugwash Movement, has died in London aged 96..
He will be remembered primarily for being the only scientist to leave the Manhattan Project before its deadly culmination. .
He was born in Warsaw on November 4, 1908 into a prosperous Jewish family. When his father’s business in paper collapsed during World War I, the family almost starved. After the war Josef worked as an electrician by day and studied for a Physics degree at Warsaw University by night. After completing his doctorate while at the Warsaw Radiation Laboratory, Rotblat was invited to Liverpool University in 1939 to work with James Chadwick, the discoverer of the neutron. He chose Liverpool because they were building a cyclotron: Rotblat wanted to build one in Warsaw and establish a school of physics there. At Liverpool he was involved in the early calculations for the uranium weapon, then in 1944 he joined the British mission headed for Los Alamos, New Mexico, to build the atomic bomb..
While the Germans were believed to be developing atomic bombs – the very epitome of The Unthinkable – Rotblat first contributed his considerable skills to beating them to it. "I believed," he recalled years later after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, "that we had to develop the bomb as a deterrent to the Germans who, we believed – wrongly – were also developing the bomb." Once it became clear that the Germans had made little nuclear progress, the project already had its own momentum and Japan had become the target. Worse was to come. At a dinner at the Chadwicks’ in Los Alamos, the military head of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves, clarified the Bomb’s eventual purpose – to achieve supremacy over the Soviet Union. Rotblat promptly resigned from the Manhattan project and returned to Liverpool, where he became acting director of Chadwick’s laboratory and a British citizen..
His stance epitomised the scientist’s dilemma, which he solved by answering his own conscience, where few others – particularly those scientists involved in nuclear weapons at the time – were able to do. “When I talked to other people, they said: ‘We started an experiment, we must see it through.’ ” In becoming a prominent opponent of nuclear proliferation, he believed and proved with his actions – which won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 – that scientists should bear personal responsibility for their discoveries. .
After the war he became interested in the medical applications of nuclear physics and medical effects of radiation. In 1949 he joined St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College at London University, where he became Professor of Physics in 1950. While working on the effects of nuclear testing in the 1950s, Rotblat joined a group of scientists aiming at world nuclear disarmament. Its first conference, in Pugwash, Canada, included scientists from the East and the West at the height of Cold War paranoia. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs helped to bring about an eventual ban on atmospheric testing in 1963. Rotblat’s office at St. Bart’s served as its headquarters; he organized the conferences, edited the proceedings, and wrote histories of the movement. He was Pugwash’s first secretary-general and was its president from 1988 to 1997. He and the movement won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. In his Nobel lecture, Rotblat said the group’s goal of a war-free world was "not Utopian." Of nuclear proliferation, he said in the 1990s: “How can we prevent one nation from secreting a few weapons away? This is a task for scientists, primarily a technological problem ensuring that no one is cheating. That is one task for Pugwash.” Such a task is just as relevant today, when nations are still covertly developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Rotblat noted that such attempts are analysed best by those who understand the technical issues. The intelligence debacle in Iraq has proved that. Nuclear proliferation aside, the old arsenals still exist: the US and Russia, while having dismantled much of theirs, may develop new ones – including even nuclear weapons in space..
I had the good fortune to meet Josef Rotblat two years ago at a RUSI conference on nuclear proliferation, where he gave an impassioned speech on the continuing dangers of nuclear weapons. He was in great form, still sprightly and winningly handsome. We exchanged stories about Liverpool University, where I studied and the town we both loved, and about the future of nuclear weapons. I felt honoured to have met such an outstanding person and a long-time hero. I asked him if anything in Liverpool had been named after him and he said, with his customary modesty, “maybe a university lecture hall”. My next step, therefore, will be to try to persuade the university to commemorate his great life’s work with an appropriate monument to perhaps Liverpool’s greatest adopted son, and one of the world’s greatest advocates for peace.