UC Berkeley News


In this photo, taken on March 23, 1962, Owen Chamberlain (right) is introduced to President John F. Kennedy at University House, on the occasion of Kennedy's Charter Day address at Memorial Stadium. Also seen are UC President Clark Kerr (far left), California Gov. Edmund G. Brown (center), and former Berkeley Chancellor Glenn Seaborg (behind Brown) - another Berkeley Nobelist involved in development of the atomic bomb who became an advocate of disarmament.(Photo courtesy The Bancroft Library, University of California-Berkeley)

A man of civility and conscience

| 08 March 2006

At one point during the Cold War, Nobel laureate Owen Chamberlain proposed a "gimmick" to prevent a nuclear holocaust: Each of the 200 most important political and military figures in the United States and the Soviet Union would be required to send a family member to live in the other country. "This might be arranged easily, is really quite inexpensive, and . might make nuclear war seem out-of-the-question to all," Chamberlain suggested. "The hostages - maybe one can find a better word - could be children or grandchildren or perhaps nephews and nieces."

Whether a serious proposal or a "modest" one in the satirical tradition of Jonathan Swift, Chamberlain's "hostage" scheme reflected a lifelong preoccupation. Having participated in the race to create the atomic bomb, witnessed the test explosion of the first atomic device at Alamogordo, and seen the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, he forever after felt a responsibility to beat the nuclear "sword" into ploughshares.

It is said that following the Alamogordo test Chamberlain sent bits of desert sand, fused into glass by the heat of the explosion, to Washington politicians, warning them of their power to do the same to mankind were they ever to use this fearful new technology. In the decades that followed he denounced nuclear weapons as "abominable" devices that would seriously compromise world security and helped found the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund, which supports organizations working to prevent the spread and use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

"He was always concerned with nuclear weapons, society, and those who are disadvantaged, long before he got the Nobel," says Berkeley physicist Herbert Steiner, a colleague of Chamberlain's for more than 50 years. Steiner recalls, as an example, his friend's activity in two disparate projects bearing the acronym SOS - the Special Opportunities Scholarships program (an early attempt to attract disadvantaged students to the Berkeley campus) and Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, and Shcharansky (a group that worked to support Russian "dissidents" being repressed by their government for their role in advocating basic human rights). While Chamberlain left a powerful scientific legacy, notes Steiner, "his social involvement gave another dimension to his personality."

Coffee and compromise

Chamberlain's activism extended to issues on the Berkeley campus, most notably the 1964 Free Speech Movement - in which he tried to serve as an intermediary between students and the administration - and subsequent skirmishes over free speech at Sproul Hall (now Mario Savio) Steps and the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). At one point during the FSM, recounts physicist Art Rosenfeld, "students had taken over Moses Hall, demanding some UC action which Owen and I thought was partly reasonable, partly overdone." According to Rosenfeld, the two faculty members shouted to students inside that they wanted to speak with them, were hoisted by rope to the second story, and worked out a compromise with the students over coffee, beer, and doughnuts.

At the end of the FSM crisis, Chamberlain penned a letter to faculty at other UC campuses, saying that "some of our best students are supporters, and ardent ones, of the FSM. I am trying to listen and I ask you to listen. See if they are not saying, 'Respect our civil disobedience.. Show us that we have the full rights of citizens whether we are this year on the learning end or the teaching end of the University.'"

Two years later, when the campus administration wanted to restrict student speakers to Lower Sproul Plaza, it was this letter of Chamberlain's that Mario Savio quoted in an address to 5,000 students - and Chamberlain to whom he appealed by name, along with the rest of the faculty, to stand up, again, "for what they once thought was worth defending.."

"I have found that the practice of having speakers at noon on Sproul Steps has been most pleasant and refreshing," Chamberlain subsequently wrote Chancellor Roger Heyns, in characteristically civil wording. "I like the feature that as one walks through Sather Gate one hears a few sentences and can then decide whether to tarry or move on I think it has added to our campus life a very positive tone..I have heard," he went on, "that Sproul Steps has become a symbol of student defiance of the Administration, of its ability to show the students who is master in this house. I think I too am guilty a bit of symbolism. I feel that the use of voice amplification on Sproul Steps stands as a symbol of freedom of speech on the Campus."

One gets little hint of Chamberlain's political involvements, on-campus or off-, from his own account of his life and times. "I don't know whether I've ever been what I would call politically active," he told the campus Regional Oral History Office in a 1978 interview. "I've made occasional appearances in some of the general issues of peace, nuclear arms, nuclear-disarmament sort of questions."

This self-description is perhaps best understood as an example of Chamberlain's tendency to downplay his own role in things. His son Darol Chamberlain, a research-support specialist at Cornell University, recalls that his father, "being very modest," rarely spoke about his activism "even when events were occurring. My father didn't put himself above other people. He never assumed that his perspective was necessarily any better than someone else's."

Darol Chamberlain attributes his father's activism first and foremost to his feelings of responsibility about the Bomb, but also to his high-school education at Germantown Friends, a Quaker school in Philadelphia; to his residence at International House during his years as a Berkeley graduate student (which "undoubtedly exposed him to progressive global viewpoints"); and to the influence of his three wives.

"My mother, Babette Copper Chamberlain, through her involvement in the creation of Berkeley's Fair Housing Ordinance . likely increased my father's sensitivity to issues of racial injustice," he says. "In later years, his political involvement was encouraged both by June Steingart, his second wife, and most recently by the strong political persuasions of my stepmother, Senta Pugh-Chamberlain."

With Owen Chamberlain's egalitarian impulses, says his son, "came a strong sense that to resolve problems, the solutions needed to be fair. Finding fair solutions required putting himself in the shoes of even an opponent, to see from their perspective what was important to them, and where compromises might have to be made. For example, in the 1980s the Soviet Union was no more happy about the presence of short-range U.S. nuclear Pershing missiles in Europe than the U.S. had been happy about Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. I remember him testifying in Washington against the Pershing deployment. The importance he placed on fairness played an important role in the whole gamut of issues he was involved with."