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Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer pictured in 1945 (left) and a still of Cillian Murphy in the 2023 'Oppenheimer' film.

J. Robert Oppenheimer in real life (left) and as played by actor Cillian Murphy (right) in the film Oppenheimer.Credit: Associated Press/Alamy, FlixPix/Alamy

Director Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, three-hour film Oppenheimer, about the US theoretical physicist who led the development of the world’s first nuclear weapons, opened in UK and US cinemas on 21 July to widespread acclaim. Since the film’s release, the scientific world has been abuzz about its accuracy — and whether it does justice to the many facets of the story of the atomic bomb.

To get a specialist’s take, Nature spoke to Richard Rhodes, a foremost historian on the Manhattan Project, the government programme that produced the first nuclear weapons, and author of the Pulitzer-prizewinning 1986 book The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

The film intertwines two main narrative threads: one about how J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–67) hired and headed a group of leading scientists to harness the discovery of nuclear fission during the Second World War. The other is about Oppenheimer’s downfall, which took place a decade later, when he lost his national-security clearance. In the first thread, we see Oppenheimer, overseen by US army general Leslie Groves, lay the foundation for Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. In the second, we see his opposition to creating an even more powerful weapon of mass destruction than the atomic bomb — the hydrogen bomb — put him in the cross-hairs of a scheming politician, Lewis Strauss, who had a leading role in the US Atomic Energy Commission.

Rhodes talked with Nature about these threads and the film’s portrayal of researchers.

What did you think of the film?

All in all, a really good job. I have watched many Hollywood versions of this story — I remember that terrible [1989] movie Fat Man and Little Boy, which got almost everything wrong. One mistake — and this was not in Nolan’s picture at all — was the notion that somehow, the physicists could have all got together after the discovery of fission [in 1938] and said, “Oh, let’s not work on this, let’s not tell anybody, let’s just keep this quiet and to ourselves” [to avoid the development of nuclear weapons]. This is so ignorant of how science works. Everyone had been talking about releasing the energy in the atom for 40 years, ever since [chemist] Marie Curie and the early discoveries of radioactivity. That everyone wouldn’t pick up on this discovery is just silly.

Richard Rhodes.

Richard Rhodes won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 book The Making of the Atomic Bomb.Credit: Nancy Warner

The film portrays Oppenheimer as remorseful for having helped to create these weapons. Was he?

Yes, and in the film we have Oppenheimer going to see [then-US-president Harry] Truman and telling him he has blood on his hands. Oppenheimer was both remorseful and proud. He understood what a terrible thing it was.

Now, I want to point out something that was not referred to in the movie: Los Alamos officials thought that the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be in their bomb shelters when the bombs were dropped. Their estimates of the number of deaths were much lower than the actual number. The reason they thought that is because the Japanese were always going to the bomb shelters when they heard a fleet of B-29 airplanes coming. But when there were only one or two B-29s [the case when the atomic bombs were dropped], they just assumed the planes were there to check out the weather. They did not go to the shelters, and therefore many more were killed by the firestorm that followed than would have died otherwise.

How was Oppenheimer chosen for the job of leading Los Alamos — at only 38 years of age?

No one thought Oppenheimer was the right choice — except general Groves, as far as I can tell. Oppenheimer didn’t have a Nobel Prize; he was terrible in the laboratories. But whenever Groves had a question that he needed an answer to, he would ask Oppenheimer. So Oppenheimer cultivated him, and in that sense, perhaps recruited himself for the job. Oppenheimer was indeed a loyal American citizen; he understood the horror of Nazi Germany; he had used some of his considerable wealth in part to get Jewish people out of Nazi Germany and Austria and bring them to the United States.

He wanted this task, and I think he probably saw more clearly than even Groves did, the need to have scientists get together in one place.

Kai Bird, co-author of the book on which the film was based, wrote in the New York Times that the real tragedy of Oppenheimer was that his clearance case “sent a warning to all scientists not to stand up in the political arena”. Do you think that comes across in the film?

That is the message, and I’m sure it was intentional. The main reason [for Oppenheimer’s downfall] — other than the personal animus that Lewis Strauss had against him — was a large involvement of the US air force.

Oppenheimer thought that this huge hydrogen weapon, with its potential for megatons and megatons of yield, was a travesty, as there was no legitimate military target for such a weapon. It was basically and purely a weapon of mass destruction. So, the air force wanted to get him out of the way [to develop it], and it was a significant part of the attempt to destroy Oppenheimer.

Could the Manhattan Project have worked without Oppenheimer?

Everyone thinks Oppenheimer led the Manhattan Project. He did not, of course: he led Los Alamos Laboratory. [Other major facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, produced plutonium and enriched uranium as part of the sprawling effort and aren’t a focus of the film.]

I don’t know whether it could or couldn’t have been done without Oppenheimer. But it certainly could not have even remotely happened without Groves. Groves operated on a scale that just defies imagination. And in doing so, and in constantly and relentlessly pushing everybody to get the job done, he made it happen.

Do you think audiences will leave the film with greater trust for scientists, or lesser trust?

I think scientists are clearly good guys in the movie — or, at least, most of them are. Certainly, there were those, including [physicist] Ernest Lawrence, who were basically opposed to Oppenheimer’s decision of not developing the hydrogen bomb. But scientists come out on the good side, which is quite an achievement when you think of what they were working on.

There’s an interesting question of, why didn’t Nolan show what happened on the ground at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? First of all, the story was told from Oppenheimer’s perspective. And second of all, if [Nolan] had shown the chaos on the ground, it would have been too much for the sensibility of a viewer who wasn’t prepared for that kind of destructiveness of war.

Are there scientists that the film gives short shrift to?

If there’s anything that I missed, it was a little more emphasis on the conclusions that Oppenheimer and the group at Los Alamos came to after [physicist] Niels Bohr arrived [in 1943] — which was basically Bohr’s idea of complementarity, a concept he originally devised to try to understand the phenomenon that led to quantum physics.

Although [the bomb] was, without question, a terrible weapon of mass destruction, Bohr also brought a sense that this was going to change the world in essentially hopeful ways — that this weapon is so destructive that it will make it possible for even a small state to protect itself potentially against a large state that has nuclear weapons.

Are there also negative consequences to this deterrence strategy?

I do believe that very strongly, and it’s a potential disaster for humanity. There’s a new and really sinister development in the whole business of deterrence: it started with [the Kargil War in 1999 between] India and Pakistan — when Pakistan realized that with a nuclear arsenal at its back, it could conduct a conventional war without the risk of nuclear escalation.

[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is now fighting a war against Ukraine under cover of his nuclear arsenal. We’ve escalated to a level where we can go in and have conventional wars again — at least small ones — and get away with it because of the backing of a nuclear arsenal. That’s a really sinister development, and fraught with peril on all sides.

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