Quiet anti-nuclear crusader who made the world listen

The Nobel Prize ends 40 years of obscurity for Joseph Rotblat. Brian Cathcart traces his quest

LUNCH on Friday at the French Foreign Ministry must have been a sour affair. "Who is this Joseph Rotblat?" bitter diplomats will have asked each other. "And what is this Pugwash?" Just when they thought they had suffered all the slings and arrows of foreign outrage over their nuclear tests, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had hit them over the head with some obscure British pressure group.

The French would not have been alone in their bafflement. Even in Britain Joseph Rotblat was hardly well known before Friday, and the name Pugwash was only likely to raise a laugh. Yet Professor Rotblat has been campaigning for nuclear disarmament for half a century, and the Pugwash movement has been going almost 40 years.

What sort of pressure group remains so discreet for so long? What sort of pressure group calls itself Pugwash? Above all, what sort of campaigner remains unknown for decades and then wins the Nobel Prize?

Joseph Rotblat is the quintessential activist. Even at 86, his eyes gleam with a missionary light, he is hyperactive to the point of jumpiness, and he has little time for any argument that is not directly to the point. Although he had a long and successful academic career, he seems to have only one thing on his mind: nuclear disarmament.

His charm is undoubted and his manners courtly; when he speaks, his light voice still bears the accent of Poland, and he is still handsome, appearing even with his white hair to be at least 20 years younger than he is. But all the time, behind those eyes, that sharp mind is bent on its objective.

It is his extraordinary motivation and clarity of vision that keep him going even now, when the Cold War is over, towards a goal once dismissed as ludicrous but now entering the realm of possibility: a world completely free of nuclear weapons. Of all the British scientists who set out on this path in 1945 and 1946, he is almost the only one still walking it.

Flick back through the pages of his life to the winter of 1947-48 and you will find him aboard the "Atom Train" at a railway platform in some British city. The train, which Rotblat did more than anybody else to make a reality in the teeth of opposition from as high as the Cabinet, was a rolling exhibition of the nuclear world, intended to raise public awareness of the issues of the new age.

Visitors were told - sometimes by Rotblat himself - of the peaceful uses of the atom, in electricity generation and in medicine, and of its military uses as demonstrated at Hiroshima. The final exhibit ended with the question: "Which will it be?"

Flick forward to the1950s and Rotblat, giving a televised lecture on radiation, is illustrating a point by drinking a beaker of mildly radioactive liquid - an "atom cocktail", as the press put it. As a Geiger counter follows its progress downwards, he explains that his purpose is to remind the audience that radioactivity need not always be a cause of terror.

Forward again to 1980 and the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when relations between East and West are as cold as they ever were. Rotblat has organised a Pugwash Conference (the name is taken from the site of the first meeting, in Nova Scotia in 1957) at which scientists from the West and the Soviet Union talk even while their governments refuse to.

This has been his life's work: bridging the gap between scientific advance and public or political understanding. For him the pivotal moment came in 1945, when for eight months he worked as part of the British team at the US atomic bomb laboratory in Los Alamos. He was not the first scientist to see the implications of the Bomb - the Dane, Niels Bohr, among others, was ahead of him - but of those at Los Alamos he was the first to act on it.

As soon as Germany was defeated he demanded to leave, declaring that since the Allies no longer faced the threat that an enemy might develop atomic weapons (Japan did not have the capability), there was no moral justification for continuing the work. Amid some acrimony he was allowed to go.

A few months later the Bomb was dropped. Among the many things it changed was the relationship between science and the state. Here was a weapon conceived and developed by scientists which in a short time had transformed the political balance of the world. Should it have been invented? Should it have been dropped? What should happen next? It seemed that apart from soldiers and politicians, scientists were the only people who had answers.

In this atmosphere, Rotblat and others established the Atomic Scientists' Association, aiming both to inform the British public about the peaceful potential - as it was then perceived - of nuclear energy and of the true risks of atomic weapons. In the hope of preventing an arms race, they supported the idea that the nuclear industry worldwide should be placed under United Nations control.

The Cold War came and the ASA failed. Rotblat determined on a new approach, and this became Pugwash.Where the ASA had been the Atom Train, pamphlets, public meetings and popular science, Pugwash was low-key and high-level. The typical Pugwash meeting takes place in a place that is not a capital city, is closed to the press and issues a statement afterwards that is both bland and worthy. Yet its confidential reports will afterwards be circulated to presidents and prime ministers.

The conferences could not have continued through the worst of the Cold War had they not been quiet affairs. They were sometimes criticised in the West for providing Moscow with a platform for its views, yet they kept open the lines of communication on disarmament and identified possible ways forward when no other forums existed to do so. The basis for several disarmament treaties, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, is often said to have been laid at these obscure meetings.

And the work goes on. A few weeks ago, the British branch of Pugwash produced a report that summed up the organisation's style. It was written by three men: Rotblat, himself an authority on radiation biology; the late Professor Sir Rudolf Peierls, a leading physicist and Los Alamos veteran; and Sebastian Pease, former chief of the Culham fusion laboratory - men of impeccable scientific credentials whose views no one could lightly dismiss. It was dispassionate, rational and never moral in its approach. It asked "Does Britain need nuclear weapons?" and it answered, very convincingly, "No".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The two faces revealed by the ultraviolet light
newsScholars left shaken after shining ultraviolet light on 500-year-old Welsh manuscript
News
Rosamund Pike played Bond girld Miranda Frost, who died in Die Another Day (PA)
news
Arts and Entertainment
books
News
newsHow do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? With people like this
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat