Oppenheimer: Science, Culture and Politics

Actor wearing goggles views enormously bright light shining in through porthole-type window
The new movie Oppenheimer, featuring actor Cilliam Murphy in the title role, shines a light on the nature of the scientific endeavor. (Photo: © Universal Pictures)

Christopher Nolan’s film about J Robert Oppenheimer makes for a long evening and requires serious concentration. Cillian Murphy’s performance in the central role is an extraordinary representation of a man tormented by many demons even before his role in the atomic bomb program. The special effects are stunning, especially in an IMAX theatre – well worth the expedition if you haven’t got one on your doorstep.

The film is also notable for its acknowledgment of the collective nature of scientific endeavor. While Oppenheimer is the heroic leader, the team are never far away and their contributions get more acknowledgement than in many biopics. Oppenheimer has no talent for experimental physics and depends on others to build the kit that tests the theories and engineers them into the bomb itself. Fermi, Teller, Lawrence, Bohr, Heisenberg all get their due. It is also notable that there is no attempt to twist the history to fit contemporary sensibilities. Women at Los Alamos do the typing and the laundry, even if they have their own graduate degrees. People of color are almost invisible.

Such a richly textured film also has footnotes that are worth a little attention in their own right. One is the insertion of quantum physics into a 20th-century cultural milieu as part of a wider revolution in understanding the world. The other is about the relationship between science and politics in a time of crisis.

About halfway through the film, Nolan dwells for a few minutes on Oppenheimer’s fascination with the work of Picasso and the music of Stravinsky. In part, this is a signal of the polymathic nature of Oppenheimer’s talents – he learns Dutch well enough in a semester to use it in a lecture on quantum physics. However, this passage has a wider significance. It places quantum theory into the relativist revolution that sweeps through human knowledge in the early 20th century. Einstein’s insight that nothing in the universe is fixed, except possibly for the speed of light, does not stand apart from the ways in which rule-governed forms are dethroned in art, music and literature. If all motion, and temporal ordering, are relative to the point of observation, then we must try to comprehend them from multiple perspectives. Picasso’s figures abandon the representational conventions of figurative art in favour of attempting to capture their essence through the combination of several viewpoints.

Arguably, this revolution has its starting point in Darwin’s shift from a linear narrative of evolution – the Tree of Life – to a more chaotic one – the Tangled Bank. Evolution does not proceed in a straight line of march to the heights of Victorian England. It is a messy business where species struggle with each other and any advantage is transient and temporary. Our focus constantly shifts between individual species and their environment, between figure and ground. This is the model that is brought from plant biology into sociology by the First Chicago School, dethroning the linear evolutionary models of their predecessors. The zones of the city are the sites of conflict and competition for dominance, where outcomes are inherently unpredictable. Darwin may well have derived his vision from Adam Smith’s understanding of occupations and markets in Wealth of Nations where the fixed structures of the medieval guilds are dissolved by the Industrial Revolution. It is this wider spirit of flux and change that Einstein introduces to physics, displacing the ordered world left by Newton.

But Einstein is still hankering for a rule-governed universe – in his famous phrase, “God does not play dice.” The phrase implies both the existence of an ordering principle, God, and the non-random nature of its actions, not playing dice. The film imagines interactions between Einstein and Oppenheimer in almost Biblical fashion. They are seen conversing by a lake at Princeton in ways that echo the depiction of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Einstein is passing the torch to a new generation.

The quantum world is precisely about dice-playing or, more exactly, probability. Oppenheimer’s generation complete that revolution. There are several telling moments in the film, where he is pressed to declare that the atomic explosion will not set off a physical chain reaction that destroys the planet. His best answer is that the probability is almost zero. Others are hankering for a firm declaration of zero, which is no longer possible.

This revolution also invades the social sciences and humanities. The Viennese reaction against the attempts by Durkheim, Weber and the Frankfurt School to restore certainty finds an expression in a diverse range of thinkers, who tend to be prised apart as mythical ancestors in different disciplines – Schutz, Wittgenstein, Hayek, Popper, Von Mises. They are not a unified school and there are many social and intellectual tensions among them. But they share a common scepticism about rules, plans and projects. In different ways, they all see order as ephemeral, local and spontaneous.

In sociology, Talcott Parsons stands at the crossroads of this movement. The Social System is his attempt to formulate the processes by which order might be built out of chaos. Both Schutz and Garfinkel saw him as a kindred spirit but Parsons turned away from the implications of his own thinking and sought refuge in cybernetics. Sociology has struggled ever since with a recognition of the problematic nature of order, most obviously from ethnomethodology, and a desire to impose an order that meets some external criteria of justice. It is the fact/value distinction that provides one of the most pitiless moments of Oppenheimer.

Many critics have already pointed up the brutality with which Harry S Truman despatches Oppenheimer’s expression of the moral qualms felt by many scientists about the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. History will not judge the men who built it but the man who decided to use it. The scientists are just cry-babies who cannot deal with the hard decisions. If the Japanese are unlikely to surrender, how many Americans will die in an opposed landing on their mainland, given the experience of D-Day and of the island-by-island combat across the Pacific? It is hard to resist the echoes of our own time. When the biomedical world became fixated on COVID deaths, how many contemporary politicians weighed these against the likely mortality from untreated cancers and chronic illnesses or the deaths of despair down the line from the social and economic disruption. Truman knew where the buck stopped and was not going to shuffle it off onto anyone else by ‘following the science.’ The physicists and engineers had done their job: moral responsibility was what politicians were paid for.

Anselm Strauss once commented on the belief among sociologists that rules could be written that would produce islands of stability in an ocean of uncertainty. In contrast, and explicitly acknowledging Garfinkel, he suggested that there might only be ocean. It was not our role to be legislators for humanity but to explain the processes by which human goals might be achieved. The quantum universe is home to us as much as to physicists.

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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William Cockerham

Saw the movie, Robert. Excellent analysis.

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