Rotblat, Joseph

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The physicist Sir Joseph Rotblat (b. 1908), born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 4, was a member of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb in the United States. In November 1944, when it became clear that Nazi Germany would not be able to develop a bomb and affect the outcome of World War II, he became the only scientist working on the weapon who resigned prior to its being used against Japan. This principled stand, that the benefits of nuclear power should only be used for peaceful purposes, has been a hallmark of Rotblat's career and was instrumental in his sharing the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize with the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, the organization he helped found in 1957 to work for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

After earning his doctorate in physics from the University of Warsaw in 1937, Rotblat moved to the United Kingdom in 1939 where he worked with James Chadwick at the University of Liverpool on the feasibility of atomic fission.. Having lost his family in his native Warsaw when the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Rotblat soon moved with other émigré scientists to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to contribute to the Manhattan Project. Following his resignation from the project, he moved back to the United Kingdom where he took up positions as Director of Research in Nuclear Physics at the University of Liverpool (1945–1949) and then as Professor of Physics at the University of London (1950–1976), specializing in the medical applications of nuclear radiation.

From his early years working with Chadwick to his association with Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein as a signatory of the famous 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which called on scientists to work for the abolition of warfare and nuclear weapons, Rotblat has dedicated his professional and personal life to exposing the fallacy of nuclear deterrence and arguing for the immorality and illegality of nuclear weapons. Because of the role of scientists in creating first the atomic and then the hydrogen bombs, Rotblat believed scientists had both moral and professional duties to ensure that such weapons would not be used against humanity. From the first Pugwash Conferences meeting held in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, in July 1957, to the 2003 Pugwash annual conference that returned to Nova Scotia, he worked tirelessly in calling upon the global scientific community to maximize only the beneficial applications of science and technology.

In his final speech as President of Pugwash in 1997, Rotblat reiterated the principle that led to his resignation from the Manhattan Project in 1944: "Many scientists are still not willing to face reality. Many discourage or actively hamper young scientists from being concerned with the social impact of science ... Scientists have to realize that what we are doing has an impact ... on the whole destiny of humankind" (Rotblat 1997, pp. 248–249). Still active in Pugwash and in the movement to eliminate nuclear weapons in his nineties, Rotblat has been a source of inspiration for several generations of scientists around the world with his fundamental belief in the promise of science and technology to improve the human condition and eliminate war as a social institution.


SEE ALSO Atomic Bomb; Pugwash Conferences.


Hinde, Robert, and Joseph Rotblat. (2003). War No More: Eliminating Conflict in the Nuclear Age. London: Pluto Press.

Rotblat, Sir Joseph. (1967). Pugwash: A History of the Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Prague: Czechoslovak Academy Of Sciences.

Rotblat, Sir Joseph. (1972). Scientists in the Quest for Peace: A History of the Pugwash Conferences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972.

Rotblat, Sir Joseph, ed. (1998). Nuclear Weapons: The Road to Zero Boulder, CO: Westview Press.