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Contemplating “Oppenheimer”

Contemplating “Oppenheimer”

By Robert Lawrence Kuhn

I’ve just watched the engaging trailer for Oppenheimer, the new film that seems to be a grand, faithful historical drama of one of the most epoch-defining projects in human history: the rapid, wartime development of the first atomic weapon. 

In 1943, J. Robert Oppenheimer was appointed the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in the New Mexico wilderness and given overarching responsibility for building the Bomb, which required him to lead an all-star roster of many of the central figures in early/mid 20th century physics. He was all of 39 years old. 

How at such a young age could Oppenheimer have been given such a critical task?

Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer film premieres July 21.

Part of the reason were his remarkable contributions to diverse areas of leading-edge physics: molecular wave functions, theory of electrons and positrons, nuclear fusion, and first predictions of quantum tunneling. Moreover, with his students he advanced understanding in quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, cosmic rays, and the modern theory of neutron stars and black holes.

In 1947, Oppenheimer became the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, the premiere organization of its kind where Albert Einstein and other intellectual luminaries worked and called home. The next year, Oppenheimer gave the distinguished physicist and futurist Freeman Dyson a lifetime appointment, because, as Oppenheimer quipped (according to Dyson), “for proving me wrong.”

To give a sense of the Institute under Oppenheimer, Dyson recalled his first day: “I arrived on a September day in 1948. I walked into the main building, and the first thing I saw was a bunch of kids, racing around the room, playing ‘Cowboys and Indians.’ And I thought immediately, ‘Good, this is the place I belong.’”

The Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey

To honor Oppenheimer and the Institute for Advanced Study, we have prepared a special Closer To Truth playlist of videos filmed at the Institute and videos on topics relevant to Oppenheimer’s scientific career. For example, see “Does the Cosmos have a Reason?” in which Alex Vilenkin discusses quantum tunneling, for which Oppenheimer was a pioneer.

Back to the Bomb for a momentary retrospection. To those who criticize the US for having made the Bomb, I am reminded of two sad principles of human conflict: if a new weapon can be made, it will be made; and if there are rules to limit weapons, the good guys will follow them, the bad guys won’t.

I look forward to watching all three hours.

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