- the young scientist
- turning points
- building the atomic bomb in

- starting to speak out
- 'A Statement on Nuclear

- 'Assembling in conference'
- scientists and responsibility
- a world without war

See also:
science and responsibility
science and understanding
poetry agaist the bomb

email this page to a friend


The young scientist
Joseph Rotblat was born in Warsaw, Poland's capital city, in 1908. He remembers the good days before World War 1: 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.'

Building the atomic bomb in America
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 laboratory is 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 applied 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.





  P E A C E  P L E D G E  U N I O N  41b Brecknock Road, London N7 0BT, Britain.
  phone  +44 020 7424 9444  fax: +44 020 7482 6390     CONTACT US