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Video from Vega Science Trust

Science, Social Responsibility and the Atom Bomb

Monday Sept. 5, 2005, http://www.channel4.com/

Kate Roach

February 2002
Updated September 2005

Professor Sir Joseph Rotblat, who died in August 2005, was a physicist who believed that every scientist should swear an oath accepting responsibility for the use and misuse of their discoveries. This is no whimsical suggestion: Rotblat had spent more than half of his life campaigning for ethical science. His argument had the kind of authority that only comes with experience. Joseph Rotblat was among the team of scientists who developed the atom bomb. He was the only member to leave the project on moral grounds. As a young man he worshipped Einstein and the whole exciting enterprise of science. His journey persuaded him that scientists must be made socially accountable for their work.

Atomic breakthrough

A few months before Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, physicists Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner published a paper in which they theorized that a self-sustaining chain reaction of atomic fission could be initiated in uranium. A chain reaction of this sort would theoretically lead to the release of enormous amounts of energy - a prediction which had already come out of Einstein's equation E=mc2 but had yet to be proven. With this theoretical possibility on the horizon, Britain and Europe were plunged into all-out war - a confluence of events that would unite the natural progress of physics with the development of the atomic bomb.

Early in the Second World War, British and US leaders gained intelligence that German physicists were indeed developing an atom bomb. It became a matter of urgency for the allies to develop a similar bomb that would deter Germany from using her own. Work on the atomic bomb in the UK and in the US became top priority.
At the end of 1942, a self-sustaining chain reaction was demonstrated in the US by Enrico Fermi and his team. In 1943, President Roosevelt of the US and Prime Minister Churchill of the UK agreed to share research efforts with the aim of producing the first atom bomb. The enterprise, named the Manhattan Project, was to cost at least US$2000 million.

In the campaign to build the bomb, scientists were mobilised like soldiers.

Manhattan recruiting

In 1942, Joseph Rotblat, a young Polish citizen, was working in the prestigious lab of Nobel Prize scientist James Chadwick in Liverpool. His intention was to return home to Poland when the war was over. But Rotblat, an up-and-coming atomic physicist, was perfect fodder for the Manhattan Project and those in the know had other plans for him.

Only British and US citizens were recruited into the Manhattan Project. When Rotblat received an unexpected visit from a policeman who wished to know details of his family history, alarm bells rang. An application for UK citizenship had been submitted in Rotblat's name, of which he had no prior notion.

James Chadwick was set to join, but Rotblat declined. Although he was disappointed to turn down such a high profile opportunity, he preferred to remain Polish and return home as soon as he could. Chadwick left for the States as scheduled and two weeks later Rotblat received a cable from him. Rotblat was invited to join the project, and he could come 'as a Polish citizen' after all. Rotblat acceded to the plan and joined the Los Alamos arm of the Manhattan Project early in 1942.

Rotblat was not alone among the Manhattan scientists in that he was motivated by the belief that their efforts would deter Germany from using the bomb. The devastating power of atomic weapons would lead to a situation in which neither nation would dare drop one on the other for fear of retaliation.

Los Alamos - hall of fame

Rotblat remembered Los Alamos as 'a paradise for scientists'. Here he was able to meet and talk to some of the greatest savants in the world. 'These people were my heroes' he mused. Money was no object and the labs were equipped with whatever was requested. An enormous particle accelerator was flown in to Santa Fe and transported along the three-hour stretch of dirt track to the labs. This was unprecedented: money for science wasn't always free-flowing, but money for the bomb had no limits.

There were downsides. The Los Alamos labs were run under strict military rule and the location was top secret. All correspondence, which was censored, had to be addressed to PO Box 1663, Santa Fe. All visits in and out of town had to be recorded and special permission had to be granted to meet friends, relatives or other work colleagues (who were not allowed entry to the labs). Jeeps patrolled the perimeter fences of the research station every few minutes, guarding this most precious of science-military projects.

Rotblat remembered taking a long walk with the Chadwick family. Feeling tired on their return they decided to crawl under the fence rather than take the long route round to the gates. The patrol missed them by seconds. Rotblat laughed at the memory, but such a minor misdemeanour would have aroused military suspicion. And that, as Rotblat was to discover, was no laughing matter.

Rotblat resigns

In late November 1944, intelligence reports stated that Germany's atom bomb project had been abandoned. Rotblat wished to resign immediately; if Germany didn't have the bomb, then the deterrence argument was no longer valid, he told his bosses. In fact, Rotblat had been sceptical about the deterrence argument for some time. He doubted that a fanatic like Hitler could be threatened, particularly if his dream empire was in its death throes.
Leaving the Manhattan Project, however, was not so easy. Security personnel were on high alert because information about the bomb was being leaked to Soviet intelligence. A crime for which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg would eventually be executed on 19 June 1953.

Anyone who left the project was a potential security hazard. Rotblat summoned all his persuasive powers. He was sworn to secrecy and promised that he would have no further communications with any of the Los Alamos scientists. On these grounds he was allowed to leave.

Joseph Rotblat had never responded well to military rule, 'I've always been a bit of a rebel,' he said. He had often refused to report his whereabouts to military personnel, preferring to report instead to his old British boss. He had already aroused military suspicion at Los Alamos by meeting friends in Santa Fe off the record.
Eventually he left by train. He carried all his personal possessions in a large trunk, including a lot of science books he wished to take back to Poland. He stopped off at Washington DC to spend a few days with his old friend Chadwick before returning to England. When he left, Chadwick accompanied him to Union Station and put the trunk on the train for him. When Rotblat arrived at Pennsylvania the trunk was missing. He never saw it again.

Rotblat later learned that Chadwick had been involved in conversations with US military intelligence who suspected that Rotblat was a Soviet spy. Rotblat remained vulnerable to charges of espionage for many years after his resignation. By his own admission, this was a very frightening time.


Rotblat arrived back in Liverpool early in 1944. At the time of leaving, the bomb had not been tested and no-one could be sure that the calculations would work. He lived in the hope that their calculations would turn out to be wrong.

On 6 August 1945 his hopes were dashed. He heard via a BBC announcement, that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. A few days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
Rotblat described his feelings with a heavy heart: 'I was in total despair,' he said. The weight of responsibility fell hard on his shoulders. Once he recovered sufficiently from the shock, he was moved to begin a lifelong campaign for ethical science and nuclear disarmament.

Between 130,000 and 200,000 people died, were injured or disappeared at Hiroshima. In purely military terms, the two atom bombs proved decisive in persuading the Japanese to surrender. But the fact that 99% of the dead and injured at Hiroshima were civilians puts a different spin on it.

When Japan surrendered on 9 August 1945, they made no reference to the bomb. Some believe that Japan's defeat had more to do with the loss of 670,000 soldiers in a month of skirmishes with the Soviets. Whether this is true or not, we may never know, but it is food for thought.

Ethical science

Rotblat recognised that science is not ethically neutral. He refused to isolate his moral beliefs from his scientific pursuits. But today, most scientists continue to be trained in an ethical desert. Rotblat had a strong conviction that science academies should encourage ethical debate. He believed that as science can affect the fate of so many humans, ethics should become part of the terms of reference for all scientists.
Joseph Rotblat was one of the founding members of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a coalition of individuals who are dedicated to the ethical use of science. He worked tirelessly for the cause since 1957 and in 1995 Rotblat and the Pugwash organisation were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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