APS News

Human Rights Session Mirrors Einstein’s Lifelong Interests

Several speakers honored Albert Einstein at a March Meeting invited paper session on "The Physics Community’s Defense of Human Rights." The session was chaired by APS 2003 President Myriam Sarachik and sponsored by the Forum on Physics and Society (FPS). The session’s five speakers were selected because of their own past human rights deprivations or their dedicated efforts on behalf of oppressed scientists. In their talks, most of them explicitly paid homage to Einstein’s lifelong devotion to the cause of human rights worldwide.

The session opened with a talk by Li-Zhi Fang, who avoided imprisonment by the Chinese government after the Tiananmen Square massacre only by taking refuge in the United States Embassy. In his talk, titled "Einstein, Social Responsibility of Physicists and Human Rights in China," Fang reviewed the history of the suppression of intellectual freedom in China, which included attacks on relativistic physics and on Einstein personally. Fang, now at the University of Arizona, pointed out that Einstein, who had become acquainted with the Chinese scientific community during his initial 1922 visit to China, thereafter had openly protested the Chinese government’s human rights violations on numerous occasions.

Fang was followed by Joel Lebowitz of Rutgers University, speaking as the recipient of this year’s Nicholson Medal for humanitarian service. Lebowitz, whose talk was titled "Physicists and Human Rights: Reflections on the Past and Present," concentrated on the actions and inactions of scientists, especially physicists, in response to events involving the human and professional rights of colleagues. He illustrated his remarks mainly with events during the years the Nazis ruled Germany, and quoted various statements opposing Nazi abuses by Einstein who, as Lebowitz said, "was so quotable." Among the Nazi edicts, said Lebowitz to the amusement of the audience, was the requirement that all writings by Jewish authors, including presumably Einstein’s scientific papers, had to be labeled "translated from the Hebrew."

Yuri Chernyak, in a talk titled "Physicists and Mathematicians for Human Rights in the USSR," then reviewed the contributions by physicists and their mathematician colleagues to the struggle for democratization and human rights in the USSR. He emphasized the important roles played by Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov, as well as by the independent scientific seminars which bolstered the morale of so many scientist refusniks (persons whose emigration requests the Soviet government had refused). Chernyak, now at MIT and himself a former refusnik, had been chairman of the independent Moscow Sunday Seminar.

The next talk, by Hadi Hadizadeh, titled "Human Rights in Iran after the 1978 Islamic Revolution," concentrated on the threats to human rights enshrined in today’s Iranian Constitution, which establishes non-elected theocratic bodies that have essentially unlimited powers and are not supervised by any elected bodies. Hadizadeh, now at Ohio University, only very recently received a visa permitting him to reside and work in the US; he faces imprisonment should he return to Iran.

The last talk, by Edward Gerjuoy of the University of Pittsburgh, was titled "The American Physical Society’s Involvement in the Defense of Human Rights." Gerjuoy, the organizer of the session, praised the APS for its past and continuing steadfast support of human rights. Gerjuoy argued that this APS support, which since 1980 has been the province of its Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists, illustrates the unusually intense resistance of physicists to governmental restrictions on intellectual freedom. In so arguing, Gerjuoy echoed an important theme of the talks by Fang and Chernyak, who had remarked on the surprisingly large number of physicists at the forefront of the human rights struggles in their respective nations.

In closing remarks, Sarachik praised the session’s concentration on the human rights of scientists and urged the audience to join the APS efforts to preserve those rights.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff