Words by Amy Mackelden
Cillian Murphy portrays the lauded nuclear physicist in Christopher Nolan’s new movie
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With the release of director Christopher Nolan’s latest epic, Oppenheimer, audiences are wondering how much truth there is to the story portrayed in the movie. Based on the life of American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the film explores his invention of the atomic bomb and the implications of the creation of the deadly weapon.
But is Christopher Nolan’s movie based on a true story? And who was the real Robert Oppenheimer? This is the true story behind Oppenheimer.
WHO WAS THE REAL J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER?
J. Robert Oppenheimer was one of the United States’ most highly regarded theoretical physicists in the 1920s and 1930s. As explored in the film, he headed up the Manhattan Project laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, after being recruited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be part of a secret project, per Smithsonian Magazine. “Oppenheimer is regarded as the father of the atomic bomb,” Kai Bird told Time Out. Bird is the co-author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the basis for the film.
On July 16, 1945, with a team of accomplished scientists, Oppenheimer launched the world’s first atomic bomb test in the Jornada del Muerto desert in New Mexico. “With a force matching 21 kilotonnes of TNT, the detonation was the largest ever seen,” the BBC says. “It created a shockwave that was felt 160km (100 miles) away.” Part of Project Y and codenamed “Trinity,” the project reportedly had a huge effect on Oppenheimer’s health, with his weight plummeting afterward to just 115 pounds.
For the rest of his life, Oppenheimer seemed to wrestle with his involvement in creating the atomic bomb, and later interviews showed him displaying regret. As The New York Times notes, the physicist became known for having uttered the now-famous phrase “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds” while witnessing the first test—a quote from Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita, which “he cited as having shaped his philosophy of life,” according to the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project.
Whatever guilt Oppenheimer felt was apparently complicated, however, as the scientist seemed to relinquish any responsibility for the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, at the end of World War II. “I carry no weight on my conscience,” he claimed in 1961, according to The New York Times. “Our work has changed the conditions in which men live, but the use made of these changes is the problem of governments, not of scientists.”
As portrayed in Nolan’s movie, Oppenheimer did meet with President Harry S. Truman (Gary Oldman), who ordered the bombings of Japan, but the appointment was less than successful. “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands,” he told Truman, per Smithsonian Magazine. But Bird told Time Out, “It was a disaster of a meeting. Truman told an aide: ‘I don’t want to see that crybaby scientist ever again.’”
WHAT’S THE TRUTH ABOUT OPPENHEIMER’S PERSONAL LIFE?
According to the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project, Oppenheimer was a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley between 1929 and 1943, where he was popular among students. Earning the nickname Oppie, the physicist was reportedly a hit because of “his striking looks, bohemian attitudes, leftist politics, and eclectic tastes.”
Bird also noted that Oppenheimer was considered to be “deeply charismatic, and attractive to women.” “You had to listen very carefully, but he was magnetic,” the historian said.
Oppenheimer married Katherine “Kitty” Puening (portrayed in the film by Emily Blunt) in 1940 after they had an affair, and the pair had two children, per Brittanica. Kitty worked as a laboratory technician in Los Alamos, where she carried out blood tests to determine the effects of radiation on human beings. According to Brittanica, Kitty—who had been associated with the Communist Party—was called “bewitching” and “impossible” by people who knew her. Her former association with communism would later impact her husband’s career.
Despite his marriage, Oppenheimer’s so-called “first love” reportedly remained pertinent throughout his life. Oppenheimer met Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) at Berkeley, where she studied before attending medical school at Stanford, per Biography. Although there was a 10-year age difference between the two, they were reportedly madly in love, with Oppenheimer allegedly proposing twice to Tatlock. Even when Oppenheimer married Kitty, he reportedly continued an affair with Tatlock, who was also a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America and would later become a psychiatrist. As noted by Biography, Tatlock’s affiliation with communism would prove devastating to Oppenheimer’s career later in his life as well. Tragically, Tatlock died by suicide on January 4, 1944, at 29.
DID OPPENHEIMER HAVE A TROUBLED CHILDHOOD?
Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904 into a Jewish family in New York City, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation. He graduated from high school as valedictorian in 1921, but health issues almost hampered his career. Per the Atomic Heritage Foundation, “a near-fatal case of dysentery” caused Oppenheimer to “postpone enrolling at Harvard” until September 1922.
He subsequently studied physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in 1925. According to Vanity Fair, Oppenheimer became depressed at Cambridge, writing in a letter to a friend, “I am having a pretty bad time. The lab work is a terrible bore, and I am so bad at it that it is impossible to feel that I am learning anything … The lectures are vile.”
In the movie, the young scientist is seen poisoning his Cambridge tutor’s apple, and apparently this really did happen. As Bird and co-author Martin Sherwin reveal in their biography: “Consumed by his feelings of inadequacy and intense jealousy, he ‘poisoned’ an apple with chemicals from the laboratory and left it on [tutor Patrick] Blackett’s desk.” According to Bird and Sherwin, it’s unclear if Oppenheimer used cyanide or another poison, but either way, by his own account he did tamper with his tutor’s food. (University authorities found out before Blackett could eat the apple, and Oppenheimer was nearly expelled.)
After Cambridge, Oppenheimer would move to Germany to learn from Max Born, the director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Göttingen, the Atomic Heritage Foundation says. After receiving his doctorate in 1927, Oppenheimer took up positions at Berkeley and at the California Institute of Technology.
WHAT HAPPENED TO OPPENHEIMER?
Life changed dramatically for Oppenheimer during the McCarthy era, when he was one of many Americans accused of being a Communist Party sympathizer because of his political views and relationships, The New York Times says. Oppenheimer had also been speaking widely about the dangers of nuclear warfare, which likely contributed to the scrutiny he was placed under, as his opinion was politically unpopular, per Smithsonian Magazine. In 1954, he was brought before the Atomic Energy Commission and lost his security clearance at the hearing. It was later revealed that the FBI had bugged Oppenheimer’s home throughout his tenure at Berkeley, the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project says. Along with wife Puening and mistress Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s brother and a close friend were both also Communist Party members, though the scientist himself was never an official member, Smithsonian Magazine notes. In spite of this, “[h]e was hauled before a kangaroo court, humiliated and stripped of his security clearance,” Bird told Time Out.
After the hearing, Oppenheimer reportedly struggled to reconcile his beliefs with reality. “He spent the rest of his life after 1945 trying to grapple with the implications of what he had produced as a scientist,” Bird told Time Out. “He was very intolerant of authority and arrogance, and as a result he made some powerful political enemies.” Oppenheimer died due to throat cancer, following years of chain smoking, on February 18, 1967 in Princeton, New Jersey, at the age of 62. Decades later, his influence on the world can still be felt.
This original article appeared on harpersbazaar.com