Political fallout

The atomic bomb is deployed more often as a symbol than a weapon. No discussion of the ‘dangers’ of science is complete without it. But the accompanying stereotype of scientists blinkered to the consequences of their work is hardly accurate. Even before the destruction of Hiroshima, there have been scientists prepared to enter the political fray to ensure that the technology was adequately controlled.

Related recognition of these efforts came last year when the physicist Joseph Rotblat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his involvement in the Pugwash Movement ­ an international organisation of scientists, established in 1957 to provide leadership on the nuclear question. This is a global issue, and Australian scientists have been as active as their overseas counterparts in addressing the threat of annihilation posed by nuclear weapons.

Three Australian-born physicists worked on the development of the atomic bomb – Mark Oliphant, Eric Burhop and Harrie Massey. Ernest Titterton, a British-born physicist who came to Australia after the war to found the ANU Department of Nuclear Physics, also played a significant role in the Manhattan Project. The experience was to affect their lives in dramatically different ways.

Mark Oliphant was sickened by the reports from Hiroshima, and immediately became an outspoken opponent of the use of nuclear weapons. He was one of the twenty-two scientists who attended the first Pugwash meeting in 1957, and helped to establish Pugwash committees in Australia.

Oliphant also acted as a scientific adviser to Australia’s Foreign Minister, H.V. Evatt, at the initial meetings of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission in 1946. The UNAEC was an attempt to head off the looming nuclear arms race by establishing some international system for the control of atomic energy, Evatt and Oliphant were accompanied by George Briggs, head of the Physics Section of the CSIR’s National Standards Laboratory.

Briggs was a highly-skilled experimental physicist, whose work Oliphant described as being ‘of a different order of precision than any other’. At the UNAEC, Briggs worked tirelessly in a strange and frustrating environment, bringing his dedication to precision to bear on the sloppy thinking that characterised many of the discussions. Indeed, the scientists were the only ones to make significant progress at the UNAEC meetings, preparing a summary of the technical requirements of a control system. Unfortunately it was all in vain.

Unlike Briggs and Oliphant, Eric Burhop had a life-long concern with the social impact of science, and was involved in political activities from his student days. Burhop sought to organise his scientific colleagues into effective lobby groups, becoming a leading figure in the Australian Association of Scientific Workers (in the UK), the Association of Scientific Workers and the World Federation of Scientific Workers. Between 1945 and 1954 he addressed more than 500 meetings on the nuclear issue. Burhop’s efforts to organise an international conference of scientists for the WFSW led ultimately to the first Pugwash meeting, and he worked with Joseph Rotblat on the organising committee.

In the climate of fear generated by the Cold War, these scientists paid a price for their activities. Burhop was unable to find employment in Australia as a result of his political views, and spent the rest of his scientific career in the UK. Oliphant was refused a visa to travel to the USA, having been smeared as a communist sympathiser. Even George Briggs found himself called before the Royal Commission on Espionage, established after the defection of Vladimir Petrov, to investigate the activities of Soviet spies in Australia.

The relationship between science and politics is an uneasy one. One can easily sympathise with George Briggs who became increasingly frustrated with the dominance of power politics at the UNAEC. He wrote to his wife that the time was coming when ‘a physicist would be best out of it’. But science and politics cannot be separated, and when leadership is required, scientists, or any of us, cannot afford to leave the job to politicians alone.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tim Sherratt Written by:

I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.

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