Saturday, October 01, 2005

Homage to J. Robert Oppenheimer

Homage to J. Robert Oppenheimer

Homage to J. Robert Oppenheimer (1999)

The so-called "father of the atomic bomb" is in the news again as the San Francisco Opera Company is about to debut Doctor Atomic -- an opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer that examines the moral crisis scientists faced in the days just before the Trinity Test in July of 1945. Doctor Atomic is the brainchild of composer John Adams and director–librettist Peter Sellars. Physics Today caught up with Adams and asked him about the opera's characters and historical context:

What led you to compose an opera based on Robert Oppenheimer?

The general director of the San Francisco Opera, Pamela Rosenberg, shortly after arriving here about four years ago, decided that she wanted to do a series of operas based on the Faust myth. She came to me asking if she could commission what she called an American Faust. I always felt that Americans have their own unique mythology and don't necessarily respond to the classic myths in the way Europeans do. But she had mentioned, in the course of talking about this idea, the story of Oppenheimer and the development of the bomb and, of course, his ultimate humiliation at the hands of the US House and Senate. Although I wasn't interested in the Faust idea, I thought the Oppenheimer story itself was really worthy of dramatic treatment, and particularly of operatic treatment. In fact, I think it's one of the great American stories, because it combines so many elements that are part of the collective unconscious of this country -- the notion of the scientist as genius. Of course, I'm speaking of archetypes that the public has. And the bomb itself represents, on the one hand, a sort of triumph of technology and scientific understanding and, on the other, the potential for the human species to make itself extinct. So these are very large-scale subjects, which, strangely enough, opera seems able to deal with perhaps better than any other art form.


Given the relevance to contemporary events -- weapons of mass destruction, nuclear proliferation -- do you feel a certain social responsibility with this opera?

Well, these are the main items in our national subconscious, all the things I mentioned dealing with in earlier operas: terrorism, intolerance, market economy versus social welfare. I think "weapons of mass destruction" is a term I started hearing just a few years ago. All my life they'd been atomic weapons. But they're very real.

And Oppenheimer understood that. There's something very poignant about the remainder of his life. First, he went from being director of the Manhattan Project to becoming a virtual media star. He was like a James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, one of the most famous figures in pop culture. And then, of course, he was publicly humiliated as one of the chief victims of the McCarthy era. He was rehabilitated, but his awareness of what he'd helped bring about caused him enormous cognitive dissonance, I would imagine. [Edward] Teller never seemed to feel that. Teller grew up in Hungary and witnessed a very bad communist government in the 1920s; and he was absolutely 100% committed to what he was convinced -- what he felt -- was a sensible policy of self-defense: He who has the biggest gun is going to survive.

My faith in the human mind is somewhat restored.

J. Robert Oppenheimer
[Photograph by Yousef Karsh]

Teller's biggest gun has long replaced Roosevelt's big stick. But, upon seeing the blast, a tortured Oppenheimer claimed to have thought of a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

So, in a post 9/11 world, with Ground Zero deaths still relatively fresh in the public mind, Americans voted (with Diebold's prodding) last November to elect George W. Bush on the rationale that he was best suited to keep the nation safe from the specter of Condi Rice's analogy of a smoking gun that could become a mushroom cloud.

But if Oppenheimer could immediately imagine the possibilities, why does BushCo need a how-to film to grasp the seriousness of nuclear terrorism?

Ironically, as the curtain is about to go up on Doctor Atomic, the home of the Council of Foreign Relations held a private screening on a related topic. The audience was a hodge-podge of diplomats, military officers, international bankers and lawyers, and think tank types. Other movers and shakers spoke before the film, including Ted Turner, Warren Buffet, Richard Lugar, and Sam Nunn. The New Yorker provides the following details about the film -- and explain why it was shown:

The film, Last Best Chance, was a bit unusual, too. You might even say it isn’t really a movie at all -- it just plays one on TV. Set in the near future, it takes the form of a slick international suspense thriller, the kind that cuts from a rainswept warehouse in a bleak corner of the former Soviet empire to a dimly lit White House Situation Room. It has no sex scenes, no car chases, and no wisecracking sidekicks, and it is only forty-five minutes long, but it lays out a frighteningly plausible narrative of how terrorists might buy or steal the makings of a nuclear bomb, assemble one, smuggle it halfway around the world, and send it on its way to an American city in an S.U.V. The closest thing to a star in the cast is Fred Thompson, the lawyer turned actor turned Republican senator from Tennessee turned actor again. Thompson plays the President of the United States, and his character is mature, wise, and serious -- the one jarringly unrealistic note in the picture.

Last Best Chance was made not by a movie studio but by a singularly unraffish indie producer: Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative, with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the MacArthur Foundation. The blurb on its poster comes not from Ebert & Roeper but from Kean & Hamilton -- Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the chairman and vice-chairman of the 9/11 Commission. Its grosses are zero. For the past five months, it has been distributed free on DVD. Now it has been taken up by HBO, which plans to show it repeatedly, beginning on October 17th.

Last Best Chance is entertaining, in a grim sort of way, but entertainment is not its raison d’ĂȘtre. Its purpose is to stimulate public support and political pressure on the Bush Administration and Congress to do something serious about the terrifying danger of nuclear terrorism. And this is a scandal. It is scandalous that at this late date, four years after the attacks on New York and Washington, people like Nunn, Lugar, and Buffett feel it necessary to go to such unorthodox lengths to get the attention of Washington’s responsibles. Last Best Chance is a symptom of an immense failure of national, and especially Presidential, leadership. “As short a time ago as nine years or eight years,” Turner said in his remarks after the screening, “I still thought that nuclear weapons, biological and chemical weapons, was an area that the government took care of.”

One of the attendees at the screening was Graham Allison, the founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the director of its Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, who held high Pentagon posts under Reagan and Clinton. Allison’s Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, which has just been published in an expanded paperback edition, is the indispensable text on the subject. “Americans are no safer from a nuclear terrorist attack today than we were on September 10, 2001,” he writes. “A central reason for that can be summed up in one word: Iraq.” The invasion and occupation have diverted essential resources from the fight against Al Qaeda; allowed the Taliban to regroup in Afghanistan; fostered neglect of the Iranian nuclear threat; undermined alliances critical to preventing terrorism; devastated America’s standing with the public in every country in Europe and destroyed it in the Muslim world; monopolized the time and attention of the President and his security team (for simple human reasons, an extraordinarily important factor); and, thanks to the cry-wolf falsity of the claims about Iraqi weapons systems, “discredited the larger case for a serious campaign to prevent nuclear terrorism.”

The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable.

We knew the world could not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent.
[Cartoon by Herbert Block, 1949]

Oppenheimer paid a severe price later in life when he spoke out adamantly about spiraling atomic research. From

After the war, Oppenheimer was appointed Chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), serving from 1947 to 1952. It was in this role that he voiced strong opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb. In 1953, at the height of U.S. anticommunist feeling, Oppenheimer was accused of having communist sympathies, and his security clearance was taken away.

Yesterday, I wrote about how BushCo cronies have creatively revised science to suit their policies and worked actively to cleanse the EPA of personnel who prefer to live in the reality-based community. Can we expect a similar shock and awe editing and erasure on the threat of nuclear terrorism?

Let's hope not. After all, the FEMA debacle in New Orleans -- and Bush's personal cake-eating, guitar-strumming photo ops in the face of a grand scale natural disaster -- do not inspire confidence. Here's a future CNN live shot we won't enjoy: Bush standing in charred urban rubble -- his arm slung around a pre-screened and still smoking skeleton -- pronouncing with a smirk: You're doing a heckuva job...


enigma4ever said...

Thank you for posting this...really wonderful tribute to Oppie..he would have appreciated your blog....( okay I am mostly a lurker)

cruelanimal said...

Thanks for coming by and leaving a comment.

Oppenheimer was indeed an amazing man. A brilliant scientist, yes, but also a man comfortable and skilled with languages and poetry. His later writings are very powerful.

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