A new play about the scientist who built the Bomb shows how he sacrificed his conscience to win the warby Sameer Rahim / April 2, 2015 / Leave a comment
As negotiations with Iran continue over its atomic capability, there is no better time to revisit the story of the man who built the first Bomb: American physicist J Robert Oppenheimer. This week Tom Morton-Smith’s play about the leader of the Manhattan Project transferred from Stratford to the Vaudeville Theatre in London. Oppenheimer is a gripping drama that does well at explaining the physics (so far as I could tell) as well as the complex moral conundrum of building such a destructive weapon. The play is the counterpart to Michael Frayn’s 1998 play Copenhagen, which showed how the German scientist Werner Heisenberg was co-opted—willingly or not, depending on your interpretation—into making a nuclear bomb for the Nazis. If anything, though, this story takes place in an even greyer zone because this awful weapon was created not in the service of evil but in order to defeat it.
Oppenheimer, or Oppie as everyone called him, was well-read in philosophy and literature. (He could quote Proust by heart.) Studying chemistry and physics at Harvard in the 1920s, he wrote short stories and thought about becoming a writer. He was also interested in radical politics. Morton-Smith’s play opens in the late 1930s at a raucous Communist fundraiser for the Republicans fighting the Spanish Civil War. His brother Frank was a paid-up member of the Party, but Oppenheimer, who liked to retain a certain distance from absolutist ideas, never joined up. As the play shows, these associations got him into trouble: partly to protect himself, after he joined the Manhattan Project he stopped talking to his brother and shipped out scientists he suspected of Soviet sympathies.
The Los Alamos project was a scientific enterprise on an unprecedented scale. Using the unlimited resources the US government offered him, Oppenheimer gathered the best minds available: 20 either held or would be awarded a Nobel Prize. Oppie combined scientific genius with a talent for practical leadership. He successfully managed the ego of Edward Teller, the obsessive Hungarian who wanted to build a hydrogen bomb 1,000 times more powerful than a nuclear weapon. (Teller was a model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove.) Astonishingly, it took just 28 months—from March 1943 to July 1945—from…