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Joseph Rotblat KCMG CBE FRS

ID badge photo from Los Alamos National Laboratory, 1944.
Born 4 November 1908(1908-11-04)
Warsaw, Russian Empire Russian Empire, now Poland,
Died 31 August 2005 (aged 96)
London, United Kingdom Great Britain,
Residence Poland until 1938, United Kingdom afterwards
Nationality Polish, British
Fields Physics
Institutions Radiological Laboratory of Scientific Society of Warsaw 1933-1937
Free University of Poland 1937-1939
University of Liverpool, 1939-1949
St Bartholomew's Hospital, London 1949-1976
Alma mater Free University of Poland
University of Warsaw
University of Liverpool.
Known for Medical physics; campaigner for the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
Notable awards Albert Einstein Peace Prize 1992; Nobel Peace Prize 1995.

Sir Joseph Rotblat, KCMG, CBE, FRS, (born Józef Rotblat on 4 November 1908, died 31 August 2005) was a Polish-born and British-naturalised physicist.

His work on nuclear fallout was a major contribution to the agreement of the Partial Test Ban Treaty. A signatory of the Russell-Einstein manifesto, he was secretary general of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs from its founding until 1973. In conjunction with the Pugwash Conferences, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for their efforts towards nuclear disarmament.


Early life

Joseph Rotblat was born to a Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland on November 4 1908 one of seven children (two not surviving child birth). His father Zygmunt built up and ran a nationwide horse drawn carriage business, owned land and bred horses. His early years were spent in what was a prosperous household but circumstances changed at the outbreak of the First World War. Borders were closed and horses requisitioned leading to the failure of the business and poverty.

After the end of the War he worked as a domestic electrician in Warsaw and had a growing ambition to become a physicist. Without formal education he won a place in the physics department of the Free University of Poland gaining an MA in 1932 and Doctor of Physics, University of Warsaw, 1938. He held the position of Research Fellow in the Radiation Laboratory of the Scientific Society of Warsaw and became assistant Director of the Atomic Physics Institute of the Free University of Poland in 1937. During this period he married a literature student, Tola Gryn, whom he had met in 1930.

Before the outbreak of World War II, he had conducted experiments which showed that in the fission process neutrons were emitted. In early 1939 he envisaged that a large number of fissions could occur and if this happened within a sufficiently short period of time then considerable amounts of energy could be released. He went on to calculate that this process could occur in less than a microsecond and as a consequence would result in an explosion.

Also in 1939, he was invited to study in Paris (through Polish connections with Marie Curie) and under James Chadwick at Liverpool University, winner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the neutron. Chadwick was building a particle accelerator called a ‘cyclotron’ to study fundamental nuclear reactions and as he wanted to build a similar machine in Warsaw he decided to join Chadwick in Liverpool. But he travelled to England alone because he could not afford to support his wife there.

Before long, Chadwick gave Rotblat a fellowship (the Oliver Lodge Fellowship), doubling his income, and in that summer of 1939 the young Pole returned home meaning to bring Tola Gryn back with him. When the time came to leave Warsaw in late August, however, she was ill and remained behind, expecting to follow within days, and so once again the outbreak of war brought calamity. Tola was trapped, and all Joseph's desperate efforts in the ensuing months to bring her out through Belgium, Denmark or Italy came to nothing, as each country in turn was closed off by the war. She later perished in the Holocaust and Rotblat never saw her again. He never remarried.

The Manhattan Project

While still in Poland, Rotblat had realised that his work could be used to produce a bomb. He first thought that he should "put the whole thing out of my mind",[1] but with the rise of Nazi Germany he continued because he thought the only way to prevent Nazi Germany from using a nuclear bomb was if Britain had one to act as a deterrent. After the start of the war, he starting working explicitly with Chadwick on bomb work.[1]

Early in 1944 Rotblat went with James Chadwick's group to work on the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bombs. The usual condition for people to work on the Manhattan Project was that they had to become U.S. citizens or British subjects. Rotblat declined and the condition was waived.[2] He continued to have strong reservations about the use of science to develop such a devastating weapon and was shocked in March 1944, at a private dinner at the Chadwick's, to hear Leslie Groves say "Of course, the real purpose in making the bomb was to subdue the Soviets".[1] By the end of 1944 it was also apparent that Germany had abandoned the development of its own bomb and Rotblat asked to leave the project. Chadwick was then shown a security dossier in which Rotblat was accused of being a Soviet spy and that, having learnt to fly at Los Alamos, he was suspected of wanting to join the Royal Air Force so that he could fly to Poland and defect to the Soviet Union.[3][4] In addition, he was accused of visiting someone in Santa Fe and leaving them a blank cheque to finance the formation of a communist cell.[1]

In fact, Rotblat was able to show that much of the information within the dossier had been fabricated.[1] In addition, FBI records show that in 1950, Rotblat's friend in Santa Fe was tracked down in California, and she flatly denied the story: in fact, the cheque had never been cashed and had been left to pay for items not available in the U.K. during the war. Despite this, Rotblat was not permitted to re-enter the United States until 1964.[1] In addition, on departure from New York, his research notes and correspondence disappeared.[3][4] Rotblat was the only physicist to leave the Manhattan Project on the grounds of conscience,[5] though others later refused to work on atomic bombs after the defeat of Japan.

Work on nuclear fall-out

Rotblat returned to Britain to become senior lecturer and acting director of research of nuclear physics at the University of Liverpool. He decided not to return to communist Poland and naturalised as a British subject[6] and was joined by his mother, sister, and one of his brothers.[7] He felt betrayed by the use of atomic weapons against Japan, and campaigned for a three year moratorium of all atomic research.[1] Rotblat was determined that his research should have only peaceful ends, and so became interested in the medical and biological uses of radiation. In 1949 he became Professor of Physics at St Bartholomew's Hospital ("Barts"), London,[8] shortly before receiving his PhD from Liverpool in 1950. He also worked on several official bodies connected with nuclear physics, and arranged a major travelling exhibition for schools on civil nuclear energy, the Atom Train.

At St Bartholomew's Rotblat worked on the effects of radiation on living organisms, especially on aging and fertility. This led him to an interest in nuclear fallout, especially Strontium 90 and the safe limits of ionising radiation.[4] In 1955, he demonstrated that the contamination caused by the fall-out after the Castle Bravo test at Bikini Atoll nuclear test by the United States would have been far greater than that stated officially. Until then the official line had been that the growth in the strength of atomic bombs was not accompanied by an equivalent growth in radiation released. Japanese scientists who had collected data from a fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon, which had inadvertently been exposed to fall-out, disagreed with this. Rotblat was able to deduce that the bomb had three stages and showed that the fission phase at the end of the explosion increased the amount of radioactivity by a thousand-fold. Rotblat's paper was taken up by the media and contributed to the public debate that resulted in the ending of atmospheric tests by the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

Peace work

Rotblat believed that scientists should always be concerned with the ethical consequences of their work. He became one of the most prominent critics of the nuclear arms race, was the youngest signatory of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955, and chaired the press conference that launched it. After the positive coverage of the manifesto, Cyrus Eaton offered to fund the influential Pugwash Conferences. With Bertrand Russell and others he organised the first one of these in 1957 and continued to work within their framework until his death. Despite the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, he advocated establishing links between scientists from the West and East. For this reason the Pugwash conferences were viewed with suspicion. Initially, the British government viewed the conferences as little more than “Communist front gatherings”.[9] However, he persuaded J.D. Cockcroft, a member of Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority, to suggest who might be invited to the 1958 conference. He successfully resisted a subsequent attempt to take over the conferences,[9] causing a Foreign Office official to write that “the difficulty is to get Prof. Rotblat to pay any attention to what we think... He is no doubt jealous of his independence and scientific integrity” and that securing “a new organizer for the British delegation seems to be the first need, but I do not know if there is any hope of this". By the early 1960's the Ministry of Defence thought the Pugwash Conferences were “now a very respectable organization” and the Foreign Office stated that it had "official blessing" and that any breakthrough may well originate at such gatherings.[9] In parallel with the Pugwash Conferences, Rotblat also joined with Einstein, Oppenheimer, Russell and other concerned scientists to found the World Academy of Art and Science which was proposed by them in the mid-1950s and formally constituted in 1960. After the breakthrough of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, Rotblat was made a CBE in 1965.

Later life

Rotblat retired from St Bartholemew's in 1976. He believed that scientists have an individual moral responsibility, and just as the Hippocratic Oath provides a code of conduct for physicians, he thought that scientists should have their own code of moral conduct, a Hippocratic Oath for Scientists. During his tenure as president of the Pugwash conferences, Rotblat nominated Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu for the Nobel Peace Prize every year from 1988 to 2004. Vanunu had disclosed the extent of Israel's nuclear weapons programme, and consequently spent 18 years in prison, including more than 11 years in solitary confinement.

Rotblat campaigned ceaselessly against nuclear weapons. In an interview shortly before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, he expressed his belief that the Russell-Einstein Manifesto still had "great relevance today, after 50 years, particularly in connection with the election of a president in the United States", and above all, with respect to the potential pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons.[10][11] Central to his view of the world were the words of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto with which he concluded his acceptance lecture for the Nobel prize in 1995:[12] "Above all, remember your humanity".

Rotblat won the Albert Einstein Peace Prize in 1992 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1995. He was knighted a KCMG in 1998. He served as editor-in-chief of the journal Physics in Medicine and Biology, and was the president of several institutions and professional associations. He was also a co-founder and member of the governing board of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, as well as a member of the Advisory Committee on Medical Research of the World Health Organization.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Irwin Abrhams [1]
  2. ^ [2] Obituary, The Daily Telegraph], 2 September 2005
  3. ^ a b Alan Salmon, Insight, p.15, University of Liverpool (2006)
  4. ^ a b c Obituary, The Times, 2 September, 2005
  5. ^ Obituary, The Guardian, 2 September, 2005
  6. ^ [3]Nobel Prize Curriculum Vitae
  7. ^ [4]Peace pledge biography
  8. ^ "Queen Mary, University of London Notable Alumni and Staffuck". Retrieved 2007-09-23.  
  9. ^ a b c [5]The Political Rehabilitation of Joseph Rotblat, Lawrence S. Wittner, George Mason's University History News Network (2005)
  10. ^ Interview with (2004)
  11. ^ [6] New Year message 2005
  12. ^ Nobel Prize lecture

External links

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