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Joseph Rotblat's humanity

About the author
Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism journalism at Kingston University and a former deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday.

Two years ago, on 3 September 2003, I organised a talk by Joseph Rotblat at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in central London. I had known about his extraordinary life for years and had interviewed him a couple of times, and I was and remain amazed that he is not better known, particularly in his adopted country.

Conscious of his great age – he was almost 95 then – I chose a sit-down, conversational format for the event, where I could prompt him with questions. That way, I thought, he would not be overtaxed. I need not have worried.

He turned up on his own, slim and smart, briefcase in hand, smiling his winning smile and eager to know what was expected of him. My presence on the stage proved entirely unnecessary, for he spoke with fluency and focus and managed the questions from the floor with aplomb. There were forty or so people in the audience in that upstairs room and I think it is fair to say that they were as entranced, even ennobled as I was. He had the ability to lift your sights a little higher. At the end, gratified by the response if a little tired, he slipped away to a taxi home.

A few months later he emailed me to say he had suffered a minor stroke, and it was the beginning of a slow decline towards his death on 31 August.

One of the minor drawbacks of a very long life is that when you go there may be no one left who can do justice to your achievements. In the past year two important participants in, and witnesses to, the struggle of which Rotblat was a part have died: Hans Bethe and Philip Morrison. Their testimony would be valuable now, but Rotblat must have been one of the very last survivors of that great vintage.

To me he resembles that Chinese student in 1989 who stood in the path of a column of tanks, stepping this way and then that to frustrate their attempts to advance. Rotblat’s tanks were the forces of nuclear war, and although he wasn’t alone in obstructing them (as the student was), he was at the very forefront, and remained so for an astonishing span of years.

Also by Brian Cathcart in openDemocracy:

  • Polio: a war not yet won (May 2005)
  • Britain and the atomic bomb (August 2005)
  • * * *

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    The scientist’s reason

    A physicist trained in his native Poland and in Britain, he walked out of the Manhattan Project in 1944 on conscientious grounds, one of only two scientists to do so. He had personal reasons too – a Jew, he wanted to return to Poland to look for the young wife he had been separated from in 1939 (he never found her) – but his moral reasons were characteristically unambiguous.

    He had joined the project in the belief that Nazi Germany, too, might be making an atomic bomb, and once this belief had been proved false he could see no justification for continuing. No less characteristic was the behaviour of the FBI, which before allowing him to leave tried to smear him, on the most laughable evidence, as a Soviet spy.

    From then through six decades, until an open letter this year urging George W Bush to take nuclear non-proliferation more seriously, his mission was essentially the same: to prevent nuclear war, and more, to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free world. The Nobel peace prize he shared in 1995 with the organisation he co-founded and led, Pugwash, is proof of his standing and in a way of his success – if there has been no nuclear war since 1945, few individuals can deserve more credit than he.

    His perspective was always that of the scientist. He began his working life laying power cables beneath the cobbles of old Warsaw in the 1920s, but soon earned a place in university to study experimental nuclear physics, in what was without doubt a brilliant golden age of discovery, and in retrospect an innocent one.

    In the late 1940s, after the war, he made the bold decision to switch disciplines, becoming a health physicist at a time when the field was fairly new, and going on to make fundamental contributions to the understanding of the effects of radiation on man.

    This scientific background, with its precision and discipline, seemed to inform his manner. He was a courteous listener, always anxious to take in your exact meaning so that he could address it correctly, and he was also, in the big things at least, marvellously patient, ever hoping that reason would eventually prevail.

    The campaigner’s heart

    The science itself was obviously important to his arguments – his understanding of how nuclear weapons functioned, rare outside official circles in the 1940s and 1950s, gave him important insights and landed him occasionally in trouble with secretive officialdom, while his knowledge of radiation effects placed him in a position of unusual authority.

    But even closer to his heart was his awareness of the scientist’s responsibility for what he has discovered and may discover. Though Rotblat was no philosopher and did not address this in the abstract, he was quite clear what it meant: scientists had a unique role in the nuclear world and they must play it. They must be educators, advisers and even activists; they must question themselves and equip lay people to question them too. And finally, they must not step aside from the consequences of their work.

    These ideas underpinned Pugwash, the oddly-named and opaque international organisation of scientists working for peace and disarmament of which Rotblat, from his home and from small offices next to the British Museum in London, was the undoubted dynamo. Pugwash staged conferences worldwide and published books and papers which serve as the bedrock of the disarmament case. It has also had a diplomatic role, creating channels of communication where there were none and keeping them open when international tensions closed all others. The full story of its role in 20th-century history has yet to be written.

    Needless to say, these activities often made him unpopular among governments of both west and east, but he was strong enough to withstand that. Nor did he seek public acclaim, and it took the Nobel award, in the year of the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, to make his name known outside the professional circles of disarmament and science.

    Among those who knew him there was embarrassment that a figure of such glowing distinction should have had to wait until 1998 to receive a British knighthood when on scientific merit alone he was surely entitled to the honour decades earlier. It is tempting to put all the blame on the political establishment, but then it was not until 1995 that the Royal Society in London, the academy of British science, elected him a fellow, a sad and strange delay.

    So far as I know he was graceful about these things, as about much else. He had other things on his mind. What we who listened to him at the ICA that evening two years ago will remember is not a grandee or a museum piece, but a man of conviction, practicality, charm and great humanity, whose death leaves the world poorer and the cause of peace weaker.

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