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ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: the transformation of science in world affairs

ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: the transformation of science in world affairs
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Robert Oppenheimer in 1946 / Artwork: via Photoshop


Garry Jacobs, President & CEO, World Academy of Art & Science (WAAS)

Jonathan Granoff, President, Global Security Institute, board of trustees member of WAAS. 


The movie «Oppenheimer» has not by chance attracted global attention and achieved the highest film awards. It tells about unprecedented global events that changed the course of history. These events opened Pandora’s box. And their effects continue to be experienced by humankind eight decades later.

The film is factual. And while the picture does not provide an exhaustive view of them, their significance remains extremely relevant to us.


The Industrial Revolution was driven by successive stages of technological innovation. They led to the fact that during the 19th and early 20th centuries, manual labor began to gradually give way to mechanized labor.

Modern science has changed significantly since the XVII century. In the Age of Enlightenment, it emerged from the academic isolation in which it had been before, with little influence on the destinies of people and nations. Since then, there has been little interest in knowledge for knowledge’s sake. And during World War II, science became a force that could shape the future of nations, humanity, and the entire planet.

As Albert Einstein stated it so succinctly, «The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking. Thus, we are drifting toward catastrophe beyond conception».

This change in «everything» is the central focus, as grippingly depicted in «Oppenheimer» movie. The detonation of the first atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the world almost overnight. For the first time, science became recognized as a formidable source of power to be reckoned with. It became greater even than the most powerful armies and wealthy economies. From then on, scientists could no longer assume a detached position aloof from the destiny of nations. Their knowledge and powers for invention were too great. They could not be ignored anymore. 


Хмара у формі гриба під час атомного бомбардування міста Нагасакі 9 серпня 1945 року
The mushroom cloud above Nagasaki after the atomic bombing on August 9, 1945 /


Oppenheimer, Neils Bohr, and other scientists involved in the Manhattan Project believed they were applying their knowledge to save the world from German aggression. Once Germany surrendered, they saw no need to use the nuclear bomb. They strived to persuade President Truman to abandon the plan. Moreover, they also warned him that sooner or later, Russia and other nations would acquire the same power. And that would be the beginning of a global race for nuclear supremacy.

After Hiroshima, scientists continued efforts to promote a global ban on the use of nuclear energy for military purposes. Their opinions were mostly ignored. However, it eventually led to the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

This story has another great character, Dr. Joseph Rotblat. He is not mentioned in the movie. However, he, with Oppenheimer, joined in voicing the need for moral and legal restraints on the power that modern science had bestowed. When the British destroyed the «heavy water» plant in Norway, it became clear to everyone that the Nazis would no longer be able to build an atomic bomb. Rotblat walked off the Manhattan Project and told General Groves about it.

Rotblat discovered that the bomb was being built not just to deter the Nazis but also to challenge the power of the Soviet Union. Rotblat saw the danger of an arms race if the US built and used the device. History proved that his fears were fully justified. By the early 1950s, Russia and America were engaged in a nuclear arms race that eventually gave rise to more than 70,000 nuclear warheads. This amount is enough to destroy humanity and the earth’s environment many times over.  

The onset of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race had a profound impact on the position of science in global society. It also led to profound reflection among scientists and a gradual change in the attitude of the scientific community regarding their role in society. Gradually, scientists began to realize the responsibility for the consequences of their discoveries.


Джозеф Ротблат — польсько-британський фізик. Під час Другої світової війни він працював над трубчастими сплавами і Манхеттенським проєктом, але залишив Лос-Аламоську лабораторію з міркувань совісті після того, як у 1944 році йому стало зрозуміло, що Німеччина припинила розробку атомної бомби
Joseph Rotblat was a Polish-British physicist. During World War II, he worked on tubular alloys and the Manhattan Project but left Los Alamos Laboratory due to conscientious objection after it became clear to him in 1944 that Germany had stopped developing the atomic bomb /


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This culminated in the release of the famous Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955 through which Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, along with nine other distinguished scientists, alerted the world to the growing dangers of the nuclear arms race.

The Manifesto closed with this admonition: «We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death».

A year later, the First International Conference on Science and Human Welfare was convened in Washington, D.C., to focus on the social responsibility of science and scientists. The conference called for the establishment of a World Academy of Art & Science (WAAS).

Two years later, Polish mathematician Jacob Bronowski published a work called «Science and Human Values». It was a statement and reflection of the increasing recognition that scientists could no longer remain detached bystanders in quest of truth for truth’s sake.

WAAS was officially founded in Geneva in 1960. At first, it connected about 50 founding members. Gradually, the number grew to 100. Today has more than 800 eminent intellectuals from more than 80 nations. Among them are representatives of natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, artists, businessmen, engineers, medics, etc. Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, along with Dr. Rotblat, were founding members of this inspiring endeavor.

Unlike traditional science academies, the stated objective of the Academy’s founders was not the pursuit of science itself. They saw their goal as being an «Agency for Human Welfare», which utilizes science, technology, and other forms of knowledge as a means to promote the well-being and security of all human beings.

Since then, the work of the Academy has focused on a succession of pressing global challenges, such as health, population explosion, food shortages, environmental destruction, war and peace, economic and financial crises, poverty, inequality, migration, refugees and human insecurity.

In each case, WAAS has approached the subject from a transnational, non-partisan perspective, seeking solutions applicable to people and nations around the world. Rather than fragmented disciplinary silos, it approaches problems from a human-centered, values-based, comprehensive, transdisciplinary perspective. In this case the objective perspectives of science integrate with the subjective insights of the arts and humanities.

WAAS recently entered into a partnership with the UN Trust Fund for Human Security to launch a Global Campaign on Human Security for All (HS4A). It is working to promote a new paradigm in security focused on the safety and welfare of people rather than the competitive security of nation-states.


Оппенгеймер з колегою-фізиком Альбертом Ейнштейном, 1950 рік
Oppenheimer with colleague physicist Albert Einstein, 1950 /


Human security, unlike the pursuit of military dominance and the daily threat of mutual annihilation. It places the needs of people first. Each country has to understand that only through joint efforts, wherein global threats are addressed collectively, can any nation truly secure its own people. 

It is a realistic approach that recognizes the impact of science and technology on a global scale and focuses as well on local programs that directly serve people’s needs.

A human centric approach is a practical necessity. It is relevant to address the next pandemic, stop climate change, protect the environment and foster the regenerative processes of nature. All of human civilization depends on the success of each of these challenges. For example, the health of the rainforests and oceans that provide oxygen to the planet is essential to the lives of every person in the world.

We need to change our perception of how security is obtained. Emphasis should be placed on people life, rather than national military power. Only then will science and technology serve, as WAAS founders intended, to advance a «paradise» for humanity.

The HS4A campaign includes collaboration with a wide range of organizations such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an association of 180 national parliaments; IAP, an organization of 150 science academies; SDSN, the UN global social network of universities; and CTA, the Consumer Technology Association, an organization including the world’s leading business and technology companies, which hosts the annual CES show, among others.  

Seventy-five years after the first donation of the atomic bomb, the nuclear genii are still out of the box. Once again, they are threatening the security of people around the world. And today humanity faces another existential threat to peace and security — artificial intelligence.

AI is arguably the most powerful technology ever developed by human beings. It has the potential to solve many of the most severe problems confronting humanity today. But like other technologies — it is a double-edged sword. It can be used both as a force for good or a force for destruction.

How to use the unlimited creative power of science and technology for the common good? How to control them, protecting humanity from ever greater threats and a growing sense of uncertainty, insecurity and fear of the future? These are the challenges facing humanity today. As in 1945, scientists, as much as politicians, continue to play a critical role in determining the fate of humanity.

Today, there are many dedicated leaders and organizations. They strive to find solutions that will provide a better future for people around the world. And, it is worth noting that the scientists who created the atomic bomb were the first to understand the need for a peaceful path.


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