A scientist takes inspiration from a new film about the Manhattan Project’s most famous dissenter
Nowadays, the phrase “Cold War” sounds old-fashioned. Its visible legacy is the scattered remnants of a wall; its less-visible legacy is the nuclear weapon. A film is circulating now1 that depicts the life of the late physicist Joseph Rotblat, the quintessential nuclear activist. Seeing it will motivate current scientists to take up his cause.
The film’s title, The Strangest Dream, is an allusion to the seemingly unreal sequence of events in Rotblat’s life. He was the only scientist to leave the Manhattan project on grounds of conscience, before it built the first atom bomb and before recognition widened as to its disastrous impact. But he led an exceptionally colourful life, to which we all may owe our own. Indeed, he spearheaded a movement exposing the impact of nuclear weapons.
During World War II, scientists united in an effort to stop the Nazi advance. Like a team of super-heroes summoned together to fight a powerful evil, the greatest available minds were assembled at Los Alamos, New Mexico to design, build, and test an atom bomb. These included James Chadwick’s Liverpool group, of which Joseph Rotblat was a member. Work was quick, with heavy pressure and almost unlimited resources. As the project came to fruition, Germany had been defeated but, hoping to avoid an invasion of Japan, the leaders were counting on the project at Los Alamos.
By then, however, Joseph was no longer with the project. He had been troubled by hearing the project’s head, General Leslie Groves, state that the bomb’s real target would be the Soviets. He left the project, returned to England, and put his knowledge to medical use by developing the first use of isotopic tracers in humans. He also conducted some of the first research on the effects of radiation on aging and fertility. His research kept him conscious of the shadow of the destructive past he had quit.
The world was a different place after the Manhattan Project. Rotblat had a keen intuition about the consequences of this new weaponry. In 1955, after a hydrogen bomb test by the United States at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, there was news of a nearby fishing boat that the blast had affected. Rotblat traveled to Japan, where he received samples and collected information. Back in England he calculated the power of the blast based on that information and discovered that it must have released radioactivity a thousand-fold larger than the project scientists had disclosed. Despite his awareness that this news would strain UK-US relations, he went public with his results, creating a surge of public and scientific interest that eventually uncovered the global effects of the test’s fallout. The media reported, and the public began to understand, that nuclear bombs were beyond the conventional conception of war.
Politically, it became clear that the US had a stranglehold on the world. Other nations, powerful in every other respect, felt weak. Inevitably, the Soviets would develop the technology and the world would reach a more precarious balance, but humankind would be no safer and Rotblat knew it.
Joseph knew that his scientific research on the dangers of the bombs would not prevent their use, so he, along with philosopher Bertrand Russell, collected signatures of other eminent scientists for a declaration against nuclear arms. It received the signature of Albert Einstein one day before his death.
Next Rotblat and Russell assembled a small group of eminent scientists from key Eastern and the Western countries to discuss nuclear dangers. Official diplomatic channels at the time were stagnant with propaganda and posturing, so these scientific-political meetings served as some of the few earnest diplomatic relations that existed. This group, Pugwash, had direct contact with top officials in the relevant governments. Its members communicated and facilitated relations between the Eastern and Western diplomats who otherwise had their teeth clenched. A major breakthrough came with the 1963 partial test ban treaty, a diplomatic success whose very possibility came from the tireless work of the group and whose ratification, once proposed, took only a few weeks to sign, thanks to all their ground work.
Remarkably, Rotblat continued to influence world nuclear affairs into old age, using his Polish charm and sincerity to spread the message. The arguments are piercingly simple. For example, he simplified the logic of an anti-pacifist military dictum while turning it on its head: “If you want peace, prepare for peace.” In 1995, at age 87, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with his organization, Pugwash, for his disarmament and peace efforts. This brought added attention to his cause—of which, of course, he took full advantage, spending the last 12 years of his life traveling, delivering speeches, and continuing to inspire.
With the increasing unreliability of our aging high-alert nuclear response systems, one can imagine that the danger is now more present than ever. Obama and Medvedev are each followed by a man with a suitcase, ready to deploy the over 500 “High-Alert” nuclear missiles. Their shafts are actually kept warm to facilitate immediate launch within 15 minutes of a perceived attack—a fact that should silence anyone claiming that this issue has cooled off.
Though the danger persists, the numbers of nuclear weapons has been reduced. Movements such as the organization Global Zero have some political sway, as demonstrated by the signing of new treaty by Obama and Medvedev. However, the seemingly large percentage reduction in arms hides their large remaining numbers. Moreover, the size of the current reduction is actually less than called for in previous acts (Reagan and Gorbachev called for a fifty percent reduction when the absolute numbers of arms were actually higher). It is important to maintain pressure on politicians to reduce the numbers. Indeed, much work needs to be done to secure our safety from disaster.
Looking back at Rotblat’s life, how does one square the amazing anti-nuclear achievements of this single person with the apocalyptic potential of the science to which he dedicated himself? It comes down to responsibility. Science is not inherently dangerous. It is up to the scientist to act in good faith, to take responsibility for the impacts of his or her research. With their high influence today, professional scientists can carry forward the disarmament torch. Rotblat has taught us that, if scientists desire peace, they must prepare for it.
Maximilian Puelma Touzel is a graduate student at the Max Planck Institute, Göttingen, Germany.
1 “The Strangest Dream” brings Joseph Rotblat to life through beautiful footage and poignant interviews. It was funded by the National Film Board of Canada. See their website (http://www.nfb.ca) for more information or to view the film online.