by Paul Temple
A movie about the life and work of J Robert Oppenheimer, called simply Oppenheimer, with Cillian Murphy in the title role, is due to be released in the UK this summer. It looks as if the movie will deal mainly with the three years of Oppenheimer’s life when he led the Manhattan Project’s scientific team which produced the first atomic bomb in 1945, but his life story holds many other points of interest for those of us studying higher education. Oppenheimer was primarily a university teacher, researcher, and administrator, before the war mostly at Berkeley and after the war as the Director of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where his staff included Einstein, Bohr and Dirac.
A particular point of historical interest is that Oppenheimer’s academic career spanned the period during which Europe, as a result of self-inflicted wounds, ceded world scientific leadership to the United States. When Oppenheimer graduated from Harvard in 1925, young American scientists wanting to work with the world’s best researchers crossed the Atlantic as a matter of course. As a theoretical physicist, Oppenheimer’s choice was between Germany, particularly Göttingen and Leipzig, and England, particularly Cambridge. Cambridge didn’t work out well, so in 1926 he went to work with Max Born, one of the leading figures in quantum mechanics, at Göttingen, receiving his doctorate there just a year later. There were presumably no wasted words in his 25-page thesis.
Several factors came together to allow America to build an atomic bomb in a stunningly short period. The crucial phase of the Manhattan Project, from when the first scientists arrived at the newly-created Los Alamos laboratory (a collection of army huts) to the “Trinity” test in the New Mexico desert on 16 July 1945, lasted a mere 28 months. But the Manhattan Project built on the best available physics and engineering research, created in American universities in the 1930s – Berkeley and Chicago in particular – largely with public funding for the purest of research. Through the 1930s, for example, Berkeley seemed to have no particular difficulty in obtaining funding to build ever more powerful cyclotrons (the first particle accelerators, allowing the production of radioactive isotopes), but with no practical aim in view: nobody seems to have asked them for an impact statement.
America also took full advantage of talent sucked in from Europe, particularly Jewish refugees from Germany, Hungary and Italy. Britain also took in foreigners: Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch, both German-Jewish refugees, worked at Birmingham University in the 1940s and made a vital contribution to building the bomb by showing that the amount of uranium-235 needed to sustain a chain reaction was a matter of kilograms, not tons as had been thought – thus making the bomb a practical proposition.
A lot of things supported the Manhattan Project’s success, but large-scale, long-term funding for blue-skies research, together with a policy of grabbing talent from wherever it could be found, and a sophisticated manufacturing economy, were all crucial. Hard to decide which of these factors is the least likely to apply in Britain today.
Oppenheimer’s loss of his security clearance in 1954 was devastating for a man with a strong sense of national duty. There are several ironies here. One is that, while Oppenheimer’s politics were certainly left-wing, he was notably clear-eyed about the Soviet Union, concluding as early as 1947 that negotiations with Stalin over the control of nuclear weapons would be a waste of time. And, just as past service to the Soviet state was no guarantee of one’s future safety, so the fact that Oppenheimer had given America the bomb (“What more do you want, mermaids?”, a friend asked at his Security Board hearing) did not protect him from the FBI’s unshakeable obsession about his political unreliability (of course, they missed the actual Soviet spies). There is a depressing contrast between this cold war paranoia and the open, international culture which Oppenheimer had known before the war. Princeton’s refusal to bow to pressure from Washington to sack him must have been a consolation of sorts.
There was a reflective silence in the control bunker immediately following the “Trinity” explosion. Oppenheimer later said that he thought of the line from Hindu scripture (he read Sanskrit),”Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. It seems not to be entirely clear whether he actually uttered the words; someone present recalls him saying, “Well, I guess it worked”.Let’s see how the movie handles this era-defining moment.
Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.