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Creators and Destroyers of Science

Aug 14, 2023

“Oppenheimer” is more than a movie, it’s also a meditation on moral questions that ring as loud in today’s world as they did during the race to build the atomic bomb in the face of the rise of fascism and World War II. Questions about nationality and nationalism, ethnic origin and political loyalty pervade the film. It also vividly raises questions about competing loyalties, loyalty to friends and relatives in conflict with military discipline and the law. What about the conflict between loyalty to one’s conscience and loyalty to the state?

J. Robert Oppenheimer was a man of many worlds, a native New Yorker who fell in love with the high desert of New Mexico, a member of a Jewish minority in a predominantly Christian country. He was a scientist, a linguist, a philosopher, an American military man and a freewheeling socialist in intimate contact with orthodox pro-Soviet communists. As director of the vast Manhattan Project, he was a core member of the U.S. military industrial complex even before the term was coined by President Eisenhower.

It’s hard to sum up such a complex life in a few words, and Christopher Nolan, despite his inspired direction, and some clever cinematic tricks, struggles to find the essence of so complex a man in this rambling, three-hour film.

But if a physicist as unique and hard-to-fathom as Oppenheimer can be usefully compared to another person, the equally unique and hard-to-fathom Qian Xuesen of China immediately comes to mind.

Both men were castigated as disloyal to the U.S. by security authorities dealing with real security breaches and the fevered imagination of paranoid minds. Both men were true cosmopolitans, fluent in different languages and cultures, and both were on their sleeves internationalist ideas that transcended the narrow nationalisms of the day.

Both men had huge bureaucracies put at their command, and both men hastened the coming of the day when mutual assured destruction was paradoxically a means of keeping the peace.

Both men paid a price for being laser-sharp in their technical insights and blurry in politics. Both men were hard to pin down, both for their equivocations and perceived moral ambiguities, and during the Red Scare in the U.S., both men were pilloried for their political leanings and political contacts.

It’s worth noting that both Oppenheimer and Qian Xuesen adamantly denied being communists during the time period in question, but questions linger. What is known, ironically enough, is that both men were associated closely with card-carrying communists such as Robert’s younger brother Frank. Guilt by association, guilt by unconventional ideas, guilt by dint of minority ethnic status, and guilt by strident internationalism in a society rippled with intolerance proved sufficient to take them down.

Then, as now, some of the most outstanding scientists of the day were Jewish Americans or Americans of Chinese descent. That’s one reason why many of the targeted were Jews and Chinese, but prejudice was a factor, too. As America emerged victorious from a long, bloody war, a groundswell of American triumphalism and ideological intolerance swept society.

The sheer brilliance of outstanding scientists working on dual-use technology such as nuclear fission and rocketry is itself a double-edged sword, their knowledge can be put to good or evil, and the scientists themselves can be painted good or evil. One brilliant stroke in the film uses a concept derived from the Schrodinger Cat thought experiment in quantum mechanics to illustrate the internal divisions of a man who is simultaneously winning big and losing big, simultaneously creating and destroying.

During the period in question, Jews and Chinese, for a variety of historical reasons, family ties and educational links to the “old country,” be it war-torn China or war-torn Central Europe, were often more conversant with communism than immigrants from other lands. In the 1930s in particular, many Americans of diverse backgrounds had reasons, not unreasonable in the day and age they lived, to view communism as a progressive force, at least in terms of combating fascism, racism and fighting for worker’s rights.

America’s domestic flirtation with the far left was by no means limited to ethnic minorities; the rise of Hitler and collapse of capitalism and explosion of poverty at the outset of the Great Depression provided fertile ground for new ideologies and paradigms to live by.

Be that as it may, the moment Josef Stalin showed his truly brutal opportunistic colors by aligning with Adolf Hitler under the terms of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact should have put paid to the idea of Soviet communism as a progressive force, if the Moscow show trials and other abuses did not provide sufficient evidence of murderous malfeasance already.

An important difference in the trajectory of the lives of these two politically vulnerable physicists is the way losing security clearance played out. For Oppenheimer, it was a fall from grace, if being in the good graces of a blood-stained military establishment can be considered a form of grace, and descent into infamy and obscurity with an uptick of recognition at the end.

For Qian Xuesen, who, unlike Oppenheimer, had a homeland to go back to, newly-liberated China provided an out that proved definitive. He left the U.S. forever and re-dedicated his efforts advancing rocketry in China.

During the height of war, both China, then under KMT representation, and Russia, under the same old Joe Stalin, were deemed worthy allies of the U.S. in the joint cause to rid the world of Hitler and Nazis who were inflicting incomparable horrors on humanity. China and the U.S. also shared a joint mission, in the indomitable spirit of the Flying Tigers, to rid the world of Tojo’s imperial invaders and free China from Japanese domination.

By the time Mao announced the establishment of a new China in 1949, the U.S.-China honeymoon was over and intractable problems related to the Taiwan-mainland split fed directly into the animosities of the Cold War pitting communism against capitalism.

Qian Xuesen had convincing credentials as a scientist, willing and able to contribute to the advance of American science before he fell victim to a McCarthyesque witch hunt in 1950, part of the same maelstrom of intolerance and paranoia that also netted Oppenheimer four years later.

Qian studied at MIT and taught at Caltech. In collaboration with the Hungarian physicist Theodore Von Karman, (who like Oppenheimer was multilingual, studied in Europe and was of Jewish descent) Qian helped found the Jet Propulsion Lab. During the war, Qian worked for the U.S. Defense Department and Department of War and achieved the U.S. military rank of colonel.

One of the many virtues of doing a film about physicists is that physics itself provides a template to handle, if not reconcile, seemingly contradictory forces. The Schrodinger effect, by which a particle is, and isn’t, at the same time was utilized in filmic terms to show Oppenheimer both as hero and villain, guru and monster, a shining light and a force for darkness. When the Trinity test of the world’s first atomic bomb results in a suitably demonic explosion, Oppenheimer is shown navigating both thunderous applause and the imagined bodies of victims reduced to ash.

Despite his contributions, Qian Xuesen’s 1955 move to China, a China no longer in the U.S. orbit, could not be construed a lateral move to an erstwhile ally but rather was seen as an act of defiance, a wholesale defection to the enemy camp. The duality inherent in the structure of Nolan’s cinematic vision of Oppenheimer suggests that it may be possible, though not easy, for both the U.S. and China to be grateful for Qian Xuesen’s contributions to science.

On the other hand, it is worth remembering that the inventions most closely associated with the stellar minds of these two indisputably brilliant men were weapons of destruction.

When it came time for Oppenheimer to reflect on his greatest “success” which was simultaneously a catastrophic “failure” in humanistic terms, he turned to Sanskrit scripture which he was conversant with in the original. Borrowing a line from lord Krishna addressing his loyal charioteer Arjuna, he says:

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds"

Despite the depressing topic, “Oppenheimer” has done great box office in the U.S. market, and has been cleared for showing in China, where the retention or deletion of nude scenes has generated more advance interest in potential viewers, and is likely to be more a problem for the censors, than the harrowing Cold War politics.

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