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Bertrand Russell

The Philosopher & The Scientist

Tony Simpson tells us how the Russell-Einstein manifesto led to Pugwash.

“He was not only a great scientist but a great man, a man whom it is good to have known and consoling to contemplate.” With these words Bertrand Russell concluded his Preface to Einstein on Peace (1960). Down the years, Russell and Albert Einstein had met from time to time, but they did not see much of each other except in 1943, when they were both living in Princeton. Then they would meet weekly at Einstein’s house to discuss “various matters in the philosophy of science.” Wolfgang Pauli and Kurt Gödel also attended. “I found these informal discussions very illuminating and exceedingly valuable,” said Russell.

Later, the US hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in March 1954 had spread radioactive fall-out across wide areas, contaminating Japanese fishermen and their catch aboard the Lucky Dragon fishing boat. Both the United States and the Soviet Union now had the hydrogen bomb. So in February 1955, Russell sent Einstein a proposal:

“In common with every other thinking person, I am profoundly disquieted by the armaments race in nuclear weapons. You have on various occasions given expression to feelings and opinions with which I am in close agreement. I think that eminent men of science ought to do something dramatic to bring home to the public and governments the disasters that may occur. Do you think it would be possible to get, say, six men of the very highest scientific repute headed by yourself, to make a very solemn statement about the imperative necessity of avoiding war?”

Notwithstanding his failing health, Einstein responded enthusiastically:

“I agree with every word in your letter of February 11… This might be best achieved by a public declaration, signed by a small number, say, twelve persons, whose scientific attainments (scientific in the widest sense) have gained them international stature and whose testimony will not be blunted in its effectiveness by their political affiliations.”

Russell replied promptly, agreeing with Einstein’s suggestion to make sure of “two signatories in addition to yourself and me” and then to send the draft appeal to selected persons. Russell wished to leave the choice to Einstein and his associates “as you know the scientific world much better than I do.” Einstein duly wrote to the physicist Niels Bohr, suggesting he contact Russell directly. “Don’t frown like that!” was how Einstein began his letter to Bohr: “This is not about our old physics controversy, but about a matter on which we are in complete agreement.” He explained that Russell sought to bring together a small group of renowned scholars to warn of the “perilous situation created by atomic weapons and the arms race.” As he explained, “Unless I miss Russell’s purpose, he wants to go beyond a highlighting of the peril; he proposes to demand that the governments publicly acknowledge the necessity for renouncing any solution of problems by military means.” He had understood Russell’s intention very well. However, Einstein hesitated about making wider contacts, because, as he said to Russell, “I am not clear about the role you intend them to play.” Einstein continued to Russell, “it seems to me that, to avoid any confusion, you should regard yourself as the dictator of the enterprise and give orders.” He signed off, rather obligingly, “Awaiting orders.”

Albert Einstein
Portrait of Einstein
© Darren McAndrew 2012

Russell’s reply of 5th April 1955 – his last letter to Einstein – emphasised that scientists feel that they have a special responsibility since their work has “unintentionally caused our present dangers.” For this reason, Russell thought it better to approach only men of science and not those in other fields, such as the historian Arnold Toynbee, whom Einstein had mentioned. Widening the field would also make it much more difficult to steer clear of politics.

Einstein died on 18th April 1955; but not before he’d written to Russell to say that he was “gladly willing to sign your excellent statement.” Einstein also agreed with Russell’s choice of prospective signatories.

This last letter from Einstein only reached Russell when he arrived in Paris by plane from Rome. During the flight, the pilot had announced the news of Einstein’s death, and Russell felt shattered, not least because his plan would fall through without Einstein as the scientist alongside the philosopher. As Russell remarked, signing the Appeal was one of the last acts of Einstein’s public life.

Without Einstein, Russell clearly felt the need of another scientist’s close collaboration. He had first met the medical physicist Professor Joseph Rotblat in April 1954 at the BBC, for a televised discussion about the hydrogen bomb. Russell was especially impressed by Rotblat’s work uncovering the dirty bomb tested by the Americans at Bikini Atoll. Some weeks after the Russell-Einstein Appeal was launched in London in July 1955, Russell wrote to Rotblat at the Medical College of St Bartholomew’s Hospital:

“When I began approaching scientists I had reason to expect Einstein’s co-operation but this was diminished by his illness and ended by his death. I feel that further steps among scientists ought to be taken by scientists and that any further work by myself ought to be rather in the political field.”

In Russell’s words, Rotblat “was brave enough to take the chair” at the press conference to launch the Manifesto. Thus began an enduring collaboration which first alighted on Pugwash, Nova Scotia, in July 1957, as the venue for 22 participants from ten countries, including the US, USSR and China, to gather under the auspices of shared support for the objectives of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. Pugwash was the home of Cyrus Eaton, an industrialist who paid the expenses for the initial conference, and the name has stuck. Sixty years on, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs are held up as a beacon of hope. Joseph Rotblat personally nurtured the movement throughout his long life, for which he and the Conference received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. In 2003, two years before his death aged 96, Rotblat urged Pugwash to ‘open up’ and collaborate with others in alerting the public to the dangers of nuclear war in the context of the invasion of Iraq.

Now the world is faced with climate change as well as escalating nuclear proliferation. The aridity line spreads south across Africa’s Sahel, south of the Sahara Desert, destroying the basic means of livelihood. People flee the affected countries where conflict often accompanies drought. Here another scientific imperative compels action on a global scale. Shall we remember our humanity, and forget our differences?

© Tony Simpson 2017

Tony Simpson is the Editor of Climate of Peace? (Spokesman 134) published by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation: spokesmanbooks.com.

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