Oppenheimer's Paradox

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Esterno, 1985


Commentary on the film directed by Christopher Nolan

At the beginning of Oppenheimer, physicist Niels Bohr talks about wave-particle quantum duality as a paradox. A quantum is not wave or particle, but wave AND particle. One of the virtues of Christopher Nolan's latest film is precisely to aesthetically assume the paradox without trying to resolve it.

Christopher Nolan's films have always exhibited scientific paradoxes, especially temporal ones. Christopher Nolan is, in fact, the filmmaker of paradoxes, although this logical figure often slips into moral ambiguity in his films. The most obvious example of this is seen in the series Batman. In O cavaleiro das trevas, the prosecutor Duas Caras was at the same time the character who fought corruption and was a corrupt being (like a famous Brazilian judge). bane, from Batman Rises, was both a criminal and a revolutionary.

Still in The Dark Knight, Nolan introduces a well-known moral dilemma into the film's plot that takes the place of the paradox. The Joker poses a moral challenge to Batman: two bombs will explode simultaneously and Batman, who knows this, needs to decide which of the bombs he is capable of deactivating. He needs to choose between losing his beloved or allowing hundreds of people to die. This scene from the trilogy resonates later in Oppenheimer, when a group of white men from the deep state American decides on which Japanese city the atomic bomb will be dropped. The American president removes Kyoto from the list because of its historical value…

In the other films, the paradox often turns into time loops. It is the case of Tenet, the previous film. But in this film, the paradox takes the form of a palindrome. The paradox exists, but read backwards or vice versa, it remains the same. It is the Protagonist's own sense of tenacity, that amidst the narrative confusion and the temporal war, he must remain the same, upright in his objectives, faithful to his friend Neil and his platonic love for Kat, both white. In other words, in Tenet the paradox only hides the sense of permanence or the identity of being.

Em Oppenheimer, we are facing a paradox that cannot be “deparadoxized”. The temporal arcs common in Christopher Nolan's work become points of quantum discontinuity between past and future. The film flows like a wave between times, but is punctuated by tense moments that relate to each other, projecting a mysterious narrative as in a detective film, but this narrative is illusionistic, as it is never resolved. As in the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics, there is a principle of indeterminacy or uncertainty about the plot.

At the beginning of the film, Julius Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is reading The Waste Land , by the conservative author TS Elliot, but is also dazzled by the cubist paintings of the communist Picasso: Is Julius a right-wing or left-wing scientist? This question runs throughout the film. At the end of the narrative there is the feeling that he is from the right AND from the left. This double bind oscillation will continue in other issues addressed during the film: Julius Oppenheimer is a communist AND imperialist, rationalist AND mystic[I], ethical AND immoral, faithful AND adulterous, determined AND reticent, genius AND stupid.[ii] And, above all, hero AND monster.

In fact, about the historical figure of the physicist Oppenheimer, controversies and the inability to give them a final verdict remain to this day. The film revolves around the “safety hearings” (security hearings) of 1954, where a State commission judged his participation in the leak of information for the USSR to build its atomic bomb. At these hearings, Oppenheimer was even accused of being a “Soviet spy”. However, there was never a definitive conclusion about the extent of his participation in this leak, from an effective collaboration with the communists, his omission or simply by “turning a blind eye”.

It is known that Oppenheimer not only included in the Manhattan project scientists who were admittedly communists, or sympathizers, including the one who was the main accused of these leaks, the physicist Klaus Fuchs,[iii] as well as being surrounded by other communist militants (or leftist ones, but in McCarthyist times it made little difference between being communist or being leftist), like his best friend Maurice Chevalier (who actually made him a proposal to transmit information to the USSR ), his brother, his wife, and even his lover, the communist militant Jean Tatlock.

About the latter, Christopher Nolan's film has the merit of recovering his memory and thereby redeems part of this film for its well-known androcentrism, as his previous films are all set in the male perspective in which women have peripheral or subordinate participation. This unfortunately repeats itself in Oppenheimer.[iv] On the other hand, the forgotten Jean Tatlock has a relevant role in the plot, albeit in a supporting role and, as in other situations, ambiguous.

The film does not make clear whether Jean (who was a psychiatrist and bisexual activist) in her affectionate and sexually charged relationship with Julius, was really interested in obtaining secret information or if the relationship was in fact loving and disinterested (as Oppenheimer himself claimed in his defense). The film even considers the conspiracy hypothesis that Tatlock's suicide was a CIA or FBI assassination.

However, the film's first paradox lies in the oscillation between the technical pathways of fission and nuclear fusion. On the one hand, the atomic bomb is realized through a process of nuclear fission, while the hydrogen bomb is made possible by the process of fusion. At the beginning of the project, there was no clear indication of which technical path to follow. It is on this question that the feud arises, to the point of rivalry, between Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, the latter considered the “father” of the H-Bomb (many times more powerful than the A-bomb).[v]

But this alternative soon takes on political connotations. On the one hand, the joint collaboration between the allies against the Nazis was contaminated from the beginning by distrust of the Soviets. If the fusion symbolizes this agreement, the fission here is the metaphor of the class struggle that subterraneanly takes care of the project. The fusion project was placed completely within the narrative of the postwar arms race. One of the greatest virtues of Christopher Nolan's narrative choice is precisely to describe how the Manhattan project begins within the fight against the Nazis, but in fact it is already fully inserted into the plot of the Cold War.

Oppenheimer used his Jewish ancestry and the Nazi persecution of Jews to justify his participation in the project. It is possible to admit that if he had not created the atomic bomb, someone else would have done it in his place, perhaps a Nazi scientist.[vi] But does this argument justify it? Or to put it another way: does this argument historically redeem you? For Christopher Nolan's film this is an “undecidable” question. However, his aesthetic choice was to center the narrative on security audiences, already in the post-war McCarthyist context, at the epicenter of the Cold War.

This means that, contrary to what Oppenheimer really thought (or his justification speech), the real dispute was not against the Nazis but against the Soviets, supposed war allies. Christopher Nolan often uses the B&W filter for the audience scenes and above all to film the great “villain” of the story, the also Jewish Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.), who became President of the AEC, Atomic Energy Commission. Christopher Nolan accepts the version that it was a personal disagreement because Strauss had masterminded (or handled) the lawsuit against Oppenheimer. But Strauss, a conservative republican, was anti-communist and it was Oppenheimer's well-known relationships with communists that were the main argument of the hearings.

Thus, the film shows from the beginning the dispute around the bomb as the beginning of the Cold War and Strauss was always acting within this scenario. If Auschwitz marks the end of the first half of the twentieth century, the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki open the second half of the century. On the one hand, it was increasingly evident, with the defeat of Germany and the suicide of Hitler, that the A-Bomb was not a reason for dispute with the Germans, but a war project of imperialist supremacy.

Ignoring this fact would be too naive of Oppenheimer, or it would be bad faith. As some have mentioned, it was a huge act of vanity to carry out the Trinity test.[vii] after the German defeat, under the excuse of Japanese resistance, which in July 1945 was already known to have been defeated.[viii] For this reason, Oppenheimer's disappointment when he learns that not one, but two Japanese cities have been atomically bombed, can only appear as an act of cynicism.

It is precisely at this point that the second great metaphor of the film appears, in relation to the famous “chain reaction”. The film shows the fear among scientists that the chain reaction of the split atoms will continue without limits until the final destruction of the world. Calculations showed that, however, the chance of this catastrophe occurring was “close to zero” (near zero). It is to confirm these calculations that Oppenheimer supposedly seeks out Einstein and they have the fateful conversation for the outcome of the story.

Einstein's refusal to solve the problem symbolizes the difference in attitude between the two scientists. In another perspective, this chain reaction metaphor also symbolizes Oppenheimer's own “point of no return”. He soon understands that the chain reaction ceases to be a scientific concept and becomes a political one. It was a metaphor for the arms race that was unfolding at that moment. Hence follows all of Oppenheimer's stance against the construction of the H Bomb, and even his attitudes towards hindering this research, which will weigh against him in his judgment.

What the film depicts in this passage is precisely the emergence of the infamous MAD- Mutual AutoDestruction. It is intuited that Oppenheimer understands that the possession of the bomb by a single country gives it the military supremacy that becomes a point of global insecurity. The Japanese atomic explosions are precisely the demonstration of this insecurity. The paradox lies in the fact that the only way to curb this situation of instability would be to ensure that other nations also had the bomb, which would generate a mutual deterrent effect.

In this case, the paradox becomes a “double bind” (double bound), a concept by the famous cybernetic anthropologist Gregory Bateson to speak of a dilemma in two opposing premises that imply each other. With MAD, destroying the enemy means destroying yourself. If it was technically possible to avoid the atomic chain reaction, it was not politically possible, except with another terribly destructive bomb.

As a scientist, Oppenheimer knew that the dominance of technology among other nations, especially the USSR, was a matter of time. It was precisely for this reason that he justified his entry into the Manhattan project. This project was already part of the MAD strategy. From this point of view, and I think Nolan's film understands this, Oppenheimer is the creator of the MAD strategy. And it is also what is implied in the answer that Einstein gives him in the film. And finally it is the background of the accusations that the deep state American drives against him. Oppenheimer, willingly or not, thwarted America's plans for global supremacy and started the Cold War.

And after all, this is the last great paradox of Oppenheimer. One of the most impressive scientific discoveries of all time and one of the most far-reaching technical constructions are also those that put the very existence of humanity at risk. The MAD strategy is thus the perfect name for the fusion/fission, or double bond, between reason AND madness, science AND war, energy AND destruction. The name Oppenheimer will remain as the one marked by such a paradox.

Returning finally to the Copenhagen Interpretation, it tells us that the wave-particle duality to be resolved depends on the observer and his experiment. The Oppenheimer estate trial says more about who judges it. It is certain that this paradox is of such magnitude that it will oscillate and haunt us for what remains of human history.

* William Preger is an electrical engineer and holds a PhD in literary theory from UERJ. author of Fables of Science (Gramma).


USA, 2023, 185 minutes.
Direction and script:Christopher Nolan.
book adaptation The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin (https://amzn.to/3KLZpzo).
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Gary Oldman, Ben Safdie, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Quaid, Gustaf Skarsgard, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh.


[I] As indicated by his proverbial passion for Hindu mythologies and for the study of Sanskrit, above all The Bhagavad Gita from which Oppenheimer takes the famous passage that was associated with his figure: “I became death, destroyer of worlds”. This phrase, said for a documentary by with the BBC in 1965, she is inserted into the cinematographic narrative in the midst of a sexual relationship with Jean Tatlock, of whom we will speak later. However, it is necessary to be careful here with the rush to consider this interest in Eastern philosophy as the antithesis of scientific rationalism. As mentioned by his longtime physicist friend Isidor Isaac Rabi (who declined to participate in the Manhattan project): “Oppenheimer was overeducated in those fields that lie outside the scientific tradition, such as his interest in religion, in the Hindu religion in particular, which resulted in into a feeling for the mystery of the universe that surrounded him almost like a mist. He saw physics clearly, looking at what had already been done, but on the borderline he tended to feel that there was much more of the mysterious and new than there really was... [he moved away] from the hard and brute methods of physical theory in a mystical realm of wide intuition… In Oppenheimer, the earthly element was weak. Yet it was essentially this spiritual quality, this refinement expressed in speech and manner, that was the basis of his charisma. He never fully expressed himself. He always left the feeling that there were depths of sensibility and perception not yet revealed. These may be the qualities of the born leader who seems to have reserves of unrivaled strength (personal translation)”. Excerpt taken from the Wikipedia entry on the physicist. Remember that David Bohm (who studied under Oppenheimer's supervision) was also fascinated by Hindu Eastern philosophy, and even used it to support his reading of the Copenhagen Quantum Interpretation, along with his reading of materialist dialectics.

[ii] As the character himself admits, after having invented a fictitious plot in his interrogation to clear his colleague Chevalier of accusations, an act that ends up weighing on his sentence.

[iii] In fact, Klaus Fuchs arrived on the project through the British cooperation team, led by Niels Bohr and was working under the supervision of Hans Bethe.

[iv] Writer Danielle Schlossarek noted the film's complete omission of the name of Lise Meitner, the real discoverer of nuclear fission. With this, the film ends up corroborating the injustice done to Meitner who did not win the Nobel Prize for this discovery, but his collaborator and friend Otto Hahn who was awarded the prize. Meitner has always been a pacifist scientist and hinted that she would not have participated in Operation Manhattan, even though she was, like Oppenheimer, a Jewish scientist.

[v] The H-bomb actually uses both the fission of an atomic trigger element to generate the energy (heat) for fusion. Thus, the H-bomb includes both fission and fusion.

[vi] The plot of the film mentions the famous meeting in Copenhagen between Niels Bohr and Heisenberg, in 1941, the subject of many discussions and even of fictional works such as the play by Michael Frayn. It is not known for sure what both scientists, two of the most brilliant minds of the 1964th century, talked about. In Nolan's film the conclusion is that Bohr realized that the Germans were not on the right track to get the bomb. But this was not Frayn's conclusion. There are indications that Heisenberg did not really want to get involved in the construction of the artifact and deceived the military. Other versions feel that Heisenberg, a great theoretician, lacked the practical talents to build the bomb. But this argument died when it is known that the Germans had a great engineer, Wernher von Braun, who commanded the construction of rockets, missiles and bombs that were used in the bombings over Great Britain. Von Braun was NASA's project chief after the war. Already, in this position of American military engineer, von Braun visited Brazil after the XNUMX coup, to learn about Brazilian military and scientific research, at Embraer and INPE.

[vii] It is known that the choice of this name came from a poem by the English poet John Donne. What the film does not say (unless this columnist is mistaken) is that Julius Oppenheimer removed the verse from an excerpt that had been read to him by Jean Tatlock.

[viii] Incidentally, it is well known that several Japanese cities were the target of intense American bombings, which killed thousands of people. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, were not bombed. The reason is that they had already been chosen as targets for the A-Bomb and were supposed to remain "clean" from previous destruction, as the atomic bombing of these cities was a kind of scientific test. The very fact that there are two cities and not just one, already points out in this bombing the perspective of the scientific experiment, in which the double “sample” provides evidence with redundancy.

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