On November 1, 2023

Revisiting Oppenheimer and science: ‘It’s not a priesthood’


By David Moats

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

At a time when facts, science, and the very idea of objective truth are under assault from many quarters, it’s ironic that one of the big movies of the season has focused on the life of one of the most celebrated scientists of the 20th century.

That irony is not lost on Rich Wolfson, who from 1976 to 2019 was a professor of physics at Middlebury College. Wolfson appreciated that the science presented in the movie “Oppenheimer” was largely accurate and also that physics, his field, took center stage in the movie.

The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer deserves to be remembered. The movie is based on the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Michael Sherman. 

Oppenheimer’s most noted triumph was his success as director of the Manhattan Project during World War II, leading the effort to build the first nuclear atomic bomb. But it was a triumph that haunted him for the rest of his life because he could not look away from the fact that he had helped to create weapons capable of destroying all of humanity. 

Then in 1954 his reputation came under the shadow of McCarthyite paranoia when the government revoked his security clearance after a campaign of character assassination had raised specious questions about his patriotism.

The Oppenheimer story resonates with Rich Wolfson in part because Wolfson’s work as a physicist has led him to try to shed light on the benefits and dangers of nuclear technology. He is the author of a book called “Nuclear Choices for the Twenty-First Century: A Citizen’s Guide,” written with co-author Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress. It is a primer on various useful and/or dangerous forms of nuclear technology, including nuclear medicine, nuclear power generation and waste, and nuclear weapons. The book is meant to provide a basic understanding of the questions confronting the public in these complex areas of public policy.

Oppenheimer’s work as a scientist placed him in that elite priesthood of physicists developing an understanding of quantum theory and the mysterious properties of the atom. Wolfson has labored over the years to make the baffling realities of modern physics accessible to those beyond that priesthood — to the nonscientific lay public.

Toward that end he is the author also of a widely used physics text and of a book called “Simply Einstein,” which seeks to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity in a way that is comprehensible to the nonscientist. And he has produced a series of 24 half-hour video lectures explaining Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum theory to a nonscientist audience. (They are available on YouTube from The Great Courses.) 

Both the book and the videos require close attention, but they succeed in showing that Einstein’s theory was based on  common-sense, if counterintuitive, observations that make sense when carefully explained.

Oppenheimer was conscious of the fact that science existed within a broader culture and was, in fact, an important force in shaping modern culture. This was evident in a lecture he delivered in 1965 — a lecture, it turns out, where I happened to be in the audience.

I had a vague memory that Oppenheimer had delivered an address at the University of California at Santa Barbara when I was there. I remembered little about it and wasn’t sure it had actually occurred. I could find no mention of the event online, but the public affairs office at UCSB managed to track down a tape of the speech in the university library. At my request, the library forwarded to me an audio file of the speech, which Oppenheimer had delivered for the university convocation of October 1965.

At his home in Middlebury, Wolfson and I listened to Oppenheimer at the lectern in California 58 years ago. It was a learned, thoughtful speech, ranging over the history of science from ancient Greece to Isaac Newton to Darwin and up to that day in 1965, with fleeting reference to the ultimate danger represented by nuclear weapons. 

It was so learned that Wolfson wondered if a contemporary audience could sit still for it, or if after five minutes they would be fidgeting with their phones. In 1965, Oppenheimer earned enthusiastic and prolonged applause.

Before science became a force in human culture, Oppenheimer suggested, culture mainly served to stop change, to defend what he called “the eternal verities.” But after Galileo, Newton and the scientific advances that followed, science became an agent of change that was irreversible. What brought about the scientific revolution, Oppenheimer said, was “an idea of progress” and the idea that “the betterment of man’s condition has meaning.”

“Science grows out of common sense, curiosity, observation, and reflection,” Oppenheimer said. It was an “immense job” to teach the complex lessons of science, but he said that science was not merely a “quantitative” endeavor. It involves a quest for “harmony, elegance, and beauty,” he said. “We hunger for nobility.” 

If a belief in objective truth has come under siege in contemporary America, Oppenheimer had a rejoinder in his understanding of the laws of physics. He said that if alien beings were studying physics on a distant planet, they might not find the same answers as humans have found, but that would be because they were asking different questions. If they were asking the same questions, they would get the same answers. The laws of physics pertain everywhere.

After hearing Oppenheimer’s 1965 lecture, Wolfson said that science need not be a priesthood. “It is still tied to everyday experience,” he said. “A huge portion of everyday experience can be explained by Newtonian science.”

That science is woven into the fabric of society is evident everywhere — from the science that developed the computers on which this story is appearing, to the vaccines that have kept millions of people alive, not just through Covid, but through epidemics as varied as smallpox, measles and polio. 

Wolfson quoted a former senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe, who asserted that his opinion was as good as any science. It turns out that in the face of recent climate-related disasters, Inhofe’s opinions about climate change have proven to be irrelevant, except insofar as they have retarded action addressing the crisis. The laws of physics do not concern themselves with the opinions of an Oklahoman with a political agenda. 

In fact, the inconvenient truths of climate change have been before us for decades. We look away at our peril. 

Thus, Wolfson’s focus in recent years has shifted away from the nuclear danger to the reality of climate change. It is an apt topic for a physicist. 

“Climate is all about energy,” he said. 

On that topic, as on others, Oppenheimer had good advice 58 years ago. “We need to reknit the discourse and understanding between us,” he said. “We have to learn to talk to one another. And we have to hear.”

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