Speech at the opening of the "Sakharov Readings" by young scientists
on the occasion of Andrey Sakharov's 80th birthday

May 21st 2001, at the International Sakharov Environmental University

by Richard Wilson,
retiring Chairman of the International Advisory Committee.

I want to tell you about one of the world's truly great men; my friend Andrey Dmitreyvich Sakharov. I apologize because I inevitably will tell you about myself - and that is less interesting.

I first heard of Sakharov from one of his mentors; Nobel Laureate Igor Tamm, while we relaxed in the top of a small mountain in Switzerland 43 years ago. Igor was in Switzerland as a scientific negotiator for the test ban treaty and I was there for a scientific conference. Igor told us to look out for his young colleague who he thought was far brighter than himself (Tamm was very bright so that was a high recommendation).

I first met Andrey 23 years ago when my wife and I called on him and his wife, Elena Bonner, in their apartment in Moscow. I asked him two questions. "How can I help Yuri Orlov?" who was  then serving 7 years hard labor in Perm.  Orlov's crime was "defamation of the Soviet Union" - running the Moscow Branch of Amnesty International and the Helsinki watchdog group - and writing to Secretary Brezhnev whenever there was a transgression. Andrey, Elena and 60 others, protested outside the secret proceedings in the courthouse and were arrested. My whole research group and I had merely, from a safe distance, sent a cable to Secretary Brezhnev.

Andrey was aware that he was in a more secure position than Yuri. The KGB was afraid of him because of his unassailable reputation. He had been awarded the highest honors the Soviet society could give, with money to match. He had thrown them aside, and given his money to a hospital and had returned from Arzoumas to Moscow to protest the system. He realized that his liberty and his life were more secure than that of Yuri Orlov. But he also argued that with the greater security came a greater obligation to mankind to speak out. He told me, either then or later in a similar context: "there must be a hundred people who have tried to do what I have done of whom the world will never hear" - because they were liquidated by the KGB.

Andrey had an idea to help Yuri. We could get the biggest bureaucracy in the United States, the post office, to fight the biggest Soviet bureaucracy, the KGB. At Andrey's suggestion, I sent Orlov a registered letter and got a receipt. But someone other than Orlov signed it. (Indeed Orlov only heard about it when he got to the USA 10 years later). I then demanded my money back. Treaty obligations demanded that the Soviet post office pay my money back, plus I believe a $25 compensation charge. Alas both the US Post Office and my "liberal" representative in the US Congress refused to follow up. I tried to get all 200 members of an accelerator conference to follow my lead and send registered letters, but no one else did.

It was just after the accident at Three Mile Island. In response to my second question, Andrey told me that he still strongly supported nuclear power. Indeed he said so again after Chernobyl - many times.

Since that first meeting, we corresponded at least yearly; when he was in Gorki (1979-1987) I sent yearly Christmas cards but was careful to write no political comments on them. I still have his Christmas cards in return. We next met at the historic "conference for a nuclear free world" in Moscow, just after Chernobyl, in February 1987. In one of his three interventions, Andrey publicly reproved a colleague from the German green party: "It would be better," he said "to spend your energies on making nuclear power safer, rather than on opposing it."

Andrey was modest and unassuming - and often had to be urged forward by Elena Bonner. He was more comfortable with a small group of friends than with a large group in a conference. He always thought of individuals - and believed passionately that authority must flow from people to governments and not the other way around. He was a scientist; he was more at home than myself with the basic problems of physics. He was also interested in the applications of science - in technology. He never lost faith in technology; he reminded us that the way to make technology better is through open discussion. Secrecy eventually leads to mistakes and accidents - such as at the accident at Chernobyl. Secrecy also did not permit application of the most important measure to reduce the consequence of that accident - asking the citizens not to drink milk for three weeks. Many, if not all, of the thyroid cancers from which your citizens suffer could have been avoided if secrecy had not prevented the responsible scientists and physicians from being open with the public.

Andrey as a man had power of forgiveness, which I try to emulate. For example, when in Arzoumas he had written several scientific papers on the origin of the universe with Zeldovich - one of his mentors. When Zeldovich, in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, viciously attacked Andrey's human rights activities, Andrey was deeply hurt. But several Russian friends told me that at Zeldovich's funeral around 1988, Andrey gave the most moving speech in Zeldovich's memory without a hint of reproach.

One of his early-published papers was on the effect of the explosion of nuclear bombs in the atmosphere; he estimated that 6,000 cancers would be caused throughout the world from a single bomb and wrote to Kruschev urging abandonment of the unnecessary last large test at Novaya Zemlia; it was unnecessary because as the designer he knew that it would work. But Kruschev decided to go ahead anyway. At the celebration party it fell to Andrey as the designer of the bomb to give the famous first toast, which so displeased the Soviet military hierarchy:

"May all our tests be as successful as this one; but always over test sites and never over cities."

Andrey told me, and his memoirs confirm, that the official response to his concerns led him to believe that scientists must NOT remain in an Ivory Tower but must enter the public arena to ensure that the technology is used for the benefit of the human race and not to destroy it. His first major step was to write the 2-page article "on peaceful co-existence" published in 1968 in the New York Times. It remains, I believe, his finest writing. But western scientists failed him. If the US Academy of Sciences had officially endorsed his ideas, the cold war might have come to an end 20 years before, and the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union might not have occurred.

I discussed the Chernobyl accident with Andrey on my return from each of my visits to Chernobyl. We discussed freely how a reactor must be designed and operated to avoid accidents. Either designed so that no matter which fool operates it, it will be safe, or operated so that no matter which fool designed it, it will be safe. In the Soviet Union the latter was the case! Indeed he agreed with a statement of Kapitza's "The Chernobyl accident showed that the Soviet society could not manage modern technology." Andrey proposed that, for each major technological decision, a committee of general scientific experts be formed: experts in the basic disciplines, physics, chemistry or biology. They would be asked to review designs, and experts would be merely asked to testify to the review committee. That became the structure for the first International Sakharov conference on May 21st 1991.

I remember clearly our last meeting a couple of months before his death. It was a happy time. We were in our garden that my wife makes beautiful, with his family. Andrey, in a playful mood, stood up on a stone pillar and posed like a Greek statue. His 35-year-old stepdaughter Tania Yankelevich lay down on the grass and rolled down the hill like a 10 year old. He had accomplished what he had set out to do but he knew there was much more to be done. Freedom is one of man's most treasured possessions. But it can also be very dangerous. Moreover, "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance." It is for you young people to carry his work forward. But please remember: his work was not only to encourage the human rights of each and every one of us, but also to use technology to the full in that endeavor.

But Andrey was thoughtful even on that day. He asked about the terrible situation of the Sudan - where the army was stealing overseas aid intended for the people. (It so happened that Dr. Abdlatif Al Hamad, the Director General of the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development, had just informed me about this.) He compared this theft to the oppression of the people in the Ukraine over 70 years ago, where the Red army took their food and 2 million people were deliberately starved to death. This event was well known in the 1930s when I was a boy, but I had forgotten. But Andrey never forgot man's, all too frequent, inhumanity to man.

We also discussed his paper, written 20 years before, about the number of cigarettes that caused the same number of cancers as one rem of radiation. He had thought 100 - the modern figure is about 700. The dangers of cigarettes were much on his mind. He tried many times to get his wife, Elena Bonner, to stop smoking; but she couldn't. After two major heart attacks including a quadruple by-pass operation, she is not well now, otherwise she would be with us today.

He was estranged from his children by his first marriage, never talked about them and seemed embarrassed to do so. These and other details tell us that Andrey was not a God - he was a man. And as a man he had his faults; we loved him nevertheless and his very humanity makes it easier to follow him. When he died, the world lost a great man and I lost a friend.

It has been my privilege to help, in a very small way, to build this fine university in his memory.