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Joseph Rotblat, UK, born 1908 in Poland, has lived in Britain since 1939. He was one of the first scientists to discover the nuclear chain reaction and during World War 2 took part in the development of the first nuclear bomb, in the UK and then in the USA, until 1944, when he left in to become the world’s first anti-nuclear activist. For 42 years he was a leader of Pugwash, the scientists’ effort for nuclear disarmament. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. (More on: http://www.pugwash.org and http://www.dfg-vk.de/english/book74s.htm).

THE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY OF SCIENTISTS

Joseph Rotblat

The 20th century that is now coming to an end, has been a unique century in that it witnessed more significant changes than any previous century: changes for better, changes for worse; changes that brought enormous benefits to human beings, changes that threatened the very existence of the human species. The world today is completely different from that of a hundred years ago.
Many factors have contributed to these changes, but by far the most important factor, the dominant factor, was the progress in science and technology. It is scientists who are mainly responsible for both the immense blessings received and the grave dangers confronting us now.
There was a time when science was considered to be completely divorced from ordinary life. Scientists built an “ivory tower” in which they sheltered pretending that their work had nothing to do with human welfare. The aim of scientific research — they asserted — was to understand the laws of nature, and since these are immutable and unaffected by human reactions and emotions, these reactions and emotions have no place in the study of nature. Even when scientific research went beyond the passive study of natural phenomena, many scientists continued the pretence of living in the ivory tower. They tried to evade their responsibilities to society by hiding behind such precepts as: “science should be undertaken for its own sake”; “science has nothing to do with politics”; “science cannot be blamed for its misapplication”; and “scientists are just technical workers”.
All this was a fallacy and an illusion even in the past, and is certainly not true today. Many scientists still stand by these maxims, advocating a laissez faire policy on science. But a growing number of them are abandoning it in the face of reality, in view of the changing nature of science, its scale, its tools, its image; above all, its impact on national and international affairs.
Science has lost its innocence. It plays a dominant role in almost every walk of life, especially so in matters of world security. Nowadays, scientific research has a direct impact on political relations between nations, and vice versa, political events directly affect the ways scientific research is done.
This was first clearly demonstrated during the Second World War, in the development of nuclear weapons. The atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, in August 1945, heralded a new age, the nuclear age.
The nuclear age is the creation of scientists, but it went sour on them from the very beginning. In total disregard of the basic tenets of science — openness and universality — it was conceived in secrecy, and usurped — even before birth — by one state to give it political dominance. With such congenital defects, and being nurtured by an army of Dr Strangeloves, it is no wonder that the creation grew into a monster; a monster with 100,000 heads, nuclear warheads; a monster that breathed fear and mistrust, and threatened the continued existence of the human species on this planet. Scientists have a great deal to answer for.
The use of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the Second World War to a dramatic end, but it was also the start of a ferocious nuclear arms race, mainly maintained by scientists from both sides of the iron curtain. Within a few decades both superpowers accumulated more than 100,000 nuclear weapons, which — if used — could have brought the human species to an end. On several occasions, notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis, of October 1952, we came very close to the actual use of the weapons, with catastrophic consequences.