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Social Responsibility and the Atom Bomb
Sept. 5, 2005, http://www.channel4.com/
Updated September 2005
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.
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.
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
campaign to build the bomb, scientists were mobilised like soldiers.
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.
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.
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
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.
- hall of fame
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.