Einstein's companion: life with the bomb

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Einstein's companion: life with the bomb
Einstein's companion: life with the bomb

Life with the bomb

Exactly 60 years ago today, the first atomic bomb was detonated at the New Mexico test site. Two highly respected scientists fought vehemently to the death against their spread - Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell.


"I'm not sure what weapons World War III will be fought with, but in World War IV people will fight with sticks and stones," predicted Albert Einstein. His commitment against war and weapons of mass destruction is a little reminiscent of Goethe's sorcerer's apprentice: "Lord, the need is great! The spirits I called up, I can't get rid of now…" After all, Einstein is considered the spiritual father of the atomic bomb, which impressively demonstrated the validity confirmed by his famous formula E=mc2.

Even before the outbreak of the Second World War, Einstein wrote a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt together with the physicist Leo Szilard. In it, they pointed out to the American president at the time that Nazi Germany might be able to build an atomic bomb. A few months after the blitzkrieg against Poland, Einstein again approached Roosevelt on the matter. In November 1941 the Manhattan Project started. Einstein - although later an adviser to the US Navy on high explosives - was not involved in the construction of the atomic bomb. As a more left-leaning German of origin, he was considered a security risk by the American security authorities, who had been keeping tabs on him for some time.

Einstein's Change of Mind

Immediately after Germany's capitulation, Einstein and Szilard changed their minds. They tried to persuade the President never to use the weapon of mass destruction. Nevertheless, the war machine was already running at full speed - loosely based on the motto from the song Believe in yourself by Klaus Hoffmann: "What are they practicing for, one day there has to be a premiere…"

On July 16, 1945 - exactly 60 years ago - the time had come. In the desert of New Mexico, the first nuclear warhead was detonated. Hiroshima was planned as the second "test". And so, on August 6, 1945, shortly after 8 a.m., an American fighter plane dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese port city on the orders of the then-ruling American President Harry S. Truman. The explosive device destroyed four-fifths of the town. Up to 200,000 people died in one fell swoop or died after years of infirmity. When Einstein found out about the destruction of Hiroshima, he is said to have sighed: "Oh, woe. And that's it." Three days later, an even more powerful bomb hit Nagasaki. Japan surrendered.

This was the beginning of Einstein's lifelong dedicated fight against the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction. At his side he knew many like-minded people. One of the most determined was the British philosopher and mathematician Earl Bertrand Arthur William Russell.


A Pacifist Earl

The biographical data of the noble Nobel Prize winner for literature and holder of the British Order of Merit read like a gag by Loriot: Born on May 18, 1872 near Ravenscroft in the Welsh parish of Monmouthshire; died 2 February 1970 in Penrhyndeudraeth, Wales. Along with Kurt Gödel, Russell is considered one of the most important logicians of the 20th century and one of the founders of analytical philosophy.

Russell is known, for example, for his work on set theory, in particular for a paradox named after him. It occurs when considering the set of all sets that do not contain themselves. A popular version of the paradox is the story of a barber who claims that he shaves all the local men who don't shave themselves. But who then shaves the barber?

Because of his pacifist beliefs, Russell twice lost his university jobs: He served a six-month prison sentence for advocating nonviolence in 1918 and was also expelled from Trinity College, Cambridge. A few years later he suffered a similar fate at New York City College.

The three most important men: Einstein and Lenin

How the philosopher met the brilliant physicist is not exactly known. However, it is said that Russel was once asked about the three most important living men, to which he replied: "Einstein and Lenin. Nobody else!", which earned Einstein a well-paid lecture tour to Japan in 1922 (Lenin was at the Time in Russia "essential") - for the gifted scientist at that time a welcome opportunity to turn his back on the political turbulence in Germany, at least for a while.

Some years later - when the great physicist had already fled Germany for the United States - Russell and Einstein met once a week in Princeton to exchange ideas with Wolfgang Pauli and Kurt Gödel.

The four always agreed on one thing: After the victory over Germany, there should never again be a war between the great powers. In their view, such a move would inevitably result in the use of nuclear weapons, which would threaten the very existence of all life on earth. This is why Russell and Einstein repeatedly campaigned publicly for peace and international understanding, even if they were often discredited as a result.

FBI keeps tabs on anti-nuclear opponents

When Paul Weyland – an old adversary of Einstein from his Berlin days – denounced the exceptional physicist after the war, FBI boss John Edgar Hoover was happy to pick up on the allegations. He accused Einstein of spying for the Soviets. A note to Hoover in 1950 reads: "The agency believes that Professor Einstein is an extreme radical." His Berlin apartment was a center for communists and a left-wing meeting place. The Federal Bureau of Investigation gradually created a more than 1800-page file on the physics genius, which was only closed after his death.

None of this prevented Einstein and Russell from standing up for the persecuted of the McCarthy era again and again. Its most famous victim was probably Robert Oppenheimer. When he refused to take part in the construction of the hydrogen bomb and instead advocated arms controls, the committee of inquiry also accused the former head of the Manhattan Project of spying for the Soviets.


Einstein's last letter

Einstein's last public call for peace and international understanding went back to an initiative by his longtime comrade-in-arms Russell. The Welsh scholar asked the influential physicist to help formulate an appeal that should make the madness of a nuclear war clear to the world public and politicians. Einstein signed the document, named Russell Einstein Manifesto after the two peace activists, on April 11, 1955. It was his last letter. When the English companion held the letter in his hands, the genius of the century had already died of internal bleeding.

A Canadian fishing village becomes the center of the war opponents

The Manifesto - signed by ten other distinguished scholars, including Max Born, Leopold Infeld, Hideki Yukawa and Józef Rotblat - kicked off the first peace conference in the small Canadian fishing village of Pugwash. Since that meeting in 1957, which Russell personally helped organize, more than ten thousand renowned scientists have gathered at nearly 300 international Pugwash conferences and workshops to discuss nuclear threats and global security issues.


The Pugwash peace movement founded by Russel was instrumental in the nuclear test ban in 1963 and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by the major powers in July 1968. Fifty years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joseph Rotblat, the only living signatory of the Russell Einstein Manifesto, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs – as they are called exactly.

Russell always remained an admonisher for peace and disarmament. In 1963, together with Jean-Paul Sartre, he also founded the Vietnam tribunal against the USA. His name is inextricably linked to the guiding principle of the responsibility of science and research.

Of course, he could not prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Sixty years after the first nuclear blaze ignited in the New Mexico desert, nearly a dozen states share nearly 30,000 nuclear warheads. Each of them has a far greater destructive power than the Hiroshima bomb.

Yet Russell never lost his sense of humor. He claimed until his death in 1970: "By the way, I believe that the entire universe, including all our memories, theories and religions, was created 20 minutes ago by the god Quitzlipochtli. Who can prove me wrong?"

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