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  • Writer's pictureSimone Skopek

Rediscovering Intrigues of the Manhattan Project in "Oppenheimer"

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Have you ever watched a historical movie and sensed there are bits of history you've forgotten lurking beneath the surface? That was our experience as we headed out to watch "Oppenheimer," about the creation of the atomic bomb. Waiting in popcorn queue, we tried to recollect which scientist did what, and the ethical dilemmas faced by the brilliant minds involved – Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, Heisenberg, and Oppenheimer himself.

At that moment, our memories of high school history and physics suddenly felt distant.

"Oppenheimer" was a vivid reminder of those essential relationships, the webs of secrecy, and the events that led to the birth of the atomic bomb. These fragments of history that hold relevance to the technological race we're embroiled in today.

A world at crossroads - Scientists' race to unlock atom's power

In a world engulfed in war, brilliant scientists from diverse nations coalesced in a secret mission - the Manhattan Project. Their objective? To outwit and outpace the Nazis to create an immensely powerful atomic bomb – in a life-and-death race to unlock the astonishing energy concealed within atoms, while the world's destiny teetered in the balance.

Intrigues of the Manhattan Project in "Oppenheimer" - from collaborators to enemies

Before the war, these scientists from countries that would later become enemies, functioned as a global team, collaborating within the same scientific sandbox. They exchanged knowledge, visited each other's universities and shared groundbreaking insights into the nature of atoms.

Among them was Niels Bohr, a Dane who unraveled the composition of atoms, engaging in profound discussions with Heisenberg, a German scientist who figured out the atomic structure. Then there was Einstein, a German Jew turned American citizen, who discovered the remarkable energy residing within atoms. Fermi, an Italian who also became a US citizen, was the one who constructed an accelerator that generated a miniature atom explosion, and demonstrated the potential to harness energy released through uranium atom-splitting whether for power or weaponry. And of course, Oppenheimer, the American who masterfully interwove their knowledge and efforts and would lead the Manhattan Project.

Driven by a passion for science rather than warfare, these scientists who had been working together were abruptly called back to their respective corners when war broke out. Former allies became isolated, their ability to collaborate and exchange insights severed.

Clashes of genius: Ethical dilemmas and collaborations

Within the crucible of the Manhattan Project were clashes and collaborations among brilliant minds, which led to the cold war conflict that would reverberate into the future.

Amid divergent ethical viewpoints and loyalties a complex dynamic emerged. Einstein, for instance, distanced himself from bomb development and declined to be part of the Manhattan Project. Meanwhile, some scientists, including Oppenheimer, believed that sharing information about atomic weaponry across nations could prevent any single nation from amassing excessive power and would encourage a collective consensus against deploying such destructive arms, thereby avoiding the catastrophic global threat. Some even covertly wanted to share these classified national secrets with Russia. Although Russia was America's wartime ally against Hitler's fascism – the US Government still maintained its staunch anti-communist position, which deemed such sharing as treasonous. It intended to continue building as many of these bombs as fast as possible, keeping it secret from the Russians and assuming - notwithstanding the advice to the contrary by scientists - that that other nations would never figure it out.

Science and politics

Despite their diverse perspectives and loyalties, the final decision regarding bomb deployment rested beyond the scientists' influence. In this climate of heightened suspicion and political tension, there emerged a larger societal phenomenon of intense anti-communist fervor - McCarthyism, was gripping the nation, leading to widespread witch hunts and purges across various sectors of industry, academia, and government. Sadly, this sweeping wave of paranoia and accusation reached Oppenheimer as well. His previous associations and political beliefs came under intense scrutiny and he was deemed a security risk due to his past affiliations. Despite his invaluable contributions to the scientific community and his role in the development of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer found himself ensnared in the web of McCarthyism.

Historical revisionism

Much like other Hollywood historical biopics, a few of the intrigues of the Manhattan Project in "Oppenheimer" are somewhat exaggerated to infuse entertainment drama. For example, the episode involving the poisoned apple in the presence of Bohr has been notably embellished and deemed by Oppenheimer's grandson as a case of historical revisionism taken to an excessive extreme. The unsubstantiated accusation of attempted murder stands in contrast to the uncertainty acknowledged by the authors of "American Prometheus," upon which the film is based. Throughout Oppenheimer's lifetime, his contemporaries refrained from endorsing the claim; even the initial reporters admitted uncertainty about his intentions and extent of participation.

As for the dramatically tense concern of triggering an uncontrollable, unending nuclear chain reaction causing a planetary nuclear apocalypse, this apprehension was mathematically put to rest before the bomb's testing.

Additionally, the portrayal of Strauss as the envious scientist in the film suffered from oversimplification, failing to thoroughly explore the intricate reasoning behind Strauss's reservations about sharing nuclear secrets with Stalin's Russia.

Contemporary echoes: The ongoing race to unlock powerful technologies

Despite the nature of biographical films, Oppenheimer uncovers deeper truths and bestows contemporary significance upon the narrative. In our current era, as we bear witness to the rapid evolution of technologies like artificial intelligence and biological engineering – harboring the potential to elevate humanity or become tools of warfare – we find ourselves embroiled in a comparable race to unlock these potent technologies.

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