Catalyst Fall 2015


The Original Concerned Scientist: Kurt Gottfried

In the late 1960s, Kurt Gottfried was years into a career as a professor of physics at Cornell University, happily married with two small children, and well-known in his field for his work and intellect. Most physicists would have delighted in his life and accomplishments, but Gottfried was deeply concerned about a growing threat to civilization—from the unchecked exploitation of scientific knowledge for military purposes.

Kurt Gottfried discusses national missile defense at a press conference in april 2000, after the release of the UCS report Countermeasures (of which he was a coauthor). The findings of the report led then-president Bill Clinton to declare later that month that he would not deploy a missile defense system.

When he accepted a visiting professorship at MIT for the academic year 1968–1969, Gottfried inadvertently landed upon the perfect project to address his concerns. Back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he had earned his doctorate, he was reunited with his former roommate Henry Kendall; the two friends responded to the political turbulence of 1969 by playing leading roles in the founding of a unique organization: one that sought to tap the power of science, to stem the threat posed by science itself.

Forty-six years later, Kurt Gottfried is still active in the Union of Concerned Scientists. He has served on the board since its inception, including a 10-year stint as chair, and remains the organization’s moral compass. Intolerant of dishonesty and injustice, he has used his standing as an accomplished physicist to stand up repeatedly for peaceful resolutions of conflicts and the protection of humankind.

“He is the epitome of a concerned scientist,” says Lisbeth Gronlund, who co-directs UCS’s Global Security program with David Wright; the two have worked with Gottfried for decades.

Early Years

Gottfried was born in Vienna, Austria, to Jewish parents. After their home was raided on Kristallnacht, his parents fled with nine-year-old Gottfried and his younger sister, eventually immigrating to Montreal, Canada.

“Though he was young, his exposure to the Nazi regime shaped his life-long antipathy to authoritarian government,” says Gronlund. “And his commitment to scientific integrity,” adds Wright.

In Montreal, Gottfried grew up, graduated from McGill University, and met and married his wife, Sorel, in 1955. That same year, he had earned a PhD in theoretical physics at MIT, where he’d roomed with Kendall, the future Nobel Prize winner and his fellow UCS cofounder.

During the year that Gottfried returned to teach at MIT, the Vietnam War was on every mind, with the draft creating tension among students and faculty. Gottfried—whose mentors had played leading roles in the Manhattan Project, developing the atomic bomb—was alarmed by the burgeoning nuclear arms race, and the commitment of science and scientists to creating ever more powerful nuclear weapons.

Excerpt from one of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ founding documents

“ . . . We are immersed in one of the most significant revolutions in man’s history. The force that drives this revolution is . . . relentless exploitations of scientific knowledge. That many of the transformations [from this revolution] have been immeasurably beneficial goes without saying. But, as with all revolutions, the technological revolution has released destructive forces and our society has failed to cope with them.”

—Kurt Gottfried, March 4, 1969

When a group of MIT students held a walkout to protest university involvement in the war, Gottfried and his colleagues saw an opportunity to start a broad, national movement that would wield science as a tool for peaceful progress. He drafted a statement (excerpted above), and they organized a nationwide teach-in on March 4, 1969—thus forming the Union of Concerned Scientists.

For a few years, UCS was little more than a mailbox and a handful of reports on nuclear weapons and anti-ballistic missile systems. Gottfried credits Kendall with transforming UCS into a tangible organization through his whistle-blowing work on nuclear power plant safety. Both Kendall and Gottfried, working with eminent physicists Hans Bethe and Richard Garwin, drew attention and acclaim to UCS by demonstrating the infeasibility of the "Star Wars" missile defense program during the 1980s. However, it was Gottfried who led what was possibly UCS’s most influential campaign.

A Movement for Scientific Integrity

Frustrated by the deliberate—and successful—efforts of the Bush administration in the early 2000s to distort and manipulate scientific knowledge in service of its political aims, Gottfried drafted a statement calling for the restoration of scientific integrity in the United States, and recruited hundreds of prominent scientists, including Nobel laureates, university heads, and former presidential advisors, to sign. From this push, a broader audience was made aware of the political censorship and manipulation affecting research at federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. And UCS’s membership expanded, as a much wider swath of science professionals such as physicians and medical researchers joined what would become the Science Network.

Kurt Gottfried, Matthew Meselson, and Lisbeth Gronlund

Kurt Gottfried (left), along with Matthew Meselson (then chair of the Federation of American Scientists) and UCS Global Security Program Co-Director Lisbeth Gronlund (then a PhD candidate at Cornell), participate in a trans-Atlantic video conference on nuclear weapons issues in 1986.

In addition to his work with UCS, Gottfried was also deeply engaged in campaigns in support of scientists in the former Soviet Union and South America who were imprisoned for expressing views in conflict with the dogmas of their authoritarian rulers. He personally arranged for two politically persecuted scientists to leave their home countries and come to Cornell, where he was teaching (and is now a professor emeritus).

Many physicists with Gottfried’s achievements and reputation in the field would be content with their accomplishments. And many great scientists, adds Wright, focus almost exclusively on their work and not its real-world ramifications. However, he says, Gottfried has always considered how scientific work fits into a larger picture.

“Those of us involved with UCS do feel that scientists have an obligation to society,” says Gottfried. “The notion that scientists can spend their careers doing public advocacy—that from a scientific point of view is still interesting and intellectually honest—is something that we helped to foster. We need to keep the public and our government informed about the implications of science.”

Renaming the Living Legacy Society

The members of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ planned giving program share a deep commitment to a healthier, safer future for the next generation, and generations after that. In their commitment and caring, they follow in Kurt Gottfried’s footsteps.

Those supporters who have arranged to sustain UCS in this work for years to come are now part of the Kurt Gottfried Society—renamed from the Living Legacy Society in his honor. We are proud to take the opportunity to pay tribute in this way to our founder and friend.