Saint Joseph?


On 9th December an august gathering met at the Royal Society in London to remember Joseph Rotblat, the nuclear physicist who died recently at the age of 96.Readers will know that Rotblat was recruited to work on the Bomb, agreeing to do so in case German scientists, who were known to be also working on an atom bomb, succeeded in making one.The US bomb was to deter Hitler from using his own bomb.He resigned from the Manhattan project when it was clear that Germany, near defeat, would not be able to produce an atom bomb in time.Though many scientists later regretted working on the bomb, Rotblat was the only one to resign from the project on ethical grounds before it was made.He switched the focus of his work to medical physics and became a world authority on the effects of fallout and the effects of ionising radiation on humans.A Jew, Rotblat happened to be in England when the Germans invaded his native Poland.He made desperate attempts to get his wife out, but they were unsuccessful, and she died, perhaps in the Warsaw ghetto, or in a concentration camp.


Speakers, fellow scientists and friends, described how Rotblat then dedicated his life to the task of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. (Latterly, as a logical extension, he emphasised the need to abolish war itself.)Unsought honours came along the way.He became Sir Joseph, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1995 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, sharing that honour with the organisation of which he was a founder member, Pugwash, an influential group of top international scientists dedicated to promoting understanding of the dangers of nuclear weapons and war.Realising that the quest to abolish war would take longer than his lifetime, Rotblat was instrumental in founding an international Student/Young Pugwash counterpart to the senior organisation.


From all these accounts of his life, Jo Rotblat emerged as a dedicated family man, and a man of enormous energy, who retained a vigour and an optimism well into the ninth decade that inspired those around him.Someone mentioned that in his unswerving devotion to the cause of abolishing nuclear weapons and war he was a kind of secular saint.When Bruce Kent came to the dais to speak, he picked up on the idea of saintliness, and remarked that to be a saint one required an authenticated miracle.It would be something of a miracle if the forthcoming debate on whether to replace Trident resulted in a decision not to do so, but instead to abandon Britainís nuclear weapon.This, he said, being an outcome for which Jo Rotblat had worked for so tirelessly, could well represent the miracle required for his canonisation.


At this, the audience burst out into spontaneous applause, for the first and only time in the proceedings. (Up till then, applause had seemed out of place in such surroundings.)


Shall it be Saint Joseph, then?