J. Robert Oppenheimer was the first chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ board of sponsors, a group composed of the world’s leading scientists based at the University of Chicago. Because I serve as the bulletin’s president, I am fielding a lot of questions lately about why I think Christopher Nolan’s eponymous film about Oppenheimer, which is in theaters worldwide, is resonating so deeply with the public.
The all-star cast, feted director, and script – based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus – all forecast a big opening weekend, of course.
But there is something more to the Oppenheimer excitement. The movie has tapped into the zeitgeist.
Oppenheimer’s story is the right story, at the right time, on the right topic. It takes us back to a history rife with scientific excitement, security fears, and dystopian politics. It recalls a moment when American global leadership was needed, but not fully developed, and when science was outpacing our ability to control it. It provides important lessons for today’s challenges.
Oppenheimer was a brilliant physicist with a wide-ranging curiosity and a commitment to social causes. He was recruited from his post at the University of California at Berkeley to serve as director of Los Alamos Laboratory and oversee the construction of the first atomic bomb.
The science was compelling, as was the political agenda. He and many of his colleagues believed the Germans were on pace to get the bomb first and understood the disastrous consequences of that reality.
After the success of what became known as the Manhattan Project, and the end of the war, Oppenheimer became a household name. His image graced covers of popular magazines, and he accessed the highest levels of political power. Oppenheimer used that acclaim to shape how the world used the weapon he helped create.
He and his colleagues presciently anticipated a wasteful and all-encompassing nuclear arms race if political leaders didn’t find a way to internationalize the problem. He helped create organizations like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to attract the best thinkers – scientists, legal experts, economists, and policy practitioners, among others – to propose innovative solutions for governing new and powerful technologies.
Many of the hard-won arms control agreements that flourished in the second half of the 20th century emerged from the institutions he supported.
Most pointedly, Oppenheimer opposed further investment in the hydrogen bomb championed by fellow scientist Edward Teller, also a member of the bulletin’s board of sponsors. Oppenheimer was skeptical that the US needed such a weapon, given the demonstrated destructive power of the atomic bomb. His opposition – based as much on calculations about how to best advance peace and security as science itself – came at a cost.
In 1954, Oppenheimer’s detractors forced an Atomic Energy Commission hearing that played out like a “Red Scare”-era kangaroo court, stripping him of his security clearances and publicly raising questions about his loyalty to the United States. By most accounts, Oppenheimer died a broken man.
Today, we are faced with many of the same types of challenges that we will watch in Nolan’s newest film. The targeting of onetime chief medical adviser to the president Anthony Fauci, and the death threats against health care providers at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic were shocking but sadly familiar.
In the US, we have a tendency to tear down our scientific leaders when we don’t like their recommendations. If you doubt this, just ask a climate scientist. Nolan’s film will surely remind us of that.
Oppenheimer’s story also reinforces the fact that the most important scientific advancements require global governance if we are to benefit from their promise and mitigate their risk. The ability to split the atom led to the development of weapons powerful enough to end life on Earth as we know it.
These weapons poisoned Americans, Algerians, Australians, Kazakhs, and Pacific Islanders, all of who resided downwind from tests, and killed tens of thousands of Japanese within seconds. That same know-how has helped cure cancers through radiation therapies, generated carbon-free sources of energy, and powered spaceships to Jupiter.
Today, researchers working on highly dangerous pathogens are discovering new vaccines at a record pace. At the same time, such research increases the possibility of laboratory leaks that could pose widespread public health risks.
Similarly, artificial intelligence is providing wildly exciting benefits in health care and knowledge accumulation. It also risks “humans losing the narrative,” as one of the bulletin’s current board of sponsors members whispered to me just a few years back.
The nuclear weapons landscape has deteriorated with every nuclear power investing in new nuclear weapons, encouraging a future in which using nuclear weapons is more, rather than less, likely. The Russian invasion of Ukraine put that on full display (with the first batch of tactical nuclear weapons moved to Belarus in June; as a “containment,” measure, according to Putin.)
Nolan’s film is landing just as we are confronting our own Oppenheimer moment. Will we invest the time, resources, and know-how into governing technologies of our own making, so that we may benefit rather than harm the future of life on Earth?
Will we encourage scientists to remain active and engaged in political debates, not at the expense of, but alongside, other political practitioners, and protect them when required? Can we establish a political culture in which disagreements over policy do not devolve into charges of disloyalty?
If we can answer these questions in the affirmative, we will truly honor Oppenheimer’s legacy.
The writer is president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago.