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Joseph Rotblat

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Joseph Rotblat

Joseph Rotblat
Rotblat's Los Alamos badge photograph, 1944
Born Józef Rotblat
(1908-11-04)4 November 1908
Warsaw, Poland
Died 31 August 2005(2005-08-31) (aged 96)
London, United Kingdom
Residence Poland (until 1938)
United Kingdom
Nationality "Polish with a British passport"[1]
Fields Physics
Institutions Scientific Society of Warsaw
Free University of Poland
University of Liverpool
St Bartholomew's Hospital
Los Alamos National Laboratory
University of London[2]
Alma mater Free University of Poland
University of Warsaw
University of Liverpool
Thesis Determination of a number of neutrons emitted from a source (1950)
Known for Medical physics
Campaigning for nuclear disarmament[3]
Manhattan Project
Nobel Peace Prize
Hippocratic Oath for scientists[4]
Notable awards
Spouse Tola Rotblat
from the BBC programme Great Lives, 13 January 2012[6]

Sir Joseph (Józef) Rotblat KCMG CBE FRS[5] (4 November 1908 – 31 August 2005) was a Polish physicist, a self-described "Pole with a British passport".[1] Rotblat was the only physicist to leave the Manhattan Project (1942–46) on the grounds of conscience. Rotblat's work on nuclear fallout was a major contribution toward the ratification of the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. A signatory of the Russell–Einstein Manifesto (1955), he was secretary-general of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs from their founding until 1973. He shared, with the Pugwash Conferences, the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for efforts toward nuclear disarmament.[7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17]


  • Early life and education 1
  • Manhattan Project 2
  • Nuclear fallout 3
  • Peace work 4
  • Later life 5
  • Awards and honours 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Early life and education

Józef Rotblat was born to a Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland on 4 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. Borders were closed and horses requisitioned, leading to the failure of the business and poverty for their family. Despite having a religious background, he later became an agnostic.[18]

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.

Before the outbreak of World War II, he had conducted experiments which showed that in the fission process, neutrons were emitted. In early 1939 he envisaged that a large number of fissions could occur and if this happened within a sufficiently short time, then considerable amounts of energy could be released. He went on to calculate that this process could occur in less than a microsecond, and as a consequence would result in an explosion.[9][10]

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.

Before long, Chadwick gave Rotblat a fellowship (the Oliver Lodge Fellowship), doubling his income, and in that summer of 1939 the young Pole returned home, intending to bring Tola back with him. When the time came to leave Warsaw in late August, however, she was ill and remained behind, expecting to follow within days; but the outbreak of war brought calamity. Tola was trapped, and all of Joseph's desperate efforts in the ensuing months to bring her out through Belgium, Denmark or Italy came to nothing, as each country in turn was closed off by the war. She later perished in the Holocaust at Majdanek concentration camp, and Rotblat never saw her again. This affected him deeply for the rest of his life, and he never remarried.[19]

Manhattan Project

While still in Poland, Rotblat had realised that his work could be used to produce a bomb. He first thought that he should "put the whole thing out of my mind",[20] but with the rise of Nazi Germany he continued because he thought the only way to prevent Nazi Germany from using a nuclear bomb was if Britain had one to act as a deterrent. After the start of the war, he started working explicitly with Chadwick on bomb work.[20]

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.[21] 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".[20] 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.[3][22][23] In addition, he was accused of visiting someone in Santa Fe and leaving them a blank cheque to finance the formation of a communist cell.[20]

In fact, Rotblat was able to show that much of the information within the dossier had been fabricated.[20] In addition, FBI records show that in 1950, Rotblat's friend in Santa Fe was tracked down in California, and she flatly denied the story: in fact, the cheque had never been cashed and had been left to pay for items not available in the U.K. during the war. In reminiscences from 1985 Rotblat tells how a box containing "all my documents" went missing on a train ride from Washington D.C. to New York as he was leaving the country,[24] but the presence of large numbers of Rotblat's personal papers from Los Alamos now archived at the Churchill Archives Centre "is totally at odds with Rotblat's account of events".[25][26] Rotblat was not permitted to re-enter the United States until 1964.[20] He was the only physicist to leave the Manhattan Project on the grounds of conscience,[27] though others later refused to work on atomic bombs after the defeat of Japan.

Nuclear fallout

Rotblat returned to Britain to become senior lecturer and acting director of research in nuclear physics at the University of Liverpool. He decided not to return to communist Poland and naturalised as a British subject[28] and was joined by his mother, sister, and one of his brothers.[29] He felt betrayed by the use of atomic weapons against Japan, and campaigned for a three-year moratorium on all atomic research.[20] Rotblat was determined that his research should have only peaceful ends, and so became interested in the medical and biological uses of radiation. In 1949, he became Professor of Physics at St Bartholomew's Hospital ("Barts"), London,[30][31] shortly before receiving his PhD from Liverpool in 1950.[32] He also worked on several official bodies connected with nuclear physics, and arranged the Atom Train, a major travelling exhibition for schools on civil nuclear energy.

At St Bartholomew's, Rotblat worked on the effects of radiation on living organisms, especially on aging and fertility. This led him to an interest in nuclear fallout, especially strontium-90 and the safe limits of ionising radiation.[23] In 1955, he demonstrated that the contamination caused by the fallout after the Castle Bravo test at Bikini Atoll nuclear test by the United States would have been far greater than that stated officially. Until then the official line had been that the growth in the strength of atomic bombs was not accompanied by an equivalent growth in radioactivity released. Japanese scientists who had collected data from a fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon, which had inadvertently been exposed to fallout, disagreed with this. Rotblat was able to deduce that the bomb had three stages and showed that the fission phase at the end of the explosion increased the amount of radioactivity a thousandfold. Rotblat's paper was taken up by the media and contributed to the public debate that resulted in the ending of atmospheric tests by the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Peace work

Rotblat believed that scientists should always be concerned with the ethical consequences of their work.[33] He became one of the most prominent critics of the Foreign Office stated that it had "official blessing" and that any breakthrough may well originate at such gatherings.[34] In parallel with the Pugwash Conferences, Rotblat also joined with Einstein, Oppenheimer, Russell and other concerned scientists to found the World Academy of Art and Science, which was proposed by them in the mid-1950s and formally constituted in 1960. After the breakthrough of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Rotblat was in 1965 made a CBE.

Later life

Rotblat retired from St Bartholomew's in 1976. In 1975–1976, he was Montague Visiting Professor of International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.[35][36] He believed that scientists have an individual moral responsibility and, just as the Hippocratic Oath provides a code of conduct for physicians, he thought that scientists should have their own code of moral conduct, a Hippocratic Oath for scientists.[4] During his tenure as president of the Pugwash conferences, Rotblat nominated Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu for the Nobel Peace Prize every year from 1988 to 2004. Vanunu had disclosed the extent of Israel's nuclear weapons programme and consequently spent 18 years in prison, including more than 11 years in solitary confinement.

Rotblat campaigned ceaselessly against nuclear weapons. In an interview shortly before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, he expressed his belief that the Russell-Einstein Manifesto still had "great relevance today, after 50 years, particularly in connection with the election of a president in the United States", and above all, with respect to the potential pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons.[37][38] Central to his view of the world were the words of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto with which he concluded his acceptance lecture for the Nobel prize in 1995:[39] "Above all, remember your humanity".[40]

Rotblat served as editor-in-chief of the journal Physics in Medicine and Biology and was a founding editorial board member of the Journal of Environmental Peace.[41]

Rotblat was the president of several institutions and professional associations and also a co-founder and member of the governing board of the World Health Organization.

Rotblat was a Polish Jew, born and educated in Warsaw, who subsequently lived in Britain. To the last days of his life he spoke Polish perfectly and emphasized his ties to Poland, saying that he was a "Pole with a British passport".[1]

Awards and honours

Rotblat won the KCMG in 1998. His certificate of election to the Royal Society reads:

He shared, with the Pugwash Conferences, the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for efforts toward nuclear disarmament with a citation that read “for efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international affairs and, in the longer run,to eliminate such arms.” Rotblat was elected to the United Kingdom’s Royal Society in the same year and was knighted in 1998 [43]

Towards the end of his life, he was also elected Honorary Member of the International Association of Physics Students.[44] The Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation of India awarded him the Jamnalal Bajaj Award in 1999.


  1. ^ a b c Rotblat described himself as a "Pole with a British passport". wydarzenia
  2. ^ Freemantle, R.; Prowse, D.; Rotblat, J. (1954). "Scattering of 9.5-Mev Protons by Nitrogen". Physical Review 96 (5): 1268.  
  3. ^ a b Milne, S.; Hinde, R. (2005). "Obituary: Joseph Rotblat (1908–2005) Physicist who committed his life to the cause of nuclear disarmament". Nature 437 (7059): 634–634.  
  4. ^ a b Rotblat, Joseph (1999). "A Hippocratic Oath for Scientists" (PDF). Science 286 (5444): 1475.  
  5. ^ a b c  
  6. ^ "Joseph Rotblat".  
  7. ^ Landau, S. (1996) Profile: Joseph Rotblat – From Fission Research to a Prize for Peace, Scientific American 274(1), 38-39.
  8. ^ Joseph Rotblat's publications indexed by the Scopus bibliographic database, a service provided by Elsevier.
  9. ^ a b Holdren, J. P. (2005). "RETROSPECTIVE: Joseph Rotblat (1908-2005)". Science 310 (5748): 633.  
  10. ^ a b "Joseph Rotblat BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs Castaway 1998-11-08". BBC. Archived from the original on 2013-12-17. 
  11. ^ "Joseph Rotlbat publications in Google Scholar". 
  12. ^ Freemantle, R.; Prowse, D.; Hossain, A.; Rotblat, J. (1954). "Scattering of 9.5-Mev Protons by Neon and Argon". Physical Review 96 (5): 1270.  
  13. ^ Burcham, W.; Gibson, W.; Hossain, A.; Rotblat, J. (1953). "Scattering of 9.5-Mev Protons by Carbon and Oxygen". Physical Review 92 (5): 1266.  
  14. ^ Freemantle, R.; Gibson, W.; Prowse, D.; Rotblat, J. (1953). "Interaction of 19-Mev Deuterons with Oxygen". Physical Review 92 (5): 1268.  
  15. ^ Rotblat, J. (1951). "The Spins and Parities of the 3.7-3.9-Mev Doublet in C13". Physical Review 83 (6): 1271.  
  16. ^ Blundell, M.; Rotblat, J. (1951). "On the Existence of a One-Mev Energy Level in C13". Physical Review 81: 144.  
  17. ^ "Rotblat, Sir Joseph (1908–2005)". The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004.  
  18. ^ Anon; Joseph Rotblat; Daisaku Ikeda (2006). A Quest for Global Peace: Rotblat and Ikeda on War, Ethics and the Nuclear Threat. I.B.Tauris. p. 94.  
  19. ^ Underwood, Martin (2011). "Liverpool University (1939-43)". Joseph Rotblat: The bomb, peace, and his archive. Archived from the original on 13 July 2011. Retrieved 13 October 2015. 
  20. ^ a b c d e f g Abrams, Irwin. "The 1995 Nobel Peace Prize For Joseph Rotblat And The Pugwash Conference On Science And World Affairs". 
  21. ^ [7] Obituary, The Daily Telegraph], 2 September 2005
  22. ^ Alan Salmon, Insight, p.15, University of Liverpool (2006)
  23. ^ a b The TimesObituary, , 2 September 2005.
  24. ^ Rotblat, Joseph (August 1985). "Leaving the Bomb Project". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 41: 16–19. 
  25. ^ Underwood, Martin (2011). "Joseph Rotblat's Archive: Some Anomalies and Difficulties". AIP History Newsletter 43: 5–7. 
  26. ^ Underwood, M. C. (2011). "Joseph Rotblat, the Bomb and Anomalies from His Archive". Science and Engineering Ethics 19 (2): 487–490.  
  27. ^ The GuardianObituary, , 2 September 2005.
  28. ^ [8] Nobel Prize Curriculum Vitae
  29. ^ [9] Peace pledge biography
  30. ^ Burrows, H.; Gibson, W.; Rotblat, J. (1950). "Angular Distributions of Protons from the Reaction O16(d,p)O17". Physical Review 80 (6): 1095.  
  31. ^ "Queen Mary, University of London Notable Alumni and Staff". Archived from the original on 2008-12-22. Retrieved 2007-09-23. 
  32. ^ Rotblat, Joseph (1950). Determination of a number of neutrons emitted from a source (PhD thesis). University of Liverpool. (subscription required)
  33. ^ Rotblat, J. (1999). "A Hippocratic Oath for scientists". Science 286 (5444): 1475–1475.  
  34. ^ a b c The Political Rehabilitation of Józef Rotblat, Lawrence S. Wittner, George Mason University History News Network (2005).
  35. ^ "Joseph Rotblat – Biographical". Retrieved 8 October 2013. 
  36. ^ "Sir Joseph Rotblat". The Scotsman. Retrieved 8 October 2013. 
  37. ^ Interview with (2004)
  38. ^ [10] New Year message 2005
  39. ^ "Nobel Prize lecture". 
  40. ^ Rotblat, J. (1996). "Remember your humanity*". Medicine and War 12 (3): 195–201.  
  41. ^ Journal of Environmental Peace, Library of University of Toronto, Canada (International Innovation Projects).
  42. ^ "Library and Archive Catalogue Rotblat". London: The Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2013-12-17. 
  43. ^
  44. ^ "List of IAPS Members". International Association of Physics Students. Retrieved 30 November 2014. 

External links

  • Annotated Bibliography for Józef Rotblat from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues.
  • The Strangest Dream, a National Film Board of Canada film that tells Rotblat's life story.
  • Interview about the Manhattan Project for the WGBH-TV series War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.
  • Series 1 video interviews (recorded in 2002) with Sir Józef Rotblat by the Vega Science Trust.
  • Series 2 video interview (recorded in 2005) with Sir Józef Rotblat by the Vega Science Trust.
  • Nobel Committee information on Józef Rotblat
  • Op-Ed: The 50-Year Shadow by Józef Rotblat, New York Times, May 17, 2005.
  • Józef Rotblat – Nobel Lecture
  • Man of Peace Dies: Scientist Who Turned Back on A-bomb Project The Guardian September 2, 2005.
  • The Papers of Professor Sir Joseph Rotblat (292 boxes) are held by the Churchill Archives Centre [11]. As of 2009 [12] some has been catalogued by National Cataloguing Unit for Archives of Contemporary Scientists (NCUACS, Bath, England).
  • Interview with Józef Rotblat recorded in 2005 a few months before he died.
  • Józef Rotblat: A site dedicated to his life, work, and archive, assembled by Dr Martin Underwood.
  • Listen to a life story oral history interview with Sir Joseph Rotblat, recorded for National Life Stories at the British Library.
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