In Praise of Those Who Would Not Build the Bomb

By Mel Watkins | 2011-10-01 12:00:00

If no one, no physicist, no chemist, no scientist, had been willing to work on the Bomb, it could never have been built. That is self-evident. It may also seem naive, utopian, absurd to so argue. And, in fact, the overwhelming majority of scientists did choose to create the Bomb.

Most said “yes” because they feared that Nazis Germany would build the Bomb, with terrifying consequences, and must be deterred from using it. Nevertheless, a few, albeit a very few, did say “no” from the outset. Since Germany never built the Bomb—and it was used against Japan, which was never suspected of building it—we now know they were right.

Like the pacifists, these abstainers are the beautiful people, the secular saints of our times. They can be seen as having, even if only intuitively, rare and precious foresight as to the consequences of building the Bomb.

Yet they are left out of the histories of nuclear weapons or quickly passed over. They are on the losing side of history—so far, until the history of the abolition of nuclear weapons can be written.

Here are our heroes and heroines.

Max Born

A German Jew, though sufficiently irreligious that he converted to Christianity to satisfy his in-laws—but in Hitler’s Germany a Jew was a Jew. A Nobel Prize-winning physicist who coined the term “quantum physics.” A contemporary and intimate of Einstein who tutored many who were soon to be famous, including both Oppenheimer and Teller. An unyielding opponent of Hitler: “I regarded the Nazi regime as the greatest evil that had ever befallen the human race. I wished for its destruction with all my heart, and it was obvious that only crude power could bring it down.”

But Born insisted that there were limits on how this could be done: “The idea of breaking Hitler by killing ordinary people, women, and children, and by destroying their homes seemed to me absurd and detestable.” No scientist should be involved in such activity. Born had always believed that a real scientist could not—would not—do “base deeds,” and he saw aerial bombing as barbaric.

Born was one of the first German scientists to flee Hitler. He sought exile at Edinburgh University in 1933 and refused efforts to recruit him to work on the British project for the Bomb, which was later to feed into the Manhattan Project. “I was opposed to taking part in war work of this character that seemed so horrible.”

Born did not believe, however, that constraints could be imposed on science in its pursuit of knowledge. “How could Lise Meitner who discovered U-235 and its fission by neutrons foresee that this could be developed into the most destructive explosive?” Yet both Born and (as we shall shortly see) Lise Meitner refused to work on the making of the Bomb. If all scientists were like Born and Meitner there would, of course, be no problem, since the Bomb could not be built.

At Edinburgh Born attracted physicists to work with him, including the infamous Klaus Fuchs, the German-born spy who leaked the secrets of the Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union that helped it build its Bomb. When Fuchs was asked to join the British nuclear team, which was later folded into the Manhattan Project, Born counseled him not to do so, but to follow his example.

Born knew that Fuchs hated Hitler and assumed that was why he rejected his advice. Born did know that Fuchs was a Communist, but did not know that he was a spy. The Einstein biographer Ronald Clark notes, in tribute to Born, that “Had his [Born’s] attitude convinced his colleague, postwar history might have been different.”

After the war, Born was so repelled by the bombings that he tried to promote a code of ethics for scientists analogous to that of physicians. The secretary of the British Royal Society told him that the society dealt with “improving natural knowledge,” not “morals and ethics.”

In 1955 Born was one of the eleven signatories of the Einstein-Russell Manifesto against the Bomb.

He never despaired. In August 1945, in the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he wrote to his son: “If man is so constructed that his curiosity leads to self-destruction there is no hope for him. But I am not convinced he is so constructed, for besides his brain he has his heart. Love is a power just as strong as the atom.”

Helen Smith

Smith attended the University of Edinburgh and studied physics under Born. In his biography Born pays special tribute to her: “About the time of her graduation the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese cities became known. As a result of this she decided that she would never have anything to do with physics, began to study law … and is now a flourishing lawyer in Aberdeen.”

“I wish,” adds Born, “scientists would take her as an example of conscientious behavior and refuse all work connected with mass destruction.”

Smith was one of only two Scottish students who worked with Born all the while he was in Edinburgh. Both, he tells us, “deserted” physics; he does not name the other. [If any reader knows who s/he was, please let me know.]

Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner was a physicist of the first rank, being part of a team that discovered nuclear fission and the chain reaction that made the Bomb possible.

She was a female physicist at a time when science was a man’s world. Such was her competence and persistence that she was, it is thought, the first woman to be named a professor in Germany.

Still, being a woman cost her a Nobel Prize that she much deserved to share with her male colleagues. She was rewarded by being named “Woman of the Year” by the Women’s National Press Club when she visited the United States in 1946; in Meitner’s own wry words, she became a celebrity because she had “left Germany with the bomb in her purse.”

Her genuine fame as a scientist opened doors for women who wanted to be scientists. In 1994 an international panel of her peers paid her the high honor of naming Element 109—the heaviest known element in the universe—Meitnerium.

Best of all, she refused to join in building the Bomb.

Born in Austria, she got her doctorate in physics at the University of Vienna (the second woman to do so), migrated to Berlin to work, and was befriended by Einstein and Max Planck. Being Jewish, though baptized a Protestant, she was forced to flee Hitler’s Germany for Sweden. There she continued to face prejudice against women in science.

In World War I, with expertise in radiation, she served with the German forces as an X-ray technician. She witnessed the terrible toll on human life and saw those on both sides as equally human. Later she wrote to a friend that she got “an inner fright” when “people forget completely about other human beings” and view their deaths “more with a feeling of success than sorrow.”

In World War II, asked to join the group of British physicists going to the Manhattan Project, she refused. “Her refusal,” writes her biographer Ruth Lewin Sime, “rose from a deep revulsion: ‘I will have nothing to do with a bomb.’”

She seems never to have regretted that decision. For her, science was not a career but a calling, an intellectual endeavor, a way of serving humanity.

Born was right that Meitner could not foresee what her work would yield, but some believe that it was easier for her to accept not getting the Nobel Prize because of her mixed feelings about being linked in any way with the Bomb’s creation.

Meitner died in 1968, just days short of her 90th birthday. The inscription on her headstone reads: “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.”

Sime adds in her splendid biography: “It is exactly the way she would have wanted to be remembered.”

Franco Rasetti

An Italian physicist, Rasetti was a member of a team around the great Enrico Fermi. They discovered and patented a key process in nuclear reaction that turned out to be pivotal for the Manhattan Project. When Rasetti died in 2001 at the age of 100 he was the last patent holder.

In 1939 Fermi and his team fled Mussolini’s fascism, came to the United States, and in 1941 gravitated to the Manhattan Project—except for Rasetti, who came to Quebec City’s Laval University (which did not even have a physics department). He told his former colleagues that he objected to using nuclear research for warfare. He wrote of his decision: “Discovering the secrets of nature is among the most fascinating things that one can do, but I must say the most fascinating is also the most perilous. Men have to ask themselves about their motivations in their hearts. And scientists don’t do that very often.”

A graduate student of Rasetti’s at Laval, Larkin Kerwin, who went on to become the head of the National Research Council of Canada, wrote of his teacher: “He was not a pacifist in the usual sense of the word. He simply considered war to be stupid and did not wish to be involved with stupid things.”

After the war, Rasetti left Laval and Canada for Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, he became an expert in trilobites, or fossilized crustaceans—his collection went to the Smithsonian Institute—and on the wild flowers of the Alps, which he famously photographed.

Franco Rasetti had a rare eye for the very old, the very beautiful, and the deeply moral.

Leon Katz

Katz came as a child of two to Canada from Poland in 1912, attended Queen’s University, and got a PhD in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1942.

He did war work for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, improving the accuracy of the U.S. Navy’s large guns. But he refused an offer to work on the development of the Bomb. And he thought it should never have been dropped on Japan.

A life-long socialist, after the war he came to the University of Saskatchewan and became a friend of Tommy Douglas. He authored more than fifty scientific papers, received many honors, and lived to be 94.

Leon Katz deserves to be remembered for what he did and, yet more, for what he could have done but didn’t.

Mel Watkins is a political scientist, economist, and former president of Science for Peace. If any reader knows of others who refused to build the Bomb, please let Mel know at

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2011

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2011, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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