Patrick M.S. Blackett

Banquet speech

Patrick M.S. Blackett’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1948

The honour which has been bestowed on me by the award by the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden of a Nobel Prize for Physics gives me a feeling of deep satisfaction and personal pride. However, I like to think of the award not only as a recognition of my own scientific work, but as a tribute to the vital school of European Experimental Physics in which I was trained. The fact that all four Nobel prizes this year, and so many others in recent years, have been awarded to Europeans is surely a striking tribute to the astonishing vitality in the Arts and Sciences of our irrepressible, colourful, turbulent but war-scarred Continent of Europe. In spite of two world wars in thirty years – eleven years of my own life have been spent in warfare, either as a fighting man or as a scientific analyst of tactics and strategy – in spite of the immense devastation of the continent, the stream of new scientific discovery and of literary creation is still in as full flood as ever before. Now we find ourselves surrounded by rumours and threats of a third world war – a war which, if it comes, will be made more terrible than the last through the wonderful discoveries in atomic physics of the last decades. It is a curious comment on the unexpected twists of human history to note that Alfred Nobel used a fortune made through the invention and manufacture of explosives to endow most generously prizes for outstanding achievement in the arts of peace – and by so doing has stimulated and encouraged the great stream of discovery in pure physics, which culminated in the overwhelming devastation of Hiroshima. From this rostrum in previous years have spoken to you, as Nobel Laureates, nearly all the great scientists whose work has made the atomic bomb possible – the Curies, Rutherford, Bohr, Aston, Joliot, Lawrence, Hahn, to name only a few.

Pure science has proved the most dangerous of pursuits. In the field of destruction the wise words of J. J. Thomson are as valid as in the arts of peace: “Applied science makes improvements; pure science makes revolutions.”

The world today is facing the great problem of how to avoid a catastrophe made possible by the work of so many Nobel prizemen in Physics. It may be of interest to recall, however, that this is by no means the first time in history that mankind has felt the very basis of the established order threatened by the invention of a new weapon.

One such occasion was over 400 years ago. In 1494 Charles VIII of France crossed the Alps and rapidly destroyed, by means of artillery and Swiss infantry the military organisation of medieval Italy which was based on the fortified castle and the valor of the armoured knight. The poet Ariosto, contemporary of Machiavelli, wrote a poem dramatising the threat to the contemporary order. His hero, Orlando, embodiment of all the knightly virtues, meets an enemy with a firearm. When finally Orlando had triumphed, he took the offending weapon, sailed out into the ocean and plunged it into the sea exclaiming:

“Oh, Cursed device, Base Implement of Death
– – –
By Beelzebub’s malicious art designed
To ruin all the race of human kind – – –
Here lie for ever in the abyss below!”

It might not be inappropriate to utter again these four centuries old words on the hoped for future occasion when the United Nations finally consign the world’s store of atomic bombs to the depths of the ocean.

It is impossible to put the clock back – Machiavelli in his day could not stop the technological development which produced fire-arms – nor could Alfred Nobel stop those that followed his discovery of dynamite – nor can we stop the development of atomic energy. Technological progress and pure science are but different facets of the same growing mastery by man over the force of nature. It is our task as scientists and citizens to ensure that these forces are used for the good of man and not for their destruction.

Prior to the speech, Gustaf Hellström, member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, addressed the laureate: “Professor Blackett! If Alfred Nobel had been present tonight, he would with absolute certainty have been specially anxious to make your closer acquaintance in order to discuss with you the apparent contradiction which I touched on a few minutes ago. You have taken an active part in two World Wars; in the first as a young naval officer, in the second as the holder of one of the key positions in the British war-machine. After both wars you have turned to one of the sciences which made the devastation possible. You did this for the same reason as that which in times past, made many enter monasteries, better to serve their God. You retired to your laboratory, where you have proved yourself a master of physical technics. Now when you have for about a year extended your investigations in an attempt to explore the secrets of the Milky Way with the help of radio-astronomy, this is not to be interpreted as a form of escapism from a demoralized world, but as an effort to get closer to the mysteries of creation.”

From Les Prix Nobel en 1948, Editor Arne Holmberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1949

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1948


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