Delivered at Soka University of America on March 30, 2024 on a panel entitled Can the Nobel Peace Prize Prevent Nuclear War, featuring Dr. Asle Toje, Deputy Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, and Dr. William Potter, Founding Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. 

Thank you so very much to the organizers for inviting me to this important conversation and to this beautiful campus. It is truly an honor and a privilege to be here with the esteemed panelists and with all of you.

In 1938, in the laboratories of Columbia University’s Pupin Hall, physicist I.I. Rabi discovered a curious feature of hydrogen atoms – atoms that are a part of every water molecule and every part of your body. Rabi found that when hydrogen atoms are placed in a magnetic field, they release radio signals at particular frequencies. In 1944, Rabi won the Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery. Fast forward to the 1970s when Paul Lauterbur found a way to use this phenomenon to image the human body, known as magnetic resonance imaging, a discovery for which he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2003. In the late 1980s and near the end of his life, Rabi actually went into an MRI machine himself. He would state: “I never thought my work would come to this.”

Many in this audience may have gotten an MRI scan themselves. Most probably realize that the technology has allowed doctors to identify and treat injuries and tumors. Neuroscientists even use a version of MRI called functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI to learn about what happens in our brains when we perform certain tasks and how to treat different brain conditions and diseases.

The story of Rabi’s discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance illustrates two fundamental principles about how science progresses and the role that Nobel Prize-winning or worthy work has played in this journey. The first is that such discoveries exist on a path that while not always and at all times linear, eventually lead towards more and further understanding, what we might call progress. The other fundamental principle is that although one can guarantee that we will know more in the decades to come, there is no predicting what it is that we might unearth or how. Rabi could not have imagined that his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance could lead to spaceship-like machines that can peer into our bodies – without any harmful radiation, like x-rays – and even peer into the secrets of our brain.

Contrast Rabi’s discovery with another physicist’s contribution, that of Lise Meitner, who figured out that when bombarded with neutrons – subatomic particles found in the atoms that make up you and everything you have ever seen and touched – certain atoms split into other, smaller atoms, releasing energy. Meitner did not win the Nobel Prize in Physics – others did for carrying out the experiments  – but her discovery led to the development of atomic bombs just several years later. In 1945, the United States tested the Trinity bomb in New Mexico, causing suffering for the fallout victims and their descendants to this day. We then went on to use two atomic bombs in attacks on Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The scale of death and devastation, both short and long-term is impossible to comprehend.

Like Rabi, Meitner may not have imagined where her discovery would lead us. But was this progress? I contend that arriving at the ability to kill hundreds of thousands and today, even hundreds of millions of people was not progress. As our nuclear weapon arsenals grew and the bombs in possession of today’s nine nuclear weapon states became more powerful, more precise, and able to be delivered anywhere in the world, today’s weapons threaten to destroy human civilization as we know it and possibly even life on Earth.

This is not a matter of science fiction novels or films, but a scientific understanding of what would happen to our planet and to humanity in case of widespread nuclear war. A primary consequence of fires from nuclear weapon attacks would be enormous amounts of soot in the atmosphere, which would in turn dramatically block incoming sunlight from reaching us, which would lead to significant drops in temperature and furthermore widespread failure of agriculture and food production lasting many years. This is called nuclear winter and nuclear famine and would lead to more than two billion people dying from starvation around the globe in a scenario of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, and more than five and a half billion people dying from starvation due to a nuclear war between US and Russia in which the US and Russia use just one third of their current arsenals.

Is this progress? And if not, who erred and when? Was it the scientists, or the politicians, or both? Every single day that these weapons are on our planet, they threaten everything we love and everything we hold dear. They threaten life itself.

Let’s now contrast the accomplishments of physicists with those of numerous peacemakers, disarmament activists, scientists, diplomats, and many others who have done Nobel Peace Prize winning or worthy work.

Two essential points need to be made:

Number one, like the physicists, the doves and disarmament proponents cannot always predict what exactly will do the most good or where exactly their work will lead.

But in contrast to one discovery leading to another in physics, with peace, progress is decisively not linear. While one can use certain proxies to argue that humanity may be better off today than at any point in history, we are living in an exceedingly challenging time both nationally and internationally. When it comes to global peace, we are decisively worse off than we have been since the end of the Cold War and possibly even earlier. On nuclear disarmament, while we have far fewer nuclear warheads than the 70,000 that existed in 1986, we still have about 12,500 too many. While we have conflicts involving nuclear weapon possessors raging and geopolitical tensions rising, we also have a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons or TPNW. It is a two steps forward, one step back, and often one step forward, two steps back kind of path.

Daisaku Ikeda, the great Soka Gakkai leader and Founder of this incredible University and David Krieger, Founder and President Emeritus of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, both of whom we sadly lost last year, in their book, Choose Hope, spoke about the way in which peace is not simply there for the taking once achieved. Instead, they discussed the need to nurture peace, stating, that “sowing seeds of peace demands perseverance. Once planted, the seeds require nurturing. In other words, the peace process requires sustained commitment.”

I propose that instead of saying that we are not where we need to be, we should imagine a world without Joseph Rotblatt, and Setsuko Thurlow, and Andrei Sakharov, and David Krieger, and Alfonso Garcia Robles, and Alva Myrdal, and Richard Falk, and Linus Pauling, and Beatrice Fihn, and Daisaku Ikeda, and Nelson Mandela, and so many others. I contend that without them and their work, we might not be here to have this discussion.

Today, while being vaguely aware of nuclear weapons, the vast majority of people do not understand what is at stake. And that is where the Nobel Peace Prize Committee can help by awarding the prize to people and organizations who are doing the work of bringing awareness and solutions that will lead us to a world free of nuclear weapons and free of the threat of annihilation, thus helping to raise more awareness. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in particular is a young treaty and it needs our help. People need to know about it and what it aims to accomplish. People need to know that we all stand to gain if nuclear weapons are eliminated.

It is also essential that we realize that disarmament and peace are not two separate journeys. They may at times pursue their own short detours, but they are ultimately – always – part of the same road towards a better world. When it comes to nuclear weapon possessors, peace is not just a moral imperative, it is an existential imperative. No nation, let alone national leader, should have the ability to destroy all of humanity. Nuclear weapons must go and the Nobel Peace Prize can help make it so.

Let me end with the words of General Lee Butler, who during the Cold War was Commander of US Strategic forces, in other words, in charge of the US’s vast nuclear arsenal of strategic – or very powerful and capable of going very far – nuclear weapons. This is a quote from 1996 and it comes from Ikeda and Kriger’s book Choose Hope – “We cannot at once keep sacred the miracle of existence and hold sacrosanct the capacity to destroy it.” Think about that – miracle of existence vs. the capacity to destroy it.

We must choose hope that it is possible to hold on to the former and eliminate the latter.

Thank you!