September 29, 2006

In the run-up to a conference to celebrate the life of Joseph Rotblat, Bruce Kent shares fond memories of the late Nobel laureate and peace campaigner with Michael North

Bruce Kent, the vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, well remembers the determination of Joseph Rotblat, the Nobel peace laureate.

Kent visited the nuclear scientist in a London hospital in 2003 after he had suffered a heart attack. "We were making a video for the peace movement, and I told him that I was sorry he could not be in it. 'Not at all,' he said. 'Get me a wheelchair, tell the sister that I want to use a side room and (tell) the specialist that though my heart may be in trouble, my mind and my voice are working perfectly.'" Rotblat made his powerful contributions to the video in his pajamas.

"As I got to know him, I came quickly under the spell of his personality," Kent says. "When he wanted you to do something, you rapidly got the point and did it. He was not someone to whom you could excuse yourself on the grounds of being too busy."

Kent will share these memories at a one-day conference on the Life and Work of Sir Joseph Rotblat at the Liverpool Medical Institution on October 20. It is organised by Liverpool University's department of physics and the Liverpool Medical History Society.

Kent's conference speech will chart Rotblat's campaigns for nuclear disarmament and his work with the Movement for the Abolition of War (Maw), which he co-founded with Kent in 2001. Rotblat received the Nobel prize in 1995 for founding the Pugwash conferences on science and world affairs, which sought to curtail the role of nuclear arms in international politics and eventually to eliminate them. He organised 21 such meetings. Kent says:

"When he got the Nobel prize, he said, 'We have to go for the abolition of war now. We have to change the global culture.' No one else had the courage to say, 'Don't worry about pacifism, let's talk about war.'"

Rotblat came to Liverpool University from Poland in 1939, attracted by the reputation of the physicist and Nobel laureate James Chadwick. He stayed for more than ten years. In 1943, Rotblat joined the Manhattan Project in the US to develop nuclear weapons for the Allies, but he became the only physicist to leave the project on conscientious grounds. Rotblat returned to Liverpool on many occasions, the last time in 2003 to give a lecture at the age of 95, two years before his death in August 2005.

Speakers at the conference will recall Rotblat's contributions to nuclear and medical physics, as well as to the Movement for the Abolition of War. Among them will be Jack Harris, deputy chairman of British Pugwash; John Curry, who researched under Chadwick; and Diana Preston, the Oxford University historian and author.

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