The Atomic Age’s Enigma: Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Bomb

A white light rose from the horizon, followed by fireballs and dust from the explosion. The scientists were lying on their stomachs at the observation point, their faces shining with white light, their expressions glazed, and the shock from an unfamiliar force occupied everyone’s minds at the moment compared to the joy of the success of the experiment.

On July 16, 1945, in the wilderness of southern New Mexico, the first atomic bomb in human history was detonated, and the night was lit by fire.

In the movie “Oppenheimer”, British director Christopher Nolan used the lens to restore the historic moment of the “Manhattan Project”. In order to produce the atomic bomb before Nazi Germany, in June 1942, the U.S. War Department summoned the best scientists of the time, invested huge manpower and financial resources, and spent three years waiting for this moment of explosion.

In the film, Robert Oppenheimer, a Jewish-American physicist who led the Manhattan Project, stares at the place where the explosion occurred, his mouth slightly open. From this moment on, he will have a new identity – the “father of the atomic bomb”.

However, there are two sides to everything. The white light that rises from the horizon will create the pinnacle of his prestige, and it will also be the starting gun for him to fall into the abyss.

In the movie, in the last moments before the explosion, Oppenheimer’s voice sounded first: “Now I am the Grim Reaper, the destroyer of the worlds.” ”

This is a verse from the Bhagavad Gita, a classic of Indian religious philosophy. For a while, Oppenheimer was obsessed with Sanskrit, and in a 1962 documentary, he recalled that it was this phrase that came to mind when he first saw a mushroom cloud rushing into the sky from the center of the explosion.

The nuclear bomb test site was also chosen by Oppenheimer.

In the spring of 1944, he was jolting in a military truck in the valleys of southern New Mexico. In order to find a safe place, he spent three days and three nights in the wilderness. The military security officials who went with him later recalled that they slept together on a flatbed truck because of rattlesnakes in the wild, and Oppenheimer looked up at the stars and recalled his school days in Göttingen.

That’s where he got involved with quantum physics. His mentors and classmates such as Max Born, Otto Hahn, Ernst Pascul Jordham, and Paul Dirac all went on to become important figures in the physics community, and just 20 years later, the results of that year’s research would be used to create the world’s most terrifying weapon.

But the fear of becoming a “Grim Reaper” was quickly diluted by the joy of a successful trial.

After the violent explosion passed, in the morning light, the scientists at the scene were ecstatic, high-fived, hugged and cheered each other. They gathered around Oppenheimer, lined up to shake his hand, carried him on his shoulder, and had him wave his iconic hat to greet everyone.

After the successful test of the first atomic bomb, the crowd gathered around Oppenheimer to celebrate and cheer. (Stills from the movie “Oppenheimer”)

In the movie, the chemist George Kistyakovsky also asks Oppenheimer for $10. Two days earlier, the two had made a bet on whether the explosion would succeed, and Oppenheimer lost $10 to earn the title of “father of the atomic bomb.” In fact, after returning to Los Alamos, where the lab was located, Oppenheimer held a ceremony to hand over an autographed $10 bill to Kistyakovsky as a fulfillment of his promise.

There was more than one bet on the first atomic bomb.

The night before the test explosion, some scientists organized another gamble to predict the power of the explosion. Oppenheimer bet on the equivalent of 3,000 tons of TNT (trinitrotoluene) explosives, and physicist Enrik Fermi jokingly bet on whether the bomb would ignite the atmosphere.

Director Nolan was impressed by this small gamble in history, and arranged a special plot in the film for Oppenheimer and military representatives to discuss the possibility of the atmosphere being ignited and the world destroyed after pressing the nuclear explosion button. In an interview, Nolan explained: “The moment when Oppenheimer pressed the button to detonate the first atomic bomb, threatening to ignite the atmosphere and destroy the entire planet, was an extraordinary moment in human history. ”

However, the cheers didn’t last long. Twenty-one days later, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.

The entire laboratory was enveloped by a palpable gloom atmosphere, and Oppenheimer was in a state of boredom, uneasy about the weapons he had made. Three days after Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II, he drafted a report to be submitted to U.S. Secretary of War Stimson: “None of the plans we have developed will ensure our country’s supremacy in the field of atomic weapons for decades to come; Even if this supremacy could be secured, we could not guarantee that it would save us from the horrific devastation…… It can only be built on the basis of reducing the likelihood of future wars. ”

The atmosphere has not been ignited, but the world is still in danger of being destroyed.

After the first atomic bomb, the world did not end all wars out of fear, as Oppenheimer envisioned. On the contrary, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a long arms race, with more and more nuclear warheads being created, followed by more powerful hydrogen bombs. In a mixture of frenzy and fear, Oppenheimer had voiced opposition, but his voice was particularly weak.

He claimed part of the source of the crisis to himself, because it was he who brought the atomic bomb to the world, just as Prometheus brought the fire to the world in mythology. Now that the fire is burning, he begins to feel restless, and punishment seems to come at any moment, partly from his heart, partly from his country and time.

The movie “Oppenheimer” is adapted from “Oppenheimer’s biography”, and the subtitle of the original book is “The Triumph and Tragedy of the American ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb'”. One of the authors, Kai Bird, chose to describe the “father of the atomic bomb” in three words – enigmatic, mysterious, and full of charm.

Oppenheimer was gifted with a flair for language and a passion for being the center of attention. After six weeks of studying Dutch, he was able to speak about quantum physics in this unfamiliar language; Back in the United States, the classroom that no one cared about at first became overcrowded because of his passionate way of telling; In the “Manhattan Project”, he was the leader of the scientists, and even the “villain” Strauss in the movie had to ask if he was “in Los Alamos” during the war, because Oppenheimer “built that damn town, he was the founder, the mayor, the sheriff”.

Coincidentally, Oppenheimer’s words of Oppenheimer are three roles for Los Alamos, echoing Oppenheimer’s code name “Trinity” for the first nuclear test in human history, and also inspired by his favorite Bhagavad Gita.

But about Oppenheimer’s puzzle, the movie only gives the riddle, but not the mystery, and the real answer has sunk into the depths of history.

For example, the poisoned apple, which is green in the movie, was placed on the table of Blackett, a professor at the University of Cambridge, into which Oppenheimer injected the toxic substance potassium cyanide. In director Nolan’s shot, Oppenheimer comes to his senses at the last moment, snatches the apple and throws it in the trash, and no one knows why the young Oppenheimer wanted to poison a teacher he respected.

For example, in the face of that humiliating trial in 1954, why did Oppenheimer not choose to resist? The U.S. government’s resentment of him stemmed from his opposition to the development of a hydrogen bomb and his advocacy of nuclear disclosure, and his close proximity to the Communist Party, so he was dragged into a small, makeshift conference room and tried in the name of a hearing. In the movie, his wife Catherine asks him over and over again, “Why don’t you resist?” He never answered directly.

Catherine chose to fight on her own. At the hearing, she was far more resolute than Oppenheimer in the face of the interrogator’s snarful questioning, first pointing out the logical loopholes and then giving a counterattack, without allowing the other party to obtain a single testimony against her husband. At this moment, the audience in front of the screen may only remember that she is not only Oppenheimer’s wife, but also an outstanding female biologist.

Einstein, once called a “madman” by Oppenheimer, angry at the official accusations, approached Oppenheimer one Saturday and persuaded him to resign. “There is no need to get yourself into political persecution, he has made outstanding contributions to the country, and if this is what she (the United States) has given in return, then he should turn around and leave.”

But Oppenheimer refused.

At the end of the hearing, he was deprived of his security clearance and convicted of being a “dangerous person.” Without a security clearance, he no longer has access to state secret documents, including the development of nuclear weapons, or can he participate in advising on U.S. policy. This means that everything that he was once recognized has been deprived.

He is a good public speaker and has made a lot of enemies in the academic world because he likes to interrupt others during discussions, but in the second half of the film, his tone becomes low and he is often silent in the face of everything he does not understand. When he was young, quantum physics and Dutch did not bother him, and in the second half of his life, the obscurity of human nature and the uncertainty of politics became a problem that plagued him all his life. And the self-identification of becoming a “grim reaper” tied up the possibility of his problem solving.

A once-arrogant and brilliant genius physicist who built the world’s first atomic bomb became a national hero and a suspected espionage. These two identities appear in the same person, less than a decade apart, and perhaps this is the biggest mystery that the era has left Oppenheimer.

He couldn’t answer it himself, and he could only respond with silence.

Director Nolan gave Oppenheimer an answer, and he portrayed the villain Strauss.

In the movie, there are two important plots about the feud between Oppenheimer and Strauss.

The first is their first meeting at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where Oppenheimer, at the height of his popularity, harshly describes Strauss as a “shoe seller.” Strauss then saw Oppenheimer talking to Einstein by the lake, mistaking them for speaking ill of himself. In the second paragraph, at a public hearing in 1949, Oppenheimer used his usual humorous language to refute Strauss’s answer about radioisotopes, and the latter fidgeted to the laughter of the audience.

A subtle deal is that the same story, from Oppenheimer’s and Strauss’s respective perspectives, are two completely different versions.

Oppenheimer’s opposition to the ban on isotope exports was not intended to make Strauss embarrassed in public at all, but to promote international exchanges and cooperation in the field of atomic energy and reduce the risk of an arms race. What he and Einstein were talking about by the river was not at all whether Strauss understood physics or not, whether he was a shoe seller before, but quantum physics, the birth of the atomic bomb and the unforeseeable future world.

As Strauss’s lawyer points out to him at the end of the film: “Is it possible that they didn’t talk about you at all?” Maybe they’re talking about something more important. ”

But in the real world, a politician with low self-esteem and conceit, and a grudge against Oppenheimer, is not the root cause of his tragedy. Even without Strauss, Oppenheimer in the fifties would have struggled to avoid scrutiny from the U.S. government. He was close to the Communist Party, and his opposition to the creation of a more powerful hydrogen bomb after World War II, coupled with his unwavering anti-war stance, made him the most visible target of American science in the era of McCarthyism.

John Lansdale, the former head of security for the Manhattan Project, who appeared at the hearing as a witness for Oppenheimer, bluntly stated: “I think the hysteria about communism in this era is extremely dangerous.” ”

In a public speech in 1953, Oppenheimer said, “We may be confronted with a situation in which both great powers have the power to end the other’s civilization and life, but to do so may cost their own lives.” We are like two scorpions in a bottle, each with the ability to kill the other, but it also costs our own lives. The stark speech came a year before his security clearance was revoked, at a time when the U.S. government was pushing ahead with hydrogen bomb testing and shifting its number one target from fascism to the Soviet Union.

Oppenheimer’s voice seemed too noisy for those in power at the time. In particular, he is also a well-known scientist, the much-anticipated “father of the atomic bomb”, and a well-known national hero. The influence of the development of the atomic bomb amplified his voice and made his opposition a thorn in the flesh that could not be pulled out.

So, the times chose to shut him up, just as the times chose him to make the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer was chosen twice by the times.

Director Nolan’s son once told him that young people no longer discuss the threat of nuclear weapons, they no longer worry about it, but Nolan hopes to use this film to remind young people to always be vigilant about the possibility of nuclear war. This original intention is similar to what Oppenheimer wanted to do nearly 80 years ago, when he hoped that the world would see the “terrible possibility” of the atomic bomb and end all wars, but unfortunately it did not materialize at the time.

To this day, we have not escaped Oppenheimer’s fears.

“Oppenheimer’s biography” author Kay Bird said that Oppenheimer’s story is important not only for Americans, but also for Chinese, Indians, and people living around the world, because “we all live in the atomic age.”

“It’s a dangerous legacy, the story isn’t over yet, and the ending could still be bad.”

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