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Culture, history and society

Culture, history and society

The biographer who inspired Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film Oppenheimer

21 Nov 2023 James Dacey

This episode of the Physics World Stories podcast features an interview with Kai Bird, co-author of the book that inspired the recent blockbuster film Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan. Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Biography, American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer is an exploration of the brilliant and enigmatic physicist who led the project to develop the world’s first atomic weapons.

Oppenheimer is a fascinating but complicated character for a biographer to tackle. Despite excelling in his leadership of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer’s conscience was torn by the power he had unleashed on the world. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” is the line he infamously recalled from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita, upon witnessing the Trinity Test fireball in 1945.

Parallels between the nuclear dawn and AI today

The physicist’s relationship with politics was also fraught and difficult to define. Oppenheimer held personal connections with Communist Party members prior to the Second World War, and spent the post-war years warning against nuclear proliferation – provoking the ire of McCarthy Era politicians and ultimately having his security clearance revoked in 1954.

Unsurprisingly, American Prometheus is receiving a resurgence of interest following the success of Nolan’s film. Readers are fascinated once again with the dawn of the nuclear age, which Bird says has parallels with where we are today with AI and the threat of climate change. He also sees the political threads from McCarthyism to the post-truth tactics and populist playbook deployed in US politics today.

As always, the podcast is presented by Andrew Glester and you can read his review of the film Oppenheimer, as well as a recent opinion piece by Robert P Crease “What the movie Oppenheimer can teach today’s politicians about scientific advice“.

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