First, Oppenheimer should have been called Oppie. And the shorting of the film's name should have been accompanied by an equally dramatic shorting of the film itself. It seems Christopher Nolan can no longer make normal-length films. Everything that he wants to say is so important that it must and will be said. I lost interest in Oppenheimer after two hours. The last hour chained me to time, which, as always happens in situations of this kind, was very, very slow. Every tick of the virtual clock on my phone was felt by my soul, which failed to be excited by the film's final push to a greatness that its director's imagination, supported by a near limitless budget, was incapable of achieving.
But I'm here to offer interesting details about the physicists (and a mathematician) who appear briefly in Oppenheimer. For Nolan, they were nothing more than what one of the greatest writers of the 20th century Jorge Luis Borges famously described, derisively, as "local color" in its period form. (It's mostly known in its geographic form—Italians talking loudly and expressively, French drinking and French kissing at cafes, Africans dancing and singing, and so on.) But there is a whole story (indeed more interesting than Oppenheimer) in the walks Albert Einstein had with Kurt Gödel. So when you see the scene early in the movie, which lasts maybe 30 seconds, I want you to know what you missed. What were these walks about? Who is Gödel?
Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel used to walk home together each afternoon after teaching at Princeton • Einstein would declare that he went to his university office ‘just to have the privilege of walking home with Kurt Gödel’ @DiscoverMag https://t.co/5vIdiaqYzy pic.twitter.com/XXtHWGrdKw— neuro.social.self (@neurosocialself) August 19, 2021
What must be understood is Einstein was nothing more than a crank at the time he met Oppie at Princeton. Indeed, he hadn't done anything of scientific great value since 1915, the year he published his theory of general relativity, which radically broke with Newtonian gravity. By the 1940s, he had already wasted over a decade fighting the verified findings of quantum mechanics. He was, it turned out, totally locked in the Newtown universe of cause and effect, the mechanical universe that everyone thought he demolished in 1905 with his special relativity: time is all over the place and not in a unified block of space. The theories developed and made mainstream by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg (more about these two in a moment) in the mid-1920s were anathema to the aging imagination of Einstein. And so, these walks in Princeton, where he was sent to pasture, actually destroyed the brilliant and then-still young mathematical mind of Kurt Gödel, a Czech who at the age of 24 instigated a revolution in epistemology (theory of knowledge) by mathematically showing that all logical schemes could never be complete.
Gödel was also a freak with a serious nervous condition. And Einstein's obsession with what became known as the Copenhagen interpretation (the quantum realm was probabilistic rather than mechanical in the classical sense), made Gödel's delicate condition only worse. Keep this in mind in the brief scene that finds Oppie interrupting one of the many Gödel/Einstein Princeton walks.
But Einstein was not entirely an insignificant figure in the story of the Manhattan Project, which was run by Oppie, another brilliant mind with a nervous condition. Einstein did write a letter in 1939 to President Roosevelt that made this warning: the Germans were developing an atomic bomb. And the reason why many were certain of this was not only because of German breakthroughs in nuclear fission but also because one of the key figures of the Copenhagen Interpretation, Heisenberg, had become a Nazi. His mission? Develop a nuclear bomb.
Heisenberg, played by Matthias Schweighöfer, is barely mentioned in Oppenheimer. You would think a Hollywood director would be all about that tension. Oppie personally knew Heisenberg, whose genius at the time was maybe only second to Paul Dirac, and also Einstein's intellectual-enemy-number-one Bohr, the Danish physicist played for some unknown and maybe unknowable reason by Kenneth Branagh. (Surely, a Scandinavian actor, of which there are many to pick from, could have done the job and spared us Branagh's unforgivably bad Danish English.)
A race between Oppie and Heisenberg would have been thrilling. And only in the end do we discover that Heisenberg was way behind the Manhattan Project because of Hitler's stupidity. He didn't give Heisenberg the resources Roosevelt gave Oppie. Hitler was instead more interested in weapons he could understand, which were conventional and developed by Wernher von Braun, a rocket scientist who developed the V-2 rockets that killed and terrified Londoners in the final year of the war. (Von Braun eventually became an American hero; one of his rockets sent men to the moon 54 years ago this week.) In fact, there is a fascinating play about Heisenberg meeting Bohr in Nazi-occupied Denmark. It's called Copenhagen. It's by Michael Frayn. Not only does it have more dramatic tension in it than Oppenheimer, but the physicist and cultural theorist Karen Barad also provides a deep analysis of the work (what it gets right/what it gets wrong) in Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.
And now I must bring up the bongos in the film. You might miss this, but the person playing them at the Los Alamos Laboratory is, of course, Richard Feynman (played by Jack Quaid, the son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid). This physicist basically facilitated (or symbolized) the full transition of the science from Germany to the United States. Without this transition, German would be today the language of physics. The American physicists before him, such as Oppie and John Wheeler (not in the movie), were still attached to the European tradition. Feynman was not, and his straightforward and unphilosophical (one might even say uncultivated) approach to science represented the new American spirit. And so did his bongo playing, which scientists at Los Alamos heard all through the night. If Nolan had one comedic bone in his body, he would have shown the most brilliant minds of those times suffering, in the dark, in their beds, through this impossible bongo playing.