Bomb maker to peace maker: the life and times of atom-bomb scientist Józef Rotblat
The life of scientist Józef Rotblat is wrapped around some of the most pivotal moments in history. A Polish Jew who lost his wife in the Holocaust, he joined the top-secret team working on the development of nuclear weapons only to resign in disgust and become a vocal advocate of peace when he saw that his work was contributing to the Cold War arms race.
Rotblat was born in 1908 in Warsaw, and studied at the Free University, since he couldn’t afford a higher education, but later received his doctorate in 1938 from Warsaw University. His work took him to Liverpool, where he conducted research with James Chadwick, the winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize for discovering the neutron.
Rotblat was in England, when the World War II broke out, but to his despair, he was unable to get his wife, Tola Gryn, out of the war-torn continent. He saw Tola in August 1939 for the last time – she died at the Belzec concentration camp and Rotblat never remarried. The rest of his family was fortunate enough to survive the Holocaust, thank to Polish friends and fake Polish identities.
To help in the fight against Nazism, Rotblat joined the Los Alamos Laboratory as part of Chadwick's British Mission to the Manhattan Project, the research programme aimed at developing the world’s first nuclear bomb. He, however, refused to take on British or American citizenship, which was demanded from all the researchers working there.
“Working on the Manhattan Project was a traumatic experience,” Rotblat would later write about his wartime work in an article published in the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists. “It is not often given to one to participate in the birth of a new era. For some the effect has endured throughout their lives; I am one of those.”
Rotblat had long had reservations about his work being used to develop weapons of mass destruction but once it became obvious that German scientists would be unable to complete their work on the nuclear bomb, and that the American project was intended to counter Soviet Russia his position became morally untenable. He quit and so became the only scientist to leave the Manhattan Project on moral grounds.
Resigning from the Manhattan Project was a perilous undertaking and resulted with Rotblat being unjustly accused of being a Soviet spy. He recalled: “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 them the secrets of the atom bomb.”
The evidence were fabricated and Rotblat was allowed to return to Europe, as long as he didn’t reveal the true reasons behind his change of heart. Back in England, he worked on peaceful utilizations of radiation in medicine and biology.
In 1955, Rotblat became the youngest signatory of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, in which 11 scientists and intellectuals appealed to world leaders to seek peaceful resolutions to international conflicts and refrain from developing and using nuclear weapons.
The Manifesto resulted in the organisation of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a gathering of scholars and public figures, which at first was treated with suspicion, but later on became the foundations for work on the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Non-proliferation Treaty of 1968, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.
In 1995, together with the Pugwash Conference Rotblat received the Nobel Peace Prize "for efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international affairs and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms."
Rotblat, who had become a British citizen, died in London in 2005, aged 96. Apart from the Nobel Prize, he was awarded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize in 1992. His British distinctions include being appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George, as well as being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Although his scientific work was substantial, it is Rotblat’s efforts towards peace and international understanding that he is remembered for. Until the end, he reflected on the responsibilities of scientists and the motivation behind them.
“After 40 years one question keeps nagging me: have we learned enough not to repeat the mistakes we made then? I am not sure even about myself. Not being an absolute pacifist, I cannot guarantee that I would not behave in the same way, should a similar situation arise,” he wrote. “Our concepts of morality seem to get thrown overboard once military action starts. It is, therefore, most important not to allow such a situation to develop.”