Oppenheimer's dharma and the atomic bomb
A new film, an ancient Indian text and the secrets that scientists kept from their wives
Welcome to the sixth instalment of This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s news and developments.
The few minutes you take to read this newsletter will make you smarter, faster…guaranteed. Here, you will find a deep dive on fiction and non-fiction about the week’s big story and/or perfect watercooler convo and dinner party small talk.
(The first post about books on ‘dictator chic’ is here. The second post on ecocide and the late, great Cormac McCarthy is here. The third about what to read on Russia, revolts and 1917 is here. Here’s the fourth one on America’s 247th birthday, Bidenomics and To Kill a Mockingbird. And the fifth post on fireworks in France – Bastille Day and the recent riots – is here.)
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Oppenheimer, the film directed by Christopher Nolan about the man who’s called the “father of the atomic bomb”, releases worldwide on July 21, almost exactly 78 years after a 9,700-pound uranium bomb nicknamed Little Boy was dropped by the US on Hiroshima. That was on August 6, 1945. Three days later, a plutonium bomb Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. The bombs, which killed hundreds of thousands, remain the only use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (“Oppie” to friends and family) was sorta, kinda responsible and he knew it. He was scientific director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico where America’s sharpest physicists developed and tested the world’s first atomic bomb in a mere 27 months.
Oppie recommended Los Alamos as a remote enough location for the top secret work and recruited science’s greatest minds to join him there. Admirers and critics alike agree that without Oppenheimer, the world would not, in 1945, have had the lethal power to obliterate cities and bring a long drawn out war to a sudden halt.
On July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer’s team successfully detonated the world’s first-ever atomic device in the New Mexico desert. It was called the Gadget. Oppie, who read and wrote poetry, named the test Trinity, later saying he was probably inspired by a John Donne poem that includes the line “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”. More famously, footage exists of Oppenheimer saying that when he witnessed the world's first nuclear explosion he “remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita…I am become death, the destroyer of worlds". (Click here for the YouTube clip.)
This line is often quoted but less well remembered are the words Oppenheimer used before “I am become death”. He referred to “duty” (or dharma in Sanskrit). The market hype over the new blockbuster film means everyone will be talking about the book that inspired it, the 2005 biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.
But it may be more rewarding to consider a different text, one that explains why and how Oppenheimer, who inclined to pacifism, believed he had done his duty in creating a weapon as terrible as the atomic bomb. And how he used ancient Indian philosophy to soothe the pangs of conscience. A novel about the wives who followed the scientists to Los Alamos is also worth knowing about.
Dear Reader, this week reminds me of those works:
The "Gita" of J. Robert Oppenheimer
By: James A. Hijiya
Publisher: American Philosophical Society
At 45 pages, this is not strictly a book but James Hijiya, emeritus professor of history, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, delivers an insightful study of Oppenheimer’s state of mind:
“He wrestled with misgivings about bestowing upon humanity the possible means for its own annihilation. He dreaded failure, he later told a reporter, but he also dreaded success…In this time of uncertainty Oppenheimer revisited one of his favorite books, the Bhagavad-Gita, and from it drew encouragement that steadied him in his work”.
As a young physics professor with broad interests, Oppenheimer studied with Berkeley professor of Sanskrit Arthur William Ryder, translator of several Sanskrit works into English, including the Panchatantra and the Bhagavad Gita. Oppenheimer would tell his brother the Gita was "very easy and quite marvelous" and also said it’s "the most beautiful philosophical song existing in any known tongue”.
As we can hear in the clip referred to above, Oppenheimer took the Gita’s message to heart. In the clip he mistakenly refers to Lord Krishna, who was on the battlefield as Prince Arjuna’s charioteer, as Vishnu, but Oppenheimer is clear about the charioteer’s instruction: “Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty…” For Prince Arjuna, that duty was to fight.
As Hijiya writes: “For an uncertain soldier like Oppenheimer, nervously fashioning his own atomic ‘arrow’, Arjuna sets a good example. Arjuna is fighting to install his eldest brother, Yudhishthira, as ruler of the kingdom and emperor of the known world, and to thwart the pretensions of their cousin Duryodhana…Krishna's message to Arjuna is clear: you must fight. To Oppenheimer the message would have seemed equally clear. If it was proper for Arjuna to kill his own friends and relatives in a squabble over the inheritance of a kingdom, then how could it be wrong for Oppenheimer to build a weapon to kill Germans and Japanese whose governments were trying to conquer the world?”
Write to me in chat or notes if you want a free pdf of Hijiya’s The "Gita" of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
The Wives of Los Alamos
By: TaraShea Nesbit
This debut novel is due a revival because it provides the imagined backstory to the secret science club that Oppenheimer built in the isolated location high on a mesa west of the Rio Grande and close to the Jemez Mountains. It went by the military codename Site Y and was known to the nearby city of Santa Fe only as The Hill.
The book reprises how they all lived there from 1943 – all the families that accompanied their men to Los Alamos. TaraShea Nesbit takes an unusual approach in having the wives tell the story together, like a chorus. Oppenheimer makes an early appearance, in the second paragraph:
“The doorbell rang and a young man, just slightly older than our husbands, about 35, stood on our porch in a porkpie hat and asked whether the professor was home. His eyes were the color of stillness – something between a pale body of water and the fog that emerges above it…This man was tall but his shoulders stooped as if had spent his life trying to appear smaller than he was in order to make others comfortable.
“He asked our husbands about their research at the university; we asked him to stay for dinner; he declined but said to our husbands ‘I’ve got a proposal’, and together they walked down the hallway to our husband’s office, and the door closed behind them”.
As many academic papers have since recounted, Oppenheimer was persuasive and quickly put together a core team at Los Alamos, with the largest number coming from Princeton and the others from Berkeley, Illinois, Cornell, Minnesota, Purdue, Chicago, and Wisconsin.
Nesbit evokes the secrecy of that moment in time over and over:
“We could not say fission, a word we overheard often when our husbands were graduate students. Our husbands said Gadget, and talked about issues with the Gadget, but what was the Gadget? We did not know.”
Uncertain about what’s going on at Los Alamos, the wives gossip – who, for instance, was flirting with Oppenheimer, who was drinking too much – and have babies and hire nannies and two-and-half years pass. One day, with their husbands gone on a short work trip to yet another unknown location, the women (on a tip-off) watch the horizon at daybreak and see a flash. It was the Gadget, the successful Trinity test. In less than three weeks, Hiroshima and Nagasaki would experience in President Truman’s words, “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth”.
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