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Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience

By Andrew Robinson | Posted 10th May 2012, 12:30
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Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience: The Life and Work of Joseph Rotblat
Andrew Brown
Oxford University Press  327pp  £18.99

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To the world at large the late Joseph Rotblat is known as the Polish-born, British-based scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb and for the rest of his life campaigned for the abolition of nuclear weapons. He and the unofficial federation of European, American, Soviet and other scientists that he founded in 1957, known as Pugwash, were jointly awarded the Nobel prize for peace in 1995. Less well known is that Rotblat was a physicist who specialised in understanding the effects on living tissue of radiation and radioactive fallout and in developing nuclear medicine through his long-held professorship of physics at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.

Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience, the first major biography of Rotblat, naturally devotes more space to the first, political, role than to the second, medical, one. But since the book’s author, Andrew Brown, is a physician who practised for two decades as a radiation oncologist, he is ideally matched with his subject. The result is a thorough study of a modest, humane and public-spirited individual – based on Rotblat’s personal papers and the Pugwash archives, as well as personal interviews with Rotblat’s circle – which is both inspiring and notably objective.

War formed Rotblat. ‘As a boy Jo experienced the fear, poverty, and disruption of war, and he never forgot them’, writes Brown. Rotblat himself, interviewed at the age of 91 for the British Library Sound Archive, shied away from any discussion of his childhood in Warsaw during the First World War. By 1918, he said, his once-prosperous Jewish family was reduced to a state of ‘complete and abject penury, real hunger, disease and squalor’. For the remainder of his life he rejected potatoes because they reminded him of the bitter taste of frost-damaged tubers in his wartime diet. There was no money to complete his schooling and he was forced to work as an electrician, attending Warsaw’s Free University at night. He left Poland for Britain in 1939, just in time to avoid the Nazi invasion.

In the Second World War he worked on a meagre salary as a nuclear physicist in heavily bombed Liverpool, while his desperate family in Poland struggled to survive Hitler’s Holocaust; Rotblat’s wife was an early victim, though he did not learn her probable fate until autumn 1945. Recruited to Los Alamos in early 1944, within months he learned that the Nazi project to build an atomic bomb had failed. He therefore resigned from the Manhattan Project – the only physicist to do so on ethical grounds – and returned to Liverpool, becoming in the process the subject of strong suspicion by the FBI as a potential Soviet spy.

How important was Pugwash in the history of the Cold War? Opinions differ, as Brown discusses at length. Yet it is widely accepted by key politicians and leaders of the time, in both the West and the former Soviet Union, especially by Mikhail Gorbachev, that Pugwash played a significant backstage role in the unofficial negotiations leading to the signature of important arms limitation treaties, such as the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and in the Gorbachev-Reagan negotiations of the 1980s.
When Rotblat died in 2005, at the age of 96, the physicist John Holdren paid tribute to him as ‘one of a kind: brilliant, eloquent, tireless, demanding, impatient, completely committed to the pursuit of a saner, safer world for all of its inhabitants.’ Holdren was chair of the executive committee of Pugwash from 1987-97. In 2009 he was appointed scientific adviser to President Barack Obama.

Andrew Robinson is the editor of The Great Scientists, to be published by Thames & Hudson in the autumn.


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