Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster based on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, has much to teach us about power, destruction and preventing the end of the world.
When the world’s first ever nuclear weapons test was successfully detonated, its mastermind, J. Robert Oppenheimer famously thought of the phrase: “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” It is a myth, however, that these were Oppenheimer’s own words; even now, searching on Google, the quote lands as his most renowned. The phrase actually comes from the Hindu text of ethics, the Bhagavad Gita.
A strange and misplaced scene in last week’s blockbuster film, shows us that even mid-sex, the quote and its book of origin were not far from ‘father of the atomic bomb’ Oppenheimer’s thoughts. Is this a symbol for how caught up he was with morality? Is it a wider sign of the ethical values of the great scientists portrayed in the film (Einstein, Dirac, Gödel, Bohr, Heisenberg — to name just a tiny percentage) who, as intellectuals, maintained strong convictions regarding the practical, real-world potential of their theoretical work?
As Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster shows us, Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy in a widely celebrated, potentially Oscar winning performance) didn’t end up destroying the world. Neither did nuclear bomb technology, or the scores of other Manhattan Project scientists like Edward Teller (played by Benny Safdie), who went on to ‘father’ the even more powerful Hydrogen Bomb. Why? Because it is not individuals who have the power to destroy the world. It is humanity as a collective.
In the public consciousness, science is inextricably linked with progress. But the central theme running through the movie is this: Science isn’t just a force for good; in the wrong hands, it can end up being unthinkably destructive. Towards the end of the movie, we encounter a surprise entry from Gary Oldman, brilliantly playing President Truman. The tussle we see between him and Oppenheimer raises the idea that perhaps it is not scientists we should be weary of, but the politicians who use what they create.
We live in a world of increasing climate dangers. Just today, as I write, Europe is facing a catastrophic heatwave. Fires on the Greek island of Rhodes have required the evacuation of thousands. Italian workers are dying due to scorching temperatures. Heat-related deaths are spiralling.
It is in crisis-stricken times like these that we — humanity — as a collective look to our leaders for solutions. The global leadership apparatus must act in cooperation as a unified whole. There is no time for the demonisation of China, which deserves credit (where it’s due) for leading the way in high-speed rail, wind and solar power. Nolan reveals to us that Oppenheimer had this insight back in 1945 to push for global political cooperation with nuclear power; if they didn’t, he said, there would occur a global arms race that could bring the world to the brink of destruction. Moreover, there is no time for vote-pandering or tribalistic immaturities such as what we have recently seen in Grant Shapps’ tweets against the actions of Just Stop Oil.
Oppenheimer carried a whole load of guilt, and the film shows us how this affected his personal and professional lives. He was a profound thinker, capable of not only spearheading the creation of the atomic bomb but also understanding its implications. But for all his preoccupations with ethics, I believe he arrived at the wrong quote; this iconic line from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men (1925) might have been better: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.” Because in the end, it won’t be one man who destroys the world; it’ll be humanity as a collective.