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".

News
people Biographer says cinema’s enduring sex symbol led a secret troubled life
News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

News
In 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a 'dwarf planet'
scienceBut will it be reinstated?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
News
Researchers say a diet of fatty foods could impede smell abilities
scienceMeasuring the sense may predict a person's lifespan
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Life and Style
fashionThe Secret Angels all take home huge sums - but who earns the most?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
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

DT Teacher - Resistant Materials

£33000 - £34000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: Technology Teacher (Resis...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission, 1st yr OTE £30-£40k : SThree:...

Middleware Support Analyst

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Senior Java Developer/Designer

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: My client are looking fo...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?