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Anti-Nuclear Scientists Win Nobel for Peace

October 14, 1995|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — In the New Mexican desert during World War II, young Polish physicist Joseph Rotblat worked on the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bomb. Ever since, he has campaigned tirelessly and often controversially to keep the genie of mass destruction from escaping again.

On Friday, Rotblat and the loose association of maverick scientists he heads divided the million-dollar 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee saluted the 86-year-old Rotblat, a British subject since 1946, and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs for their efforts "to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and in the longer run to eliminate such arms."

Francis Sejersted, chairman of the prize committee, also condemned France and China for continuing to test nuclear weapons.

"One of the reasons for the prize is a sort of protest against testing of nuclear weapons and nuclear arms in general," Sejersted told reporters in Oslo.

Said the silver-haired Rotblat, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of London: "I hope the recognition will help other scientists to recognize their social responsibility."

Born in Warsaw in 1908, Rotblat was in Britain on a one-year research project when the German army invaded Poland in 1940. He never saw his wife again; she died in the Holocaust.

He worked with other scientists at Los Alamos, N.M., to develop the atomic bomb but quit the project late in the war, believing that defeat-bound Germany had scrapped its own atomic plans.

"I felt there was no need to make a bomb. The only reason I started in 1939 was to stop Hitler using it against us," Rotblat told reporters here Friday, saying he was "devastated" when the United States dropped bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. "The whole idea of making the bomb by us was that it should not be used."

For nearly 20 years after becoming the only scientist to walk away from the Manhattan Project, Rotblat was barred from entering the United States, Adam Rotfeld, director of a Swedish peace research institute, told reporters in Stockholm on Friday.

Rotblat became one of the earliest, most outspoken and most dogged supporters of nuclear disarmament. In 1955, he was one of 11 prominent signatories of a joint manifesto--initiated by British scientist-philosopher Bertrand Russell and U.S. physicist Albert Einstein--urging scientists to help abolish wars and the means of mass destruction.

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The Pugwash conferences that Rotblat now heads emerged from the manifesto, which declares that science, by its nature, knows no national boundaries.

"I see this honor not for me personally but rather for the small group of scientists who have been working for 40 years to try to save the world, often against the world's wish," Rotblat told reporters here.

The first conference, in 1957, drew 22 scientists: from the United States, Britain and France on one side of the Cold War divide and from the Soviet Union, China and Poland on the other.

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Delegates from Communist countries attended with the support of their governments; Western scientists sometimes went against their governments' wishes. U.S. scientists risked censure for meeting and sharing expert views with Russian counterparts.

"Americans may have seen the Pugwash scientists as misguided liberals for daring to talk to Soviets and Cubans, but the concept was much better accepted in Europe than in the United States. This is a fairly exclusive club of competent and savvy guys," said Bob Kroon, a journalist who has written about Pugwash over the years from Geneva.

By their very nature, Pugwash conferences, named after the Nova Scotia fishing village where the first was held, offered a Cold War meeting ground for scientists from countries that were not officially on speaking terms.

Sponsored initially by eccentric Cleveland millionaire Cyrus Eaton, who was born in Pugwash, the conferees eschewed publicity at the start--and ever since.

But the gatherings were valuable from the outset, said Rotblat, the last survivor among the manifesto signers and head of a Pugwash network that now maintains a small secretariat in Geneva.

"The first conference proved that scientists have a common purpose which can transcend national frontiers without violating basic loyalties," Rotblat once wrote.

Scientists are invited as individuals, never as representatives of governments or institutions, to Pugwash conferences now held annually around the world.

Ideas exchanged in informal surroundings by some of the world's keenest scientific minds have regularly borne fruit. Over the years, many disarmament issues that would later become mainstream governmental concerns were first aired at Pugwash.

Methods of effectively monitoring arms control agreements, in particular, emerged from the conferences.

At a Pugwash session in the 1960s, a joint U.S.-Soviet proposal on seismic monitoring facilitated negotiations to ban some nuclear tests.

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