Kai Bird in the NYT: The Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer

NYT: The Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer

Time to blog again. Yesterday (July 16) was the anniversary of the Trinity Test, and this weekend, the movie, “Oppenheimer,” opens. A long time ago, in 2005, I was among the first — if not thee first— timeshift live bloggers. “Blog like it’s 1945!” was my summer 2005 project, blogging the first test and use of the atomic bomb. (it’s in the 1945 category, but I have lost the design and doodads that make it all work and I’m not gonna be fixing that today. But I might do something about it because of this blockbuster movie coming out. Might.)

When Bird’s co-author, Martin Sherwin, was on book tour in the months after their book, American Prometheus was released, Sherwin gave a lecture at Caltech and there was a discussion. I blogged it the next day. Note: The “Oppenheimer” movie is based on American Prometheus.

Here’s an excerpt from Kai Bird’s op-ed in the NYT:

Sadly, Oppenheimer’s life story is relevant to our current political predicaments. Oppenheimer was destroyed by a political movement characterized by rank know-nothing, anti-intellectual, xenophobic demagogues. The witch-hunters of that season are the direct ancestors of our current political actors of a certain paranoid style. I’m thinking of Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel, who tried to subpoena Oppenheimer in 1954, only to be warned that this could interfere with the impending security hearing against Oppenheimer. Yes, that Roy Cohn, who taught former President Donald Trump his brash, wholly deranged style of politics. Just recall the former president’s fact-challenged comments on the pandemic or climate change. This is a worldview proudly scornful of science.

After America’s most celebrated scientist was falsely accused and publicly humiliated, the Oppenheimer case sent a warning to all scientists not to stand up in the political arena as public intellectuals. This was the real tragedy of Oppenheimer. What happened to him also damaged our ability as a society to debate honestly about scientific theory — the very foundation of our modern world.

Quantum physics has utterly transformed our understanding of the universe. And this science has also given us a revolution in computing power and incredible biomedical innovations to prolong human life. Yet, too many of our citizens still distrust scientists and fail to understand the scientific quest, the trial and error inherent in testing any theory against facts by experimenting. Just look at what happened to our public health civil servants during the recent pandemic.

Sad and sobering and (I guess) fascinating to see how the issues of the 1950s, described and lived in the early aughts are still true today, even as I shake my head that OMG I blogged about this 17 years ago.