What did these men have in common: Alfred Nobel,a Swede, Albert Einstein, a German, Leo Szilard, a Hungarian, Norbert Wiener, an American, Philip Noel-Baker, an Englishman, Andrei Sakharov and Peter Kapitza, Russians?
Alfred Nobel invented dynamite. He thought his invention was a contribution to peace because the horrendous power of the new explosive would make war unthinkable. He died in 1896 and so was spared the spectacle of World War I. But he may have had some doubts about dynamite as a peace – maker: he balanced his contribution to the cause of war (as it turned out to be) by a more direct contribution to peace — the prize that bears his name.
Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard suggested the possibility of constructing an atomic bomb and pointed out the danger that the Germans would be the first to add it to their arsenal. Their letter, delivered to US Pres. Roosevelt in October, 1939, was the embryo from which the nuclear monster grew.
After the war Einstein said, “If I had known that the Germans would not succeed in constructing the atomic bomb, I would not have lifted a finger.”
In the spring of 1945 Einstein and Szilard again wrote to Pres.Roosevelt, pointing out that “any military advantage the bomb might bring to the U. S. would be offset by grave political and strategic disadvantages.”
Roosevelt never read Einstein’s letter and Szilard’s memorandum. Both were found lying on his desk untouched on April 12,1945, the day he died.
Norbert Wiener, the acknowledged father of cybernetics,warned about the dehumanizing effects of the Second Industrial Revolution (the impact of information technology) and proposed ways of avoiding them in The Human Use of Human Beings. Wiener also discontinued all work on military applications of cybernetics and urged his colleagues to do likewise. In God and Golem, published just before his death, Wiener warned against “using the magic of modern automation to further personal profit and let loose the apocalyptic terrors of nuclear warfare.”
Philip Noel-Baker was a World War I hero, recipient of the Silver Medal for Valour and the Italian Croce di Guerra. After the war he was Parliamentary Secretary to toe Minister of War Transport and Secretary of State for Air. In 1958 he published The Arms Race, the first comprehensive study of its inexorable dynamics, in the light of which it becomes clear that the Richardsonian equations are not just a mathematical exercise but a basically faithful (albeit drastically simplified) model of stark reality. Noel-Baker drove home Richardson’s lesson: the arms race is inherently unstable. This means that it can explode in war or, possibly, could be reversed to turn into a disarmament race, but it cannot be “stabilized”. Noel-Baker was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1959.
Andrei Sakharov was once regarded as Edward Teller’s opposite number — the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. At the time he was strongly convinced that he was “working for peace”. When the Soviet bomb became reality, he thought that peace was assured and that the time was ripe for re-appraisal, that it was pointless to continue the arms race. His first action in the cause of peace was to try to convince Khrushchev to discontinue atmospheric tests of atomic weapons. Khrushchev refused, and the tests went on. But Sakharov kept on thinking. He could no longer keep himself confined in the insulated world of nuclear physics. He started to make public statements on many issues ranging from reforms in the teaching of mathematics to democratization of Soviet society. He spoke out in favour of liquidating the Cold War and embarking on far-reaching and lasting collaboration with the rest of the world on global problems. Central in the broad spectrum of his concerns was the horrendous danger posed by the arms race. As he later told Hendrick Smith of the New York Times,
“I gradually began to understand the criminal nature not only of nuclear tests but of the enterprise as a whole.”
Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
Following the explosion of experimental bombs at Bikini, Peter Kapitza, perhaps the most outstanding atomic physicist of the Soviet Union, a former assistant of Rutherford, declared:
“To speak about atomic energy in terms of the atomic bomb is comparable with speaking of electricity in terms of the electric chair.”
Soon afterwards he was ordered to work on the production of Soviet atomic weapons. He said No. To Stalin. He was placed under house arrest and remained practically confined to his home for seven years. American physicists visiting the Soviet Union in 1956 were told that Kapitza was subsequently sentenced to deportation and compulsory labour.
These seven wise men — an inventor, a public servant and five scientists — recognized their responsibility to humanity, some sooner, some later. Two of them were severely punished for their integrity and steadfastness. But humanity has honoured them and will not forget them – should it survive.