Reawakening the memory of Joseph Rotblat, Polish Nobel Prize winner and one of the men behind the nuclear bomb

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Few other Polish nuclear scientists have been as forgotten by the Polish general public as Joseph Rotblat. Known abroad as one the greatest champions of the global peace movement and one of the most influential proponents of nuclear disarmament, the memory of Rotblat in Poland has been fading away for years. Determined to do something to change that course, Warsaw officials have decided to name a centrally located square after him.

Joseph Rotblat was born in 1908 to a Polish-Jewish family in Warsaw. During World War II he worked on the nuclear bomb as part of the Manhattan Project and consequently he eventually became an avid pacifist. He is one of only two Polish Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the other being Lech Wałesa. Less than a year before the outbreak of the War, Rotblat correctly calculated that the vast number of neutrons emitted in a short period of time during the fission process could be used to build an atomic bomb.

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Spending his childhood in Warsaw, the young Rotblat’s family were too poor to afford to send him to secondary school. Instead, he received his education in a Jewish school under the supervision of the local rabbi. Initially working as an electrician, Rotblat was soon taken under the wing of professor Ludwik Wertenstein, who worked with Marie Curie. This led the young scientist to study nuclear fission – a rapidly developing field at the time.

Months before the German invasion of Poland, Rotblat received a scholarship from Liverpool University, which eventually led him to Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. Deeply affected by the death and suffering caused by the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, Rotblat realised the enormous ethical consequences of science and worked for the rest of his life, to stop the nuclear arms race. Together with the British polymath Bertrand Russell, he became the founding member of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. The international organization’s main goal was to bring together scholars and public figures to work towards reducing the risks for, and consequences of armed conflicts. Recognition of this work earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

Searching for ways to redeem his earlier work on the bomb, Rotblat dedicated his studies to the dangerous effects of radiation on living organisms. Much of his research was focused on the health risks associated with the nuclear fallout from atomic weapons. In 1955, Rotblat proved that level of radioactive contamination caused by the Castle Bravo test at the Bikini Atoll was much higher than official US sources admitted. Before Rotblat proved them wrong, the authorities denied that more powerful atomic bombs also lead to higher levels of radioactive contamination. The media quickly jumped on the Polish scientist’s work, leading to the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty being signed in 1963, forbidding all nuclear tests above ground.

The decision made by the city of Warsaw to name one of its squares after its native son has been well received by Tomasz Kostrzewa, the head of the Joseph Rotblat Foundation. He argues that Joseph Rotblat is one of the truly outstanding citizens of Warsaw. He also notes that Rotblat’s name has been mentioned with more regularity in Poland over recent years but that he is still far from commonly known and that every form of commemoration deserves kudos.

Joseph Rotblat, one of the great 20th century nuclear physicists and peace activists passed away aged 96 in London in 2005.

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