Nobel Laureate John Polanyi: 'What can we do to prevent nuclear war?'

November 8, 2019 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

In August 2019, six months after the contentious breakdown of talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and mere days after joint U.S.- South Korea military exercises ended, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan.

The missiles prompted an international response, including a call from South Korea for the restart of talks between the U.S. and its neighbour to the north.

The incident was yet another tense confrontation between nuclear powers — a litany that began in the mid-20th century with the atomic bomb, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, the Korean War and other global events.

The chilling history of the Cold War, the arms race and nuclear proliferation was recently recounted by John Polanyi, Nobel Laureate and University Professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Chemistry, in a talk titled “What can we do to prevent nuclear war?” 

Polanyi, a Fellow of the Royal Society — the United Kingdom’s national academy of sciences — as well as a Companion of the Order of Canada, was speaking at an event organized by the University of Toronto chapter of Science for Peace. It took place on October 2 at the George Ignatieff Theatre and was also viewed live online.

In his opening remarks, Adnan Zuberi, a U of T alumnus and a member of the chapter’s board of directors, explained that Science for Peace “seeks to understand and act on matters of militarism, social injustice and environmental destruction.”

He added that Science for Peace was founded in 1981 when “many notable academic scientists at U of T saw the Cold War and the number of nuclear weapons getting out of control and realized they had to step in and bring scientific reasoning and sensibility to de-escalate matters.”

Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a University Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, introduced Polanyi, pointing out that the winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry could rightly claim a share in the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize as well. It was awarded to the Pugwash Conferences — a global movement of scholars dedicated to reducing the threat of armed conflict — and Polanyi was the founding chair of the Canadian Pugwash.

Sherwood Lollar described Polanyi as “a conscience for the idea of how scientists and engineers can act with and in support of society to move us forward on the kinds of goals and enormous challenges that are facing us.”

"We shouldn’t have anything to do with such a weapon"

Polanyi began by paying his respects to Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate change activist who was in Canada at the time of the talk. 

“What she said to the UN General Assembly could just as well be said about the arms race and nuclear weapons. She said, ‘You pretend that this can be solved by business as usual. Change is coming whether you like it or not.’ I see this as being true of the grievous danger we face in a nuclear war.”

As Polanyi continued, it became clear that his life and the history of the arms race have been woven together since the Cold War began.

In 1950, U.S. President Harry Truman was still deciding whether to greenlight the development of the hydrogen bomb — a device that would dwarf the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — when Polanyi’s friend, German-American theoretical physicist Hans Bethe, had an article published in Scientific American magazine that made a passionate case against the new weapon.

Polanyi quoted Bethe’s article, saying, “‘Can we (the U.S.), who insist on morality and humanity, introduce this weapon of total annihilation into the world? Shall we convince the Russians of the value of the individual by killing millions?’”

“We’re still trying to absorb the truth of what Bethe said,” continued Polanyi. “That we shouldn’t have anything to do with such a weapon.”

The H-bomb was developed by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union and it was in the shadow of this growing threat that Polanyi attended the Pugwash Conference in Moscow in 1960.

In Moscow, Polanyi’s “hero,” Hungarian-American physicist Leo Szilard, addressed the problem of nuclear proliferation by suggesting that the U.S. and Soviets should be limited to one weapon each — “one buried under Moscow and one under Washington.”

Despite attempts to limit global nuclear arsenals, Polanyi explained, the number of weapons grew into the tens of thousands and eventually abated not because of the effectiveness of mutual deterrence, but through a thawing of the Cold War under Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Polanyi observed that the threat of nuclear conflict is as real today as when U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev inched the world to the brink of nuclear war when the Soviets deployed ballistic missiles in Cuba.

He reminded the audience that the latest chapter is being written by Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, “one of whom is becoming unhinged” he said — without specifying which of the two leaders he was referring to.

Despite the gravity of the subject and the dramas being played out on today’s geopolitical stage, Polanyi remains inspiring, optimistic and — as his talks and public appearances attest — committed to the importance of raising the public’s awareness of the threat of the arms race.

“Our task is to keep that process of education going,” he said, answering the question in the talk’s title. “We should rejoice that we were born at this time and have that noble task ahead of us.”

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