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Boston doctor, addressing Russians, warns against nuclear war and ‘end of civilization’

Russian scientists call for joint statement opposing atomic warfare

Boston cardiologist and Nobel laureate Dr. James Muller addressed the Russian Academy of Science on Zoom early Wednesday, warning against nuclear war.Russian Academy of Science

A doctor from Boston appealed directly to leading Russian scientists Wednesday, warning that a nuclear war triggered by the “massive bloodshed” in Ukraine could bring the “end of human civilization.”

Addressing the prestigious Russian Academy of Science, Dr. James Muller, a cardiologist and Nobel laureate, cautioned that the ongoing destruction in Ukraine could escalate and is preventing collaboration between Americans and Russians on a range of medical and scientific issues. “There is no possibility of raising money in the US for cooperation with Russian physicians until the violence has ceased,” he said.

His impassioned remarks prompted some top Russian scientists — who’d spoken earlier about being ostracized by international colleagues behind a “new Iron Curtain” — to say they’d consider joining US counterparts in a public call to oppose nuclear conflict and resume collaboration.

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Muller spoke in Russian to about 115 scientists in a 15-minute video address broadcast on a Russian scientific television channel. To illustrate the danger of nuclear war, he described how a nuclear attack could obliterate Boston — starting with a deadly “fireball” near the Charles River — along with other cities in the United States and Russia.

“It is difficult to respond to the nuclear threat because the scale of the damage is beyond our imagination,” he said. “But we must peer into the darkness to plan our escape.”

Muller, 79, who cofounded the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, was on a team of American and Russian doctors who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for raising public awareness of atomic warfare and its “catastrophic consequences.” More recently, he has been working with colleagues in Russia on finding ways to combat health threats like heart disease, cancer, and COVID-19.

He accepted an invitation to talk to the Russian academy as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine continues, almost all independent journalists in Russia have been silenced or exiled, and many international partners are suspending research ventures with Russian scientists and physicians.

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“We hope the path of reason and peace can be chosen, and we can resume our collaboration with our Russian medical and scientific colleagues on the problems of disease, exploration of space, and climate change — global problems which require a global response unimpeded by violence and threats of nuclear destruction,” Muller said.

“Humans can be consumed by their differences and turn to violence as we now witness — but we can also think clearly, cooperate, negotiate, and love. Let us choose these features of our nature,” he said.

Immediately after Muller’s address, Dr. Alexander Sergeev, president of the Russian Academy of Science, suggested doctors and scientists shouldn’t wait for leaders to reach a political agreement on Ukraine.

“We will not get this tomorrow,” Sergeev said. “Can we do something right now? I think it is a very good idea to prepare and sign a joint statement” between scientific bodies in Russia and the United States.

The parties expressed agreement that there could be no winner in a nuclear exchange and on the importance of working together in science, medicine, and space. But it wasn’t clear when their joint statement would be issued or if it would explicitly criticize Russia’s war in Ukraine or call for a cease-fire. Regardless, said Sergeev, “We may agree on some things, which is very important.”

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Another member of the Russian academy, Yuri Belega, chief research officer of its special astrophysical observatory, cited a half-century of “science diplomacy” with Americans, quoting Russian author Anton Chekhov’s observation that “there is no such thing as national science” in a global community.

“These connections, these network are not to be trampled on, but we shall preserve them,” he said, while decrying “restrictions imposed against Russia” at a time of international tensions. “The scientific cooperation is the means of building bridges between likeminded partners.”

Russian scientists who oppose their country’s invasion of Ukraine have to be careful how they couch their public statements, said Joseph Nye, professor emeritus at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former US deputy undersecretary of state for security assistance, science, and technology. He cited a new Russian law that can jail citizens for up to 15 years for spreading what the Russian state calls “fake” information, including describing the invasion of Ukraine as a “war” rather than a “special operation.”

Nye said the kind of science diplomacy being practiced by Muller and his American and Russian colleagues is important. “It’s useful in piercing the veil of ignorance that Putin is trying to bring down around the invasion of Ukraine,” he said. “You don’t want to break social ties or communications with Russians because you want to ventilate the place,” he said.

Muller, in his speech and his response to Russian questions afterward, explicitly linked the assault on Ukraine to the nuclear threat, noting that Russian nuclear weapons have been placed on high alert.

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“We’re in an extremely dangerous position,” Muller said. “The conflict is taking us past the Ukraine. It’s taking us to the end of human civilization.”

Muller, who works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, drew on an account first given decades ago by his former colleague, Dr. Bernard Lown, to starkly illustrate what that would mean for Boston, and by extension other American and Russian cities where he’s lived or visited.

“Multiple nuclear warheads, each more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, would strike the city,” he said. “In the center near the Charles River, there would be a fireball with intense temperatures that would kill hundreds of thousands instantly. ... The total deaths in Boston would be 3 million. There would be fierce winds and radioactive fallout. Medical care, even pain relief would be unavailable because most hospitals, including the Brigham and Women’s where I work, would be destroyed and most health professionals would be killed or injured...

“The tragedy I have just described for Boston will occur for the many cities I know well and admire, all of which are most likely targeted by many nukes — Moscow, Washington DC, St. Petersburg, Baltimore, Vladimir, Indianapolis, Novosibirsk, and San Francisco.”

John Holdren, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama on science and technology issues, said communicating through informal outreach is a positive step when governments are at loggerheads.

“In times of great peril, we need to use every channel that might work,” said Holdren, who suggested leading scientists have influenced their nation’s leaders in the past but aren’t always able to. “In the current situation, I don’t see a lot of reason for optimism that this particular intervention will succeed. But I see no good argument against trying.”

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Anna Kuchment of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.