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John Polanyi is a Nobel laureate in the department of chemistry at the University of Toronto who has written widely on the dangers of nuclear war. He is the winner of the 2022 American Physical Society’s Sakharov Prize.

Andrei Sakharov’s life embodied elements of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – with Sakharov as both sorcerer and apprentice. His talent was evident when, in his 20s, he was selected to lead the Soviet Union’s hydrogen-bomb project. His voice was foremost in his country’s development of the weapon that changed the world.

We celebrate him today not because of that, but because of his courageous defence of freedom. He saw freedom of thought as central to life as well as science. He saw it, moreover, as our best source of hope in a world beset by dangers. So it came to be that the Russian inventor of the most terrible weapon of war proceeded to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

To non-scientists, this award might seem to embody a contradiction. But to scientists it evidences a profound truth, which is that science is a civilized pursuit. The example of toleration and co-operation in science offers our species its best hope for survival. It does so because science demands that we not only talk, but listen, acknowledging the humanity of the other.

Sakharov matured from a leading spokesman among bombmakers to a leading defender of human rights. He did this in the face of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. He came to realize that through science he had acquired membership in a community devoted to truth – not Soviet truth, nor socialist truth, but universal truth. Such truth has no need to hide, since it thrives on scrutiny. So we arrive at the intersection of science and the most fundamental of human rights: the right to inquire. It was an intersection at which Sakharov lived and left his historic imprint.

His message to us, as clear today as it was 33 years ago when he died, is found in his dictum that “the struggle for human rights is today the real struggle for peace and the future of humankind.” What he was urging was that a regulating principle, similar to that which guides science, must be brought to bear on society as a whole. If we fail in this, we risk falling victim to deadly science, which, in his words, is “the greatest peril confronting the modern world.”

That simple truth remains unclear to many. But inspired by this revelation, Sakharov was willing to sacrifice every privilege he had acquired in order to address the problem he had helped create. He expressed no regret for having made his discoveries, since knowledge was not evil; the evil lay in the neglect of its consequences, and these he diligently addressed.

In the accounts I read of him before meeting him, he appeared uncompromising. That may have been the case, reflecting his strong sense of moral purpose. But to meet him was to be charmed by his humility. Scientists of accomplishment should be humbled by their encounters with the unknown. The path to discovery is paved with failure. Sakharov’s pursuit of truth reflected this, as is evident in his chosen epitaph, taken from Goethe: “He alone is worthy of life and freedom / who each day does battle for them anew.”

This battle took him, to his regret, away from the pursuit of science. He used his fame instead to argue for restraint in international relations. Specifically, he asked for a halt to nuclear tests. This earned him a stinging rebuke from Nikita Khrushchev: “Leave politics to us. You make your bombs.”

But rather than retreat, Sakharov advanced. He became his nation’s leading voice of dissent, standing his ground in defence of liberty. For seven years, he was banished to the closed city of Gorky. Such was his stature that isolation only served to draw attention to his pursuit of principle.

What was that principle? It was that authority must be subject to tests.

On March 1, the embassy of the Russian Federation in Canada made a statement concerning its intervention in Ukraine that patently fails that test. Russia’s aim there, we are told, is to rescue civilians from fascism with the help of high-precision weapons. This is a mockery of the truth by those who know the truth, but have made it subject to the dictates of power.

This was already evident by 1989, the year the Soviet Union began to fall apart. Thereupon Sakharov was invited back to Moscow, where he exerted his influence as an elected parliamentarian until the day he died. Reportedly, his last words were: “Tomorrow, there will be a battle.”

That battle continues. We should view it in the spirit of hope which animated Andrei Sakharov. He had once seen the germ of an idea become reality; tragically, it was a way of killing. Still, he continued to put his faith in reason, subject however to the dictates of humanity.

As for the battle, it is being waged between those who have power and those who have the weapon that brings victory, namely the truth. As Andrei Sakharov taught, we must put our faith in that.

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