On the occasion of the release in cinemas of Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer, the volume “Robert Oppenheimer. The man who invented the atomic bomb” (Bompiani, 2023, pp. 1216, also e-book), truly extraordinary biography (if only for the thousand or so pages) written by Ray Monk, professor emeritus in philosophy at the University of Southampton.
Despite its size, it is a touching and engaging book, epic in telling the extraordinary story of the man and the scientist who effectively changed the lives of all of us, bringing humanity into the so-called nuclear age. Oppenheimer, in fact, successfully supervised the Manhattan project, the operation aimed at developing the first atomic bomb.
But let’s try to understand better what we’re talking about. One of the objectives of all the powers involved in the Second World War was to be able to develop a super-weapon capable of bringing opponents to their knees. In particular, the aim was to create an atomic bomb, based on nuclear energy. The idea that a very powerful weapon could be obtained from the energy released by the atom was already widespread, but it was the Hungarian Jewish physicist Leo Szilárd who urged the production of the bomb in the late 1930s. He proposed to the great scientist Albert Einstein that he send US President Franklin D. Roosevelt a letter urging the creation of a nuclear fission weapon before the Nazis did. The news sent by the secret services ensured that German scientists were already working on a nuclear weapon and it was for this reason that the United States government decided to start the Manhattan project immediately. The whole project had a frightening cost for the time: an investment of 2 billion dollars, with the total employment of 150,000 people employed in 30 different sites in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
From September 1942 the Manhattan project was placed under the military control of General Leslie Groves while the technical-scientific responsibility had been entrusted to Robert Oppenheimer. The bomb structure was designed in a Los Alamos laboratory, on a purpose-built military base in the New Mexico desert. Thus the creation of a working atomic bomb was concretely started, the prototype of which, called The Gadget, was detonated on July 16, 1945 in the New Mexico desert. The bomb released a power equal to twenty thousand tons of TNT. A few weeks later, in August 1945, two atomic bombs destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
The United States had won the technological and scientific duel and Oppenheimer could no longer shake off the fame (and the accusation) of having been the father of nuclear weapons.
That of the great physicist is, in fact, the story of a man with a complex personality, who finds himself having to deal with unthinkable discoveries, secrets, impossible choices and unimaginable destruction.
In this book Ray Monk digs deeper than anyone into Oppenheimer’s motivations and, through careful investigation, conducted with great erudition, aims to solve the riddle of Oppenheimer’s motivations and his complex personality.
The son of Jews who emigrated to Germany, the father of the atomic bomb was a man of exceptional intellect, driven by the ambition to overcome his status as an immigrant and outsider and to penetrate the heart of political and social life in the United States. As a young scientist, his talent and grit allowed him to enter a community made up of the great names in 20th century physics – men like Niels Bohr, Max Born, Paul Dirac and Albert Einstein – and to play a fundamental role in the laboratories research centers and in the world’s leading universities.
But Oppenheimer’s was not just a story of integration, scientific success and worldwide fame. The implications of the Los Alamos discoveries weighed heavily on his fragile and complicated personality, so much so that after the end of the Second World War he was opposed to new studies to build even more powerful atomic weapons. This choice put him on a collision course with Senator Joseph McCarthy and with those who saw anyone who spoke of peace and disarmament as an ally of the Soviet Union and communism.
Oppenheimer was thus marginalized by the American institutions and scientific world and left alone with the tragic reflections well represented by one of his famous phrases: «We have done one thing, the most terrible weapon, which has abruptly and profoundly altered the nature of the world. And in doing so, we have once again raised the question of whether science is good for man.”
An issue that still today shakes the consciences and minds of us human beings of the nuclear age.
This article is originally published on unionesarda.it