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When worlds collide: Physics professor unpacks the personal and professional conflict in 'Oppenheimer'

When worlds collide: Physics professor unpacks the personal and professional conflict in 'Oppenheimer'

Bernard Gerstman looks at the science and the human nature that underpinned the race to build an A-bomb

August 11, 2023 at 10:00am

It’s rare for science to get a lot of time on the silver screen. Especially physics.

At least that was the case until this summer, with the release of Christopher Nolan’s epic three-hour film delving into the mind and life of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb.”

Now the highest-grossing movie set during World War II, ‘Oppenheimer’ has made clear that science doesn’t happen in a silo but is often driven by real-world need.

It also offers a closer look at what it means to be a scientist, according to physics professor and Honors College fellow Bernard Gerstman. 

Avoiding spoilers, Gerstman — who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton (where Oppenheimer spent time as director of the Institute of Advanced Studies, after the war) — explores how the film portrays physics and the role of scientists.

How does Oppenheimer’ explore the nuances of the scientific process at work?

So, there’s two types of science, basic and applied. Most science that’s done nowadays is basic, or curiosity-driven, science, which is just, “Gee, it would be interesting to know about this.”

Basic research happens in all fields. Occasionally, it leads to something applied with real world applications. And when it does, it’s usually something huge.

About half of U.S. economic output is based on technology that comes from basic research, like lasers, electronics, computers, the transistor. In ‘Oppenheimer,’ we see the making of the atomic bomb as an example of how basic research can lead to something applied.

Those who worked on the atomic bomb were basic research scientists who had mostly done curiosity-driven work in the decades leading up to World War II. The war was a monumental event that mobilized the country, and the scientists were recruited to use their basic science experience and knowledge and apply it in a way that would help the war effort.

So, they were basic scientists doing applied science. But they were also working on a military project. Did this cause tension?

There was definitely tension because these scientists were used to the open exchange and communication that is a critical aspect of doing basic science. You share results to move science forward.

But in this case, they were part of this top-secret project in a giant military base in the middle of New Mexico. So, what happens when you have openness versus necessary secrecy? Those two things come into conflict.

It is well-known that Oppenheimer and U.S. Army General Leslie Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan Project, clashed and had to figure out how to work together. What’s interesting is that this clash actually went on throughout Oppenheimer’s life, even after the war.

Scientists play a central role in this film. How do you hope people perceive them?

I hope it shows the scientists really have one job: Look for the scientific truth.

And yes, things get muddled and complicated when there are social implications. But a clear-thinking scientist who is just looking for the truth is just doing what they do best, which is research. The scientists working on the Manhattan Project were just looking to accomplish their immediate mission, and that was an applied physics mission.

Trying to avoid spoilers, there’s remorse woven into the story, alongside a sense of achievement. What do you think about that?

Oppenheimer knew the dangers of what he unleashed because he understood the science behind it better than anyone.

One question with the atomic bomb was once we knew we were going to build it and once we knew we had one was, ‘Should we drop it?’ Eighty-thousand people died in Hiroshima, and 120,000 people died in Nagasaki. Most people who died were civilians. It was terrible.

About every few decades, the pendulum swings on whether we should have dropped the bomb or not. The discussion continues today.

After the war, Oppenheimer was strongly against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and refused to help with the creation of the hydrogen bomb. I wonder if that’s one the reasons Oppenheimer ran into trouble later. Was he seen as overstepping his bounds as a scientist?

This film shows the beginnings of quantum physics that led to the creation of the atomic bomb. But physics encompasses so much more. How do you explain it? 

Through the decades and centuries, physics has expanded into virtually every area. In the natural world, physics is the way to understand things at the deepest level.

So, as physicists, we’re constantly evolving into new areas of interesting research as we develop the theoretical and experimental tools to investigate things. For example, my research is in molecular biophysics, and I’ve done work on the protein molecules involved with Alzheimer’s disease.

Last, but very important: Have you experienced Barbenheimer?

Not yet. Normally, in the times when I’ve seen two movies in a row, which isn’t often, I’ve seen the serious one first and lighter one after.

Because, well, you should eat your vegetable before you have dessert.