The man who disowned his brainchild

Nobel Peace Prize: Britain's 86-year-old winner says that he 'started work on the atomic bomb so that it should not be used'
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The Independent Online
TOM WILKIE

and STEVE CONNOR

His hair is white and his shoulders slightly stooped with the burden of his 86 years, but his mind, which helped design the first atomic bomb and then revolted against his creation, is as sharp and acute as ever.

Professor Joseph Rotblat, winner of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize, wears an unfashionable brown suit. He lives in an unfashionable suburb of north London, and he has devoted his adult life to an unfashionable cause.

He conducts himself like an elderly academic, with the gentility belonging to an earlier age. But there is an inner steel and a moral integrity that few can rival. He was the world's first anti-nuclear protester, for he walked out on the wartime American Atomic Bomb project before the weapon was complete but when he, and the other atomic scientists knew that Hitler's Germany could never possess nuclear weapons.

Quietly spoken, with a voice which still bears traces of his native Poland, he said yesterday: "I started work on the atomic bomb precisely so that it should not be used. I was afraid that if German scientists got the bomb, Hitler would use it." The Allies had to have the bomb to deter the Nazis from using one, in his view.

But "I did not expect that it would be used, without warning, and against a civilian population. I felt terrible when it was used. Devastated. But I felt angry rather than guilty. The other emotions were worry and fear for the future of our civilisation."

"I knew already in August 1945 that a bomb a thousand times more powerful - a hydrogen bomb - was possible. I knew also that the Soviet Union would use every possible means to develop its own weapon. We foresaw the arms race."

Born in Warsaw in on 4 November 1908, he was one of Poland's brightest young physicists, who moved to Britain for a one-year research project just before Hitler invaded his motherland. He never saw his wife again. She was among the millions who were killed in the Holocaust.

He first realised the potential power of nuclear fission while working for the Radiological Laboratory in Warsaw and during his subsequent research at Liverpool University in 1939. He wrote in 1985: ''My first reflex was to put the whole thing out of my mind, like a person trying to ignore the first symptoms of a fatal disease. But the fear gnaws away all the same. My fear was that someone would put the idea into practice; the thought that I would do it did not occur.''

During the war Professor Rotblat joined the British scientists on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in New Mexico to build the nuclear bomb. He overheard a chance remark by a US general who said the bomb's real purpose was to subdue the Soviet Union, rather than Germany, and decided to quit the project before it was finished.

The intelligence chief at Los Alamos accused him of being a spy. Rotblat persuaded his superiors this was untrue, but had to agree not to talk to anyone about his real reason for leaving. The official reason given for his departure from the Manhattan Project was that he wanted to return to Europe to search for his missing wife. He was forbidden to contact his former colleagues and was barred from the US until 1964.

Hiroshima changed his scientific life and convinced him that scientists had to take responsibility for the consequences of their endeavours. He abandoned nuclear science for medical physics. He settled in Britain, becoming a UK citizen in 1946, and is now Emeritus Professor of Medical Physics at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. He chose this scientific discipline, because "I wanted to decide for myself how my work would be used.''

Rotblat was one of the distinguished scientists, along with Albert Einstein and Linus Pauling, to sign the Bertrand Russell-Einstein manifesto for peace in 1955, which stated: ''We have to learn to think in a new way... Here, then, is the problem which we present to you, stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?'' Pauling was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his campaigning against atmospheric nuclear tests.

Rotblat became a founder-member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and helped to set up the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in 1955.

Pugwash is a town in Nova Scotia, the birthplace of Cyrus Eaton, the Canadian industrialist who financed the first meeting at the height of the Cold War.

Rotblat continued his academic work on the medical effects of radiation. He once drank mildly radioactive liquid to prove that not all forms of radiation are necessarily lethal.

He won the Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation with physicist Hans Bethe in 1992.

Tributes flooded in yesterday for Professor Rotblat's prize. Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, said he has won a ''substantial reward for his concern over the consequences on nuclear radiation over the past 50 years''.

Sir Martin said that in August Rotblat gave an ''inspiring performance'' at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, arguing that it is feasible to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely. ''He believes it is feasible to go for zero.''

Maurice Wilkins, who shared the Nobel prize for the discovery of the DNA double helix, said that Rotblat and the Pugwash group had been tireless campaigners for peace and the award of the Peace Prize was long overdue.

''At a time when there was frightful Cold War confrontation, Pugwash was one of the few channels of communication between the Russians and the West.''

The Polish Foreign Ministry greeted Rotblat's award ''with great satisfaction'' not just because he helped to bring nuclear disarmament closer but because he ''is a son of Polish soil, a graduate of Warsaw University, who today still retains his ties with Poland''.

Adam Rotfeld, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said the Norwegian Nobel Committee had left it very late to give Professor Rotblat the recognition he deserves. ''I have asked myself many times why he had not been offered the prize.''

Professor Rotblat said the award was: "not for me but for the small group of scientists who have been working for 40 years, often against the world's wish to avoid the greatest tragedy that could befall us. For the first time in history it has become technically possible to extinguish the whole human species."

Campaign

launched at Pugwash

Professor Rotblat is the last surviving signatory of the manifesto against the H-bomb drafted in 1955 by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein.

Eleven scientists signed the manifesto which led to the foundation of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Professor Rotblat served as secretary general from 1957 to 1973 and has been president since 1988.

The group is named after the venue of its first meeting, the fishing village of Pugwash in Nova Scotia, Canada. Since 1955, its scientists have made avoidance of nuclear war and war in general their objective.

At the height of the Cold War, Pugwash conferences acted as a diplomatic conduit, and played a crucial role in the disarmament process.

Negotiations on a test-ban treaty in the early 1960s were helped by a joint Soviet-US proposal at a Pugwash conference for seismic monitoring as a means of verification. It has also been suggested that the Cuban missile crisis was resolved by Pugwash scientists who conveyed to Moscow the deal by which the US would remove missiles from Turkey in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba.

They are also believed to have played a crucial role in the 1980s during President Reagan's infatuation with "Star Wars".

Previous British winners of the peace prize

1903: Sir William Randal Cremer, secretary of the International Arbitration League. Formed a committee in 1870 to keep Britain neutral in Franco-German war.

1925: Sir Austen Chamberlain, Foreign Secretary and part originator of the Locarno Pact, an agreement on disarmament on conventional weapons.

1933: Sir Norman Angell, writer and member of the executive committee of the League of Nations and the National Peace Council. Author of The Great Illusion, arguing that armed aggression by an economically advanced state has no economic advantage.

1934: Arthur Henderson, former Foreign Secretary and president of the Disarmament Conference in 1932. A Wesleyan lay preacher and distinguished internationalist.

1937: Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, writer and founder of the International Peace Campaign. Organised a peace ballot which became a massive demonstration of deep-rooted public feeling for peace which tried to save the League of Nations.

1949: Lord Boyd Orr of Brechin, nutritionist, president of the National Peace Council and World Union of Peace Organisations.

1959: Philip Noel-Baker, Labour MP and lifelong campaigner for peace. Tried to end the private trade in arms and went on to write a major book on the arms race.

1976: Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, founders of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement, later renamed the Community of Peace People. Subsequent disagreements over what was to be done with the prize money led to widespread disillusion within the peace movement.

1977: Amnesty International, based in London, for its work on highlighting prisoners of conscience throughout the world.

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