Oppenheimer

The film Oppenheimer scooped the Oscars this year. It is a weighty piece about a weighty theme – the development of the means to destroy the earth.

Say it quickly, and it almost sounds sane. Slowly, and you’re swimming in a swamp of lunacy.

The reviews were spectacular:

Christopher Nolan’s volatile biopic is a towering achievement.

Oppenheimer is pure visual poetry.

A Man for Our Time – Christopher Nolan’s complex, vivid portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” is a brilliant achievement in formal and conceptual terms.

Clever, imaginative and Christopher Nolan at his best

The theme couldn’t be more profound or timeless:

  • Is it the proper use of our intellect to devise the means to destroy the earth?
  • Is it even possible, or desirable, to pause scientific discovery?

Albert Einstein, whose work prefaced the atomic bomb, saw that Oppenheimer’s achievement gave humankind an ability never possessed before. His famous equation E=Mc2 explains the energy that may be released from within an atom and led to the belief that atomic energy would one day be unlocked.

Einstein went on to say that:

entrusting human beings with modern technology was like putting a meat axe in the hands of a psychopath”.

Robert Oppenheimer and many of the scientists involved at Los Alamos, the New Mexico HQ of the Manhattan Project – the project to produce the atomic bomb – were conflicted on the nature of their work.

Oppenheimer later lamented the subservience of science to human cruelty in an address to the American Philosophical Society:

“We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world … a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing. And by so doing … we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man.”

The first test of an atomic bomb was carried out at 05:29 am on July 16, 1945.

This came too late for the war against Adolf Hitler’s Germany, which had surrendered on May 7 1945.

The war against Japan, however, continued.

The primary target of the first atomic bombing mission was Hiroshima on Japan’s Honshu Island. On August 6 1945, the 393rd Bombardment Squadron’s B-29 Enola Gay took off from North Field, Tinian, in the Mariana Islands, west of Hawaii in the Pacific. At 08:09, Tibbets started his bomb run and released the bomb, Little Boy, at 08.15, which detonated at a height of about 580 meters above the city.

Three days later on the morning of August 9 1945, B-29 Bockscar took off from Tinian island carrying the second bomb, Fat Man. The weapon was dropped over the industrial valley of Nagasaki and detonated at 11:02.

Estimates of casualties are still disputed but vary between a “low” of 110,000 mortalities and a “high” of 210,000.

The surrender of the Empire of Japan in World War II was announced by Emperor Hirohito on August 15 and formally signed on September 2 1945.

What is not known and will never be known is whether Japan would have fought on if the bombs had not been dropped, and the number of casualties, military and civilian, that the continuation of the conflict would have caused.

It is alleged that Oppenheimer, upon hearing of the bombings, quoted from the Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gita.

“If the radiance of a thousand suns

Were to burst at once into the sky

That would be like the splendour of the Mighty One…

I am become Death,

The shatterer of worlds.”

I recalled the Hiroshima bombing in A Candle for Consuela:

To give or take life.

Not the pulling of a lever in an aircraft, thirty thousand feet

above a child suckling at its mother’s breast and tasting the

warm milk at the last as Enola Gay cuts the cord and kills the

earth and all who shelter on it.

ENOLA GAY is now on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Virginia, where it serves as a symbol of the events that shaped the end of World War II and the dawn of the nuclear era.