Mark F. Bernstein ’83, left, and Alexander Glaser with popcorn and the ‘Oppenheimer’ movie poster.
Kevin Birch
“The movie is a cautionary tale about science, scientific advice, and policymaking,” says the Princeton faculty member and global security expert

Welcome back to another installment of PAW Goes to the Movies, this time to discuss Oppenheimer, director Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster about the life of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, considered by many to be the father of the atomic bomb.

Few people on Princeton’s faculty know more about Oppenheimer’s work and career than Alexander Glaser, an associate professor of public and international affairs and co-director of the Princeton University Program on Science and Global Security. He is also co-author of the book, Unmaking the Bomb: A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation.

This installment, however, comes with a small twist. Although the series is called PAW Goes to the Movies, it does not necessarily mean that PAW and the faculty member went to the movies together. For both personal and professional reasons, Glaser had already seen Oppenheimer three times, so he and PAW senior writer Mark F. Bernstein ’83 saw the movie separately and discussed it afterwards. 

What did you think, and was the movie worth seeing three times?

Let’s just say, I enjoyed seeing it twice. But although I should caution that I’m neither a historian nor a film critic, I found it a remarkable movie with stunning visuals, a powerful story, and compelling characters. It is based on the 2005 biography, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and stays very close to the source material. It’s remarkable that Nolan covered 700 pages in three hours. 

Were there any particular flaws?

There were a few. For one, Nolan’s portrayal of women in the movie is very outdated, and I was disappointed to see that by one of my favorite directors. Coincidentally, the film also ignored the role that several women scientists played in developing the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, especially in opposing the use of the bomb toward the end of the war. One of them, for example, a chemist and feminist activist named Lilli Hornig, appears in two or three scenes, but I don’t think her name is ever mentioned. 

Nolan also ignored the tens of thousands of Japanese victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He has said that this is because the movie is told from Oppenheimer’s perspective, but I think he will rightly face criticism for that omission. Also, the “downwinders,” the people in New Mexico and Nevada who were sickened by fallout from the Trinity explosion and later nuclear tests, were completely absent from the story.

On the day of the Hiroshima bombing, Oppenheimer gave a speech to the team at Los Alamos, with cheering crowds and waving flags. Given the horrors of what had happened, I found that scene jarring. Did you feel that way, too?

I think Nolan tried to use that scene to show Oppenheimer’s realization that his breakthrough was a double-edged sword, that although they had won the race to develop the bomb, they had also just killed tens of thousands of people. Although he later campaigned against the arms race with the Soviets and the development of more powerful nuclear weapons, there is no evidence that Oppenheimer felt that dilemma at the time. From what we know, he did give a triumphant speech that day and, as in the movie, declared that he only regretted that they hadn’t developed the bomb soon enough to use against Germany.

You mentioned the book, American Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus brings fire to humankind but is cursed for doing so. Given the horrors of nuclear weapons, was Oppenheimer’s achievement ultimately cursed, too? 

The subtitle of the book is “The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” That is what the movie tries to convey — the triumph of delivering a bomb and becoming a national hero overnight, and then the tragedy of how his career in government ended, losing his security clearance in 1954 because of suspected Communist ties. I’m ambivalent about that, by the way. Yes, the subcommittee of the Atomic Energy Commission that denied Oppenheimer’s security clearance was a kangaroo court, but Oppenheimer had become, and continued to be, the director of the Institute for Advanced Study and earned a lot of sympathy for how he was treated in his later years. So, did losing his security clearance really ruin his life? One can certainly debate that point.

For me as a scientist, one important takeaway from Oppenheimer’s story is that, when you work in this field you have a choice: do you want to be an insider or an outsider? You can be part of the government and try to give advice from the inside or you can attempt to shape policy from the outside. Oppenheimer, after having led the Manhattan Project, really wanted to remain an insider. After the war, when it became obvious that the government wasn’t interested in his advice anymore, he could have gone out and advocated for the issues that were close to his heart, such as the abolition of nuclear weapons, but instead he fought to stay on the inside. He wanted to be important.

During the hearing on renewing his security clearance, Einstein told him, all you need to do is go to Washington, tell them that they’re fools, and then go home. Compared to Oppenheimer, Einstein was always an outsider, but he did amazing work as an activist working against nuclear weapons. In 1946, he founded the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, which was headquartered at 90 Nassau St., where the Bank of America is now located. 

Scientists are driven to make discoveries, but should they also consider how those discoveries might be used?

The movie is a cautionary tale about science, scientific advice, and policymaking. The scientists, the military, and the government officials all pursued their own agendas and sometimes displayed poor judgment along the way. The military and government officials felt that they needed to use the bomb. Having spent all that money to develop this revolutionary new weapon, they were under pressure to deliver something tangible. They also wanted to impress the Soviets, and they thought the U.S. could keep its monopoly on these weapons for a very long time, perhaps even forever, despite what the scientists told them. 

On the other side, the scientists originally joined the program to prevent Nazi Germany from getting the bomb first. But the Nazis were defeated before the bomb was finished, so one could ask, why didn’t they put down their pencils, why didn’t they quit? By and large, the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project didn’t want to use the bomb on civilians in Japan, and they may have trusted Oppenheimer, who was the only one with the connections in Washington, to convey that message. They thought Oppenheimer was on their side. What they didn’t know was that Oppenheimer had accepted that at some point the weapons would be used. 

Although much of the intellectual work of developing the atomic bomb was done at Los Alamos, the laboratory was only a small part of the Manhattan Project. Most of the money was spent at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to enrich uranium and at Hanford, Washington, to make plutonium. These plants reached full capacity just as the war ended, and this is one important connection to the present day. We created these machines to make enormous amounts of material for nuclear weapons, and we just kept them running. That made it much more difficult to prevent an arms race and choose a different path after World War II. Today, we are about to spend another $1.5 trillion to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal so that it may last until the end of this century. And while everyone hopes that these weapons will never be used again, our luck may eventually run out. 

So yes, I do think that scientists are accountable for the work that they do, but as you see in the movie, it can become difficult for them to walk away when they ought to.

Thank you for a very interesting discussion. Last question: Are you going to see Barbie, too?

Oh, absolutely, yes! Hopefully, I don’t walk into the Oppenheimer screening for a fourth time.