Rotblat J. The Atom Bomb, Einstein and me
Albert Einstein was Joseph Rotblat's hero - and the great man's last act was to endorse the young physicist's anti-nuclear campaign
Interview by Simon Rogers Thursday January 20, 2005
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He is the greatest scientist that ever existed in the world. However, I became involved with Einstein not as a scientist, but as a pacifist. He inspired me very much, as a young physicist in Liverpool before the war. Einstein had transformed all our ideas about time and space. We knew many laws of nature but here comes a scientist who taught us these were only approximations and under certain conditions they are not valid. Many of the things we took for granted were overturned. It was such a tremendous revolution.
I had started to work on the atom bomb in November 1939 at Liverpool University. I do not believe that making WMD is in the remit of scientists - however, I was afraid that if we in England had thought of the idea, German scientists would too. My rationale, which maybe turned out to be flawed, was that the only way we could prevent this happening was if we also had the bomb and threatened with retaliation. My intention was that it should not be used.
Making the bomb was much more complicated than we had thought. It required the separation of isotopes which was something beyond our means in the UK during wartime. After Pearl Harbor, America began the Manhattan project. Between Churchill and Roosevelt, it was decided that British scientists would join the project. So I went to Los Alamos.
It was a paradise for scientists. In Los Alamos, whatever you wanted, you got. If I needed something, from a bicycle to a cyclotron, I only had to write out a chit. I met many of the big names of science. Niels Bohr was already a hero for me. Dick Feynman was there and very young: 23, and I could see straight away he was a genius.
In 1944, when I learned the Germans had given up the project, the whole rationale for my being there disappeared. I said I wanted to resign. I was accused of being a Soviet spy.
I was eventually allowed to go on condition that I must not contact my colleagues. So, I became the only scientist to leave the Manhattan Project and returned to Liverpool with no idea about its progress until I heard about Hiroshima on the BBC on August 6 1945.
In Los Alamos, we were not quite sure if the whole thing would work - the atom bomb, after all, was based purely on calculations. I had some faint hope it would be a fizzle. And then, if it did work, that it would not be used against civilians but then it was used against them immediately. This was a terrible shock to me and I knew that a weapon 1,000 times more powerful was possible.
I decided I should devote a great deal of my time to prevent another such catastrophe and began to go around and talk to scientists in Britain about the dreadful effects of the atom bomb.
I came to think of Einstein more. I read about his involvement in the same ideas - he declared himself a pacifist. The emergency committee in the US, of which he was chairman, became very involved in the same activities as we did here, so I made an arrangement to go to America and meet him, but was refused a visa because of what happened in Los Alamos.
I met Bertrand Russell and became an information source for him. There was the idea that high-level scientists should issue a manifesto to the world to draw attention to the dangers of a nuclear war. Russell wanted to get the best scientists in the field and the greatest scientist at the time was Einstein. So Russell wrote a letter.
By the time Einstein's reply reached London, he was dead. He had immediately replied, the last act of his life.
We called it the Russell-Einstein manifesto. It was signed by 11 scientists. Russell insisted they were Nobel laureates, but asked me to sign even though I was not one. He said: "You will get it, I'm sure. "Einstein's endorsement made an enormous difference his name was recognised by every person on the planet. Now I'm the only one of the signatories still alive. Because of this I feel it's my duty to go on carrying the message from Einstein.
Was our effort successful? When I received the Nobel peace prize, the committee said our efforts had contributed to preventing a nuclear war. Maybe to a tiny extent, we did.
Einstein made us think about everything - nothing is absolute, everything is relative. He was a scientist but a realist and aware of what was going on in the world. He was quite the opposite of what people think about scientists - being absent-minded and immersed in their work and naive. He was fully aware and trying to do something about it. I admire him not only as a great man of science but also as a great human being. I think if he were still alive, he would still be working on his theories. But he would be working towards peace.
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Joseph Rotblat is emeritus professor of physics at St Bartholomew's hospital medical college, London and cofounder of the Pugwash Conferences (www.pugwash.org). In 1995, he won the Nobel peace prize jointly with the Pugwash Conferences.
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Sir Joseph Rotblat died in London on August 31, 2005.