Thursday, April 28, 2011

Joseph Rotblat and the Bomb

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 resigned from his position 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 an eloquent spokesman for 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.  Their 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 economic decline that they endured extreme poverty.

Motivated by his economic plight, Rotblat became an apprenticed electrician, and began his own business installing electrical lighting when the concept of electrification was in its infancy.  Although his business proved successful, he had a penchant for science and possessed 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 spent two years in the prestigious Cambridge Laboratory in England where he worked with Ernest Rutherford, who discovered the atomic nucleus and James Chadwick, who discovered the neutron, a subatomic particle.  In addition to his enviable scientific credentials, Wertenstein was a linguist and a poet.  From an 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 responsibility for the products of his endeavors that strongly helped form Rotblat's own thinking.

Rotblat's early research involved the area of radiation detection, and he constructed Geiger counters for this purpose.  At the University of Warsaw, he studied inelastic collisions and discovered the presence of Cobalt 60, a radioactive isotope, as a byproduct 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 in the arena of nuclear physics 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 was later to die in the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland.  This infamous Nazi concentration camp was located in the outskirts of Lubin, Poland.  Over 79,000 died there during the war; the majority of those killed were Polish Jews.  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 suggested the feasibility of a uranium-fueled bomb to Chadwick.  He wrestled with his conscience for although he believed that it was imperative to deter the Hitler's onslaught, he also 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 U.S. 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.  From the early stages of his involvement, Rotblat had ambivalent feelings about his role 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.  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 in London 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 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 and was 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 follows –  



"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 society and the people they serve.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Why Peace?

There are many armed conflicts raging all over the planet in the beginning of the twenty-first century.  The war in Iraq that has considerably diminished in intensity and the War in Afghanistan are the results of superpower (United States) intervention supposedly acting in its national interest.  Many of these are civil wars like the ongoing conflicts in Columbia, Sudan and Libya.  In the latter example, the military wing of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has become involved with an obvious stake in the outcome.  Others represent territorial conflicts like the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir and the long standing conflict between the Palestinians of Arab descent and the Israeli occupation.  There is obviously a strong religious component to these clashes as well.  Other confrontations are fueled by powerful religious and ethnic differences as exemplified by Lebanon's civil war in the 1970s due in large part to the enmity between Muslims and Christians.  Of course, the horrific and tragic genocide that took place in Rwanda in ***** prompted by ethnic and socio-economic differences between tribes cannot be overlooked.  This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the various trouble spots that exist in the precarious world of humans.  Overshadowing all these calamitous events is the inexorable deterioration of the global environment that is often exacerbated by human conflict and the chaos it ordinarily engenders.

On examining the ferocity of warfare, it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that the human species has not learned very much over its protracted history.  The history of Europe from the Ancient Roman and Greek civilizations to the present, as an example, is replete with carnage that is the inevitable outcome of wars. 

Within the individual human psyche there exists a constant tension between the force and power of the emotions driven by the passions embodied in territory, tribe and nation and that of reason.  The more reactive and violence-prone emotions stem in large part from the evolution of the species in an environment that was essentially hostile and in which the forces of nature that impacted human experience were not understood and the causes of calamities were attributed to the gods, malevolent spirits or an enemy. 

In the beginnings of the human kind, ignorance was prevalent and fear and suspicion dominated and shaped human behavior.  Although the advancement of science and technology has shed light upon many aspects of the human experience that were once shrouded in mystery, the inherent tendency to strike out violently against that which is feared and poorly understood remains to haunt human societies.  In addition, in the so-called developed world there is tendency on the part of a strong segment of the general population to hold science and scientific knowledge in suspicion.  What is particularly unique about humanity in the twenty-first century is the inescapable reality that the application of overwhelming force against a perceived enemy is no longer a viable solution especially considering the destructiveness of modern weaponry.

Over the thousands of years of human civilization, great empires have risen and eventually fallen.  The cycle of empire building and dissolution has generally followed the same inexorable path. The beginning stage is represented by the rise of a local community of common origin followed by a gradual accretion of power, usually by force. Success at this initial stage leads to a steady rise in military strength and technological capability that overshadows all adversaries.  As power becomes increasingly concentrated into an overweening empire, there is a tendency to overextend the sphere of control and influence.  This expansion ultimately leads to an exhaustion of resources both material and human.  Finally, the empire contracts and ultimately dissolves.  The entire process might take place over a thousand years as exemplified by the Roman Empire or a few hundred years as demonstrated by the British Empire.

In all of human history, cycles of expansion and warfare were tolerable given the low density of human populations on the planet and the relatively benign effects of the primitive weaponry on the global environment.  This model of human behavior where economic, political and social differences and rivalries are settled through violent means is no longer tenable in the modern era. 

The essentially tribal nature of human interactions has evolved over the generations into competing national sovereignties.  The idea that each nation state is a power unto itself is no longer compatible with the rapidly evolving global character of human endeavor.  There is currently too much at stake in maintaining the status quo, especially in regards to the survival of the species.  The development of technological weaponry, especially nuclear and chemical weapons, has created a situation in which warfare necessarily leads to horrific consequences both locally for the populations involved and globally due to the environmental effects as witnessed in the nuclear attacks against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the use of anti-personnel cluster bombs in Cambodia, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam and the use of Depleted Uranium (DU)  hardened ordnance in Iraq.

The daunting issues that face humanity are no longer local but rather global in nature.   The remarkable savagery of the First and Second World Wars of the Twentieth Century awakened the idea of a world organization as a forum for international communication so as to foster dialog between nations and forestall the possibility of future wars of such magnitude.  The first experiment in a world organization as a vehicle for adjudicating international disputes was the League of Nations that was created in the aftermath of World War I.  This met with limited success and was eventually disbanded.  Subsequently the United Nations was created at the end of World War II.  The United Nations is still extant but remains hostage to the dominance of the powerful industrial nations that constitute the Security Council.

The will to empire is still very much with us.  Apparently, no significant lessons have been learned from the horrid mistakes of the past.  The undeniable need for true international cooperation as a means to effectively circumvent a catastrophic future that now seems so inevitable is still not recognized.  Many nations remain fixated on the ferocious competition for dominance and supremacy at the expense of those sovereignties that are weaker and more fragile.  This competition has usually been over the resources required to fuel and sustain national economies.  The need for additional natural resources such as land for expansion of national populations or energy and mineral resources has often been the focus of competition.  As needed resources such as oil or water become scarce, the competition will, by necessity, grow more fierce and explosive.

This particular mindset has become problematic; the species is in desperate need of a completely new paradigm.  The new model must be based, by necessity, on a spirit of cooperation, compassion, generosity and a willingness to reach meaningful compromise to avert disaster.  The chasm that currently exists between the so-called "haves" and "have-nots" both within and between sovereign states is helping to sustain the extreme level of violence that continues to plague humanity.  Fundamental issues of social and economic justice need to be uppermost on the agenda.  Such a focus would require a serious implementation of the role of social responsibility and conscience in the behavior of governments.  The idea of belonging wholly to one nation must be superseded by the idea of being a member of the world community.  This, of course, represents a momentous leap in understanding, tolerance, compassion, and, most importantly, requires an obligation to act in the best interests of all humanity.

To continue down the current path in which domestic and international behavior is dictated by a passion born of fear and ignorance is to take a journey leading into a horrific future.  This is not the only possible destiny of the human species.  There are other more benign and desirable alternatives.  There is a way out of the madness.  Humans are quite capable of using reasoned and mindful intelligence to direct and guide their behavior and plan for a future in which all of humanity can share in the benefits of collective action for the good of all people.  To do this, however, old patterns of behavior and thinking need to be discarded and replaced by a new understanding that envisions all of us as being of equal worth and recognizes that we wholly depend upon a fragile planet with limited resources.  Beneficial change demands that fear and ignorance be replaced by compassion, understanding and a determination to work for true social justice and freedom.  These goals cannot be achieved by an imposition of a particular set of values by brute force or economic coercion.  Imperialism represents a viewpoint that depends upon a world out of balance and it is an idea that is no longer tenable.  The urge towards empire is not yet dead, but is has become completely ineffectual and counterproductive.

I believe I can say with some assurance that all people desire a world for their descendents in which peace is a reality and a future in which the planet retains its natural beauty and the majesty of all of life.  To achieve this result, a great deal of work is required.  This is a completely different kind of work, since it requires profound self examination and a will towards significant change.  The question remains as to whether the species has the wherewithal to take on this challenge.  I hope for the sake of future generations that this is so.   


The first images of the planet taken from space clearly demonstrated that for all human beings and for all of life, for that matter, the earth is our only home.  This conception has, in my judgment, become such an integral part of human consciousness that the current and obvious threat posed by climate change, that is a direct outcome of human activity, may offer some impetus for change.  The time may be right to open more effective channels of communication between nations with the focus on the development of sustainable economies that would help insure a livable planet for future generations of not only the human species but all the magnificent creatures that constitute the living world.  Simply moving through life with self-interest as the guiding principle is not enough to forestall a major calamity that only concerted human action can avert.

There seems to be a paradoxical aspect of human nature that may help explain the penchant for aggression and violence. On the one hand, humans as members of a family, group, tribe or nation, are able to work harmoniously with cooperative effort towards goals that benefit everyone. This collective behavior operates effectively; unless, severe catastrophic conditions such as profound environmental calamities, famine, epidemics, etc disrupt this cohesiveness, or an individual is plagued with mental illness. I believe that this capacity for concerted endeavor is wired into the human brain as a result of millions of years of social and biological evolution.

Juxtaposed to this natural propensity for harmonious behavior is the equally potent fear and mistrust of those outside the community whether it is family, group, tribe or nation. Fear can trigger the body, directed by various chemical signals from the brain, to react with the classic "flight or fright" response. The urgency of such a reaction, precludes rational thought or reasoned consideration; it is a purely survival mechanism. This propensity is also wired within the fabric of the human brain.

As individuals, we are often confronted by choices that may illicit responses dictated by either of these pathways. I view this as a life long struggle between the voice of intellect and reason and that of the emotions. It is both these aspects that define us as humans; we cannot extricate them from our being - that would be a useless endeavor bound to fail.

The path that a society chooses in confronting possible collective conflict or crisis, i.e. the path of reason or that of the emotions, depends largely upon education. If the culture at large condones and encourages violence as a legitimate response to threat and punishment as the primary means to promulgate justice, then individuals within that culture will adopt these methodologies. The violence used does not necessarily have to be physical in nature; it can also be economically or culturally based. However, if the intellect and reason are the attributes that are encouraged and nurtured, then an entirely different set of outcomes are possible.

Although human civilization has tended in the past to succumb to the reactive pathway as dictated by hostility, suspicion and fear, this does not preclude alternative outcomes in the future. The utopian ideal for human societies is not outside the grasp of human history. We need, as a species, to reeducate ourselves and transform our view of self and other.