Joseph Rotblat, Polish physicist, Died at 96

  Health care

Sir Joseph (Józef) Rotblat died on the 31st of August 2005 at the age of 96, he was a Polish physicist, a self-described “Pole with a British passport”.

Born to a Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland on the 4th of November 1908, as one of seven children (two of whom did not survive childbirth).His father, Zygmunt Rotblat, built up and ran a nationwide horse-drawn carriage business, owned land and bred horses.

Józef’s early years were spent in what was a prosperous household but circumstances changed at the outbreak of World War I. After the end of World War I, he worked as a domestic electrician in Warsaw and had a growing ambition to become a physicist.

Without formal education he won a place in the physics department of the Free University of Poland, gaining an MA in 1932 and Doctor of Physics,University of Warsaw in 1938.

He held the position of Research Fellow in the Radiation Laboratory of the Scientific Society of Warsaw and became assistant Director of the Atomic Physics Institute of the Free University of Poland in 1937.

During this period, he married a literature student, Tola Gryn, whom he had met in 1930.

Also in 1939, he was invited to study in Paris (through Polish connections with Marie Curie) and at the University of Liverpool under James Chadwick, winner of the Nobel Prize for discovering the neutron.

Chadwick was building a particle accelerator called a “cyclotron” to study fundamental nuclear reactions, and Rotblat wanted to build a similar machine in Warsaw, so he decided to join Chadwick in Liverpool. He traveled to England alone because he could not afford to support his wife there.

Early in 1944, Rotblat went with James Chadwick’s group to work on the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bombs. The usual condition for people to work on the Manhattan Project was that they had to become U.S. citizens or British subjects.

Rotblat declined and the condition was waived. He continued to have strong reservations about the use of science to develop such a devastating weapon and was shocked in March 1944, at a private dinner at the Chadwicks, to hear Leslie Groves say: “Of course, the real purpose in making the bomb was to subdue the Soviets”.

By the end of 1944 it was also apparent that Germany had abandoned the development of its own bomb and Rotblat asked to leave the project.

Chadwick was then shown a security dossier in which Rotblat was accused of being a Soviet spy and that, having learnt to fly at Los Alamos, he was suspected of wanting to join the Royal Air Force so that he could fly to Poland and defect to the Soviet Union.

Most significant was the understanding that participants attended as individuals, not as representatives of governments, though observers from such organisations as the UN or the UN’s educational scientific and cultural organisation Unesco were welcome.

Scientists from both sides of the iron curtain could talk freely and informally but could, of course, report back to their governments. A Unesco/Pugwash symposium: Scientists, The Arms Race And Disarmament (1982), mentions several instances where Pugwash discussions had clearly contributed to subsequent international agreements.

During the post-war period, Joseph Rotblat has done an enormous amount of work in the cause of peace, dialogue and disarmament through the Pugwash movement, with which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.