“It is your turn to deal with the consequences of your discovery.
With these words, Nobel laureate Albert Einstein addresses his colleague Robert Oppenheimer almost at the very end of the movie of the same name (“Oppenheimer”). The film tells the story of how Oppenheimer, as head of the Manhattan Project, created the atomic bomb.
Einstein is shown in the film shortly before his death, when both great physicists were working at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, which Oppenheimer directed from 1947 to 1966.
Both were among the greatest minds of their time, but they differed greatly in their views-and not just of science. Each had a very different view of their work and the benefit – or harm – their research could bring to the world.
“We were close colleagues, to some extent even friends,” Oppenheimer recalled in 1965 at a conference in Paris commemorating the 10th anniversary of Einstein’s death.
And although the dialogues of the characters in Christopher Nolan’s film are the fruit of the imagination of Hollywood screenwriters, they perfectly reflect the essence of the relationship between the two physicists: Oppenheimer, stunned by the results of his work, seeks paternal advice from Einstein.
In fact, despite significant differences of opinion, they treated each other with the deepest respect.
By 1922, when the 18-year-old Oppenheimer was just beginning his studies at Harvard, Einstein was already a Nobel laureate and rightly considered one of the world’s leading physicists. The German scientist’s General Theory of Relativity (1915) and other works had a profound effect on the American student. Against the backdrop of increasing persecution of Jews in Germany, Einstein decided to leave Europe and settled in Princeton, New Jersey in 1932, where he continued his work. In August 1939, he signed a letter to President Roosevelt written by his colleague Leo Szilard. In it, they warned the White House that the result of recent discoveries by German physicists in the field of uranium fission could be the creation of an atomic bomb in that European country. It was this letter that laid the foundation for the top-secret Manhattan Project, which the U.S. government entrusted in 1942 to Oppenheimer, who by then had become one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.
According to several sources, the 64-year-old Einstein was not involved in the Manhattan Project because of the scientist’s German origins and leftist views.
However, differences with the project director in their views on theoretical physics also had their effect.
According to the biographical book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (on which Nolan’s film is based), the American physicist considered Einstein “not a working scientist, but a living patron saint of physics.
As Nolan himself said in an interview with the New York Times, he tried to reflect in his film the very difficult relationship of the characters with each other: “They reminded me a lot of the relationship between a retired master and an apprentice who is committed to finishing the work he started,” he said.
Was Einstein involved in the creation of the atomic bomb?
There is a scene in the movie where Oppenheimer, while working on the Manhattan Project, begins to fear that the explosion of the atomic bomb he is developing could completely destroy the planet – and he goes to Einstein for advice.
This particular encounter is a figment of the director’s imagination: the reality was not as portrayed in the movie.
“In fact, Oppenheimer did not consult Einstein on this issue, but Arthur Compton, who was the head of the Manhattan Division at the University of Chicago,” Nolan told reporters.
“Einstein is a well-known person,” he added.
From 1943 to 1945, Oppenheimer worked at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, thousands of miles from Princeton. Whether he met Einstein or consulted him in any other way during those years is unknown.
But in 1965, at the same Paris conference, Oppenheimer denied unconfirmed reports that Einstein was somehow involved in the creation of weapons of mass destruction.
“In my opinion, the allegations that he worked on the construction of an atomic bomb are not true,” the American physicist said.
According to him, the aforementioned letter of 1939, urging President Roosevelt to pay attention to the possibility of developing an atomic bomb in Germany, “practically did not affect the decisions of the American administration”.
After successfully testing the first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer faced a moral dilemma: the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 transformed his work from a theoretical threat to the enemy into a real weapon of mass destruction that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Many scientists, including Einstein and Szilard and a number of others, strongly condemned the atomic bombing of Japanese cities. They felt there was no need, since Japan was already virtually defeated.
Nolan’s film tells how Oppenheimer tried to persuade the government in Washington to place restrictions on the use of the technology he had developed.
But the politicians turned against him, reminding the American physicist of his long-standing ties to the Communists and accusing him of trying to create a threat to national security. He even had to justify himself before a special government commission.
AUTHOR PHOTO,UNIVERSAL PICTURES
In Nolan’s film, Oppenheimer struggles with the disastrous consequences of his work on the atomic bomb.
Byrd and Sherwin’s book recounts how Einstein told Oppenheimer that he “should not have participated in this witch hunt because he had served his country well. The American physicist’s secretary, Verna Hobson, happened to overhear the conversation.
“If this is the reward the United States is offering you, you should turn it down,” Einstein said.
But according to Hobson, Oppenheimer “loved America,” and that love “was no less profound than his love of science.
“Einstein doesn’t understand [this],” Oppenheimer told his assistant.
A Nobel laureate, Oppenheimer should not have expected much from Washington. Byrd and Sherwin’s book claims that after this conversation, Einstein, pointing at Oppenheimer, said to his secretary: “There goes narr (fool in German).”
Despite their disagreements, the two physicists had a deep respect and even admiration for each other, albeit in different ways.
Einstein is known to have considered Oppenheimer “an unusually capable person with a versatile education” and to have said that he admired him “not for his physics, but for his human qualities.
Oppenheimer, in turn, gave a very peculiar assessment of Einstein’s contribution to science on the 10th anniversary of his death and the 50th anniversary of the publication of the general theory of relativity.
“Einstein’s early work was stunningly beautiful, but full of errors,” Oppenheimer said in Paris, explaining that it took him 10 years to bring their joint work to perfection.
But the American physicist quickly added: “A man whose mistakes take 10 years to correct is a great man.