Oppenheimer August 1, 2023


Zurich on the Limmatfluss
Looking downstream on the Limmat River in central Zürich, Switzerland, showing in the background the twin towers of the Grossmünster
(Wikimedia Commons public domain photo)


So, yes, I’ve now seen Oppenheimer.  And yes, it’s very long (though I didn’t feel it so) and, yes, it contains a few minutes of (pretty mundane) nudity and a couple of quite unappealing (and not exactly necessary) sexual episodes.

But I liked it very much.  Largely, I suppose, because it covers history that I have always found quite interesting and involves figures with whom I’m reasonably well acquainted.  It was fun to see Albert Einstein show up, though he seemed heavier physically in this film than I think he really was.  It was amusing to see an extraordinarily brief appearance by Kurt Gödel (possibly identified only as “Kurt”), as well as slightly lengthier appearances by such luminaries as Leo Szilard, Hans Bethe (who was involved in a funny prank that I once discussed here), Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Ernest Lawrence (after whom Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Lawrence Hall of Science and the element lawrencium are named), and Isidor Rabi.  I actually met Edward Teller once, back in the early seventies, after sitting in the small audience for a remarkable lecture that he gave at Stanford’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace.

I enjoyed glimpses of places with which I’m familiar, such as the campuses of Princeton University (and the adjacent Institute for Advanced Study) and of the University of California at Berkeley.


Göttinger Marktplatz
The Marktplatz or Market Square in the Innenstadt, the Old City, of Göttingen
Wikimedia Commons public domain photo by Daniel Schwen


I liked the references to Göttingen, the famous university town in northern Germany that I first visited — odd story! — midway through my mission a considerable distance to the south, in German-speaking Switzerland.  I really liked the shot of Zürich’s Grossmünster (Zwingli’s church, and an important landmark in the history of the Swiss Reformation) and of the Federal Institute of Technology (the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) in Zürich, which I often passed going to and from the Swiss mission home and have often seen since then.  I confess, though, that I was and remain puzzled by the inclusion of an aerial view of the great Swiss Benedictine abbey at Einsiedeln.  It plays no part in the plot of the film.


The abbey church at Einsiedeln. And the overall structure is even larger than it looks here.
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


I loved the historical references to the famous September 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg that was depicted in Michael Frayne’s 1998 three-actor (really, two-and-a-half-actor) play Copenhagen, which my wife and I saw years ago in London and which remains one of the greatest and meatiest theatrical experiences I’ve ever had — rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that Frayne also wrote Noises Off, which is one of the funniest theatrical pieces I’ve ever seen.  (It’s almost as if someone were to try to persuade me, say, that the same playwright who gave us King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet had also written Twelfth Night, A Comedy of Errors, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

There was a brief reference to Neils Bohr’s astounding escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark and then from neutral Sweden to Scotland in the bomb bay of a British military aircraft.

However, in clear distinction to the fourth and final season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, which we recently watched, there was no reference at all to the Latter-day Saints, and no Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible visibly sat upon any character’s desk.


Fuld Hall, Princeton
The back of Fuld Hall, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey
(Wikimedia Commons public domain photo)


I don’t think that Richard Feynman was ever explicitly identified, but he was shown several times (including at the Trinity explosion itself) playing on his bongo drums.  I recognized him from that, because he used to play drums at a little nightclub on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, California — not far from where I grew up — while he was on the faculty at Caltech,  One of my regrets is that I found out too late; I would surely have gone to watch him play.  I spent a fair amount of time on Colorado Boulevard.

Anyway, I enjoyed the film as a glimpse of very important history.  It is intellectually interesting — or, anyway, it interested me — although I must admit that I’m still not quite sure what to think of J. Robert Oppenheimer himself.  One of my sons has read the biography on which the film is largely based and by which it was inspired.  I haven’t.  But I think that I probably should.

As with any such portrayal, of course, there are and will always be disagreements.  And they’re not all ill-founded, by any means.  I may share links to some of those over the next few days or so.

I have not yet seen Barbie.  And I’m not sure that I will.  (I have nothing in pink, for one thing.)  Has anybody out there seen it?  If so, is there any counsel?  Should I go?  I’m not sure that Oppenheimer would have made a very good Ken.


Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
Albert Einstein, Freeman Dyson, and many others have been associated with Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, which is shown here in an aerial photograph by Hanno Rein.
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


I hope to see you on Wednesday morning — and for the rest of Wednesday, too, as well as on Thursday and Friday — at the 2023 FAIR Conference.  But if you can’t make it to the conference in person, please stream as much of it as you can.  There will be some really interesting presentations on offer.  Except, of course, for that guy who is the lead-off speaker at nine o’clock on Wednesday morning.  He’s probably worth a hard pass.  If you come that early, though, be sure to bring a cellphone.  I hear that Candy Crush Saga offers a good way, a more intellectually stimulating and informative way, to spend that first hour.



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