Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Not The Bad Idea It Might Seem

[According to Wikipedia, this is the Trinity explosion 0.016 seconds after ignition. Image credit Los Alamos National Laboratory (via Wikipedia).]

I got a chuckle out of this article by Michael Shermer in Scientific American:

There are certain characters in science who stand out for their larger-than-science characteristics: Galileo and his conflicts with Papal authorities; Albert Einstein and his political dabblings and pacifist overtures; Richard Feynman and his safecracking, storytelling antics; Stephen Hawking and his ethereal brain trapped in a frozen body. Biographies, documentaries, films, and even plays have attempted to capture the essence of these giants (see QED, for example, the play starring Alan Alda as Feynman). But to my knowledge, none have had an opera produced in their likeness.

Enter Doctor Atomic, a look at the meaning behind the making of the atomic bomb from the perspective of its paterfamilias J. Robert Oppenheimer and his disparate struggles: with nature to reveal her secrets, with his conscious to ease his guilt. He also struggles with General Leslie R. Groves, the titular military head of the Manhattan Project, and with fellow physicist and future father of the H-Bomb, Edward Teller.

Oppenheimer the Opera: A review of Doctor Atomic

That's right, someone made an opera out of a bunch of scientists and engineers building a highly explosive technological gizmo out in the desert. As daft as this idea sounds, apparently it turned out to be a good one:

If you’ve not experienced an opera in modern English, it takes some getting used to. Mundane conversations take on significance when set in a foreign language, but lose that here. The gravitas of this opera, however, is in the haunting music, the dramatic sets, and especially in the subject matter itself, for seemingly commonplace dialogue is rapidly elevated when the topic is whether uranium or plutonium will kill the most people. The libretto, in fact, was pieced together from numerous historical sources, including Edward Teller’s Memoirs, historian Ferenc Szasz’s The Day the Sun Rose Twice, Robert Norris’s Racing for the Bomb, and others. When Doctor Atomic lets us in on conversations that the Los Alamos scientists had about the possibility that the test shot might set the atmosphere on fire, and gambled on the TNT equivalency of the bomb, we are listening in on history itself.

Oppenheimer the Opera: A review of Doctor Atomic

You have to admit, it's a story with some drama all right. They were literally talking about, and betting on, end of the world stuff out there at Los Alamos. I'm glad no one offered me a bet on whether an opera about it would flop or not, though. I would have bet wrong.

Oppenheimer is one of the great personal stories of our time. He was a brilliant physicist, of course. He was troubled by the implications of the weapon he was developing, but as an ethnic Jew whose parents immigrated from Germany, he had reason to hope that the Allies would develop an A-bomb before the Nazis did. After the war was over, he refused to support further research into atomic weaponry:

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. The scientific community, with few exceptions, was deeply shocked by the decision of the AEC. In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson attempted to redress these injustices by honoring Oppenheimer with the Atomic Energy Commission's prestigious Enrico Fermi Award.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904 - 1967)

Oppenheimer didn't limit his intellectual pursuits to physics and nuclear engineering. He learned Sanskrit, I read long ago, simply for the sake of learning the language. It was he who quoted the Bhagavad Gita at the Trinity test:

Recalling the scene, Oppenheimer said: "A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. There floated through my mind a line from the "Bhagavad-Gita" in which Krishna is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty: "I am become death: the destroyer of worlds."

American Experience: Race For The Superbomb

He died at a relatively young age. It's hard to know whether the pressures of building the bomb, his guilt over his role in that effort, or his subsequent persecution contributed to his early death. They certainly could have. In any event, I suppose if there were an American scientist about whom an opera could be written, it would be he.

UPDATE (Nov. 23): Dana Hunter has linked to a couple of YouTube videos from Doctor Atomic in this article.


Eli said...


Ironically, if the Nazis had not decided that Jews were subhuman, and that not only did they need to be exterminated, but that "Jewish science" could not be allowed, then they would have had a much better chance of getting the bomb first and winning the war.

I wish I could remember the name of the book on that subject.

Cujo359 said...

I think anyone who understands the state of Western science at that time would understand that idea, Eli. Many of the top European physicists, including Einstein, were Jewish (at least, ethnically). Germany was one of the leading countries in the field as a result. Good thing for the course of history that they were raving bigots, I suppose.

Dana Hunter said...

If they hadn't been raving bigots, this may never have been necessary. Although an argument could be made, I suppose, that some other country full of raving bigots would've gotten enough raving bigot scientists together to create a bomb. We'll never know.

On a lighter note, it's awesome that Oppenheimer gets an opera. I have a soft spot for any scientist who can quote ancient Hindu poetry upon the detonation of world-shattering bombs, and then go on to protest their use.

I'd heard it quoted, "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds," which makes it seem even more potent.

Awesome stuff. I may poach this for Sunday Sensational Science. I could whip up a little something along with that musical on Darwin that Tristero's working on...

Cujo359 said...

There were so many reasons for WWII, it's sometimes hard to think how a hypothetical like "if Germany hadn't been run by raving bigots, would WWII have started?". One of the big problems was that there was so much bigotry to exploit.

Poach away, my dear.

Eli said...

The thing is, it wasn't just the Jewish scientists themselves, but their whole abstract approach to physics. The Nazis wanted a physics that was more concrete and compatible with their worldview, regardless of its practitioners' ethnicity.

I think they did eventually give Heisenberg a free hand, but for years I'm pretty sure they had no quantum physics at all.

Cujo359 said...

I'd always heard about the Soviet Union's efforts to make science compatible with communism, but hadn't heard that the Nazis did the same. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, though. Truth generally seems to be a secondary consideration to such governments.