A Meditation on “Oppenheimer”

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First: the primeval fear and wonder, the fact of existence itself, the gaping at the savannas, the odd and menacing creatures abounding, the vast sprawl of the stars. Noting the deep growl of hunger, the insistent urge to sample tubers, mushrooms, fruit from the trees, the slow and hapless life forms crawling beneath our gaze.

The terror of being prey for stronger and faster life forms, with their shrieks and snarls and rumbles through the night.

Observing the helpless wails of our mates being devoured.

The seeking for shelter and haven.

The cowering.

The thinking.

The gathering of stones.

The noting of friction.

The sharpening.

The fine point, primed to stab and gouge, to ward off predators and subdue prey.

The sight of sparks.

The collecting of leaves and twigs.

Combustion.

All of it the rudiments of inquiry and physics itself.

The staggering growth of reason, tools, language, culture.

The imagining of gods.

Boats, wheels, transport.

The staying power of tribes, fear, acquisitiveness, aggression.

Religion.

Gunpowder.

Industry.

Those become a revered, ravenous, lethal trinity.

Their harnessing by the nation state.

Wars—of aggression, of defense, of abstraction (honor, pride, fame).

Wars, too, for knowledge, battling ignorance, the relentless yearning to learn the whys, the hows, the where-tos of all that presents itself.

That yearning begetting science, the arts and humanities, the exploration of truth and beauty—and discovery of the atom.

Its splitting.

Its unprecedented power.

The awful, awesome realization of that power’s applications for good or ill.

The rationale for ill use in service of the greater good.

The conscience stricken and paralyzed, questioning that rationale.

The conundrums, the torment, the moral wrestlings in the night.

The fears of proceeding, the fears of not proceeding.

The decision.

The headlong pursuit to be first, the terrible knowledge of second as horror, inconsolable.

The testing.

The light, the gale, the blast and roar to the gates of heaven.

The whoops, the plaudits, the raw evidence of Prometheus, finally unbound—now inside you.

Your impulse to expel him.

The voice to serve his call.

The day of ultimate, world-shattering terror.

The impossibility of return to anything as it was, the very soul of humanity now unto a God, the power of creation and destruction finally total, inarguable.

The only certainty the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

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Nuclear blast by Burnt Pineapple Productions https://www.flickr.com/photos/51686021@N07/

2 comments to A Meditation on “Oppenheimer”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    My mother was a student at Berkeley when J. Robert Oppenheimer taught there. Every now and then she would see his striking but gaunt figure walking around the campus usually within shouting distance of LeConte Hall, the physics building. At that time, Berkeley collected Nobel Prize winning physicists like a kid collecting baseball cards. Oppenheimer wasn’t the most sought after one, either. That distinction belonged to Ernest Lawrence, the inventor of the cyclotron. Interestingly, while the Hall remains, the name does not. A few years ago, it was changed to Physics South because of the white supremacist views of its namesakes John and Jospeh LeConte.

    I found your poem not only effective but quite personal. It insightfully depicts man’s march from the simple task of rubbing sticks together to ignite a fire to the incredibly complex development of a mushroom cloud shaped million-degree bomb. Was it progress, though? That question rekindles memories of my mother’s “discussions” with her brother, a physics professor at Berkeley and member of the Atomic Energy Commission. Her artistic side clashed with his scientific bent. She was only 23 when Hiroshima was hit, and the images of the city after the blast terrified her. She felt like you that “the only certainty the uncertainty of what lies ahead.” She found Oppenheimer’s internationalization (“Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”) of that event as tragic confession undeserving of absolution. It was a tragic epitaph to say the least.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I’d say the movie certainly captured “the striking and gaunt figure” you remember your mom telling you about, Robert, though I would also add “haunted and tortured” to actor Cillian Murphy’s portrayal. I suspected it was slightly overdone, Oppenheimer seeming incapable of almost any normal human emotion or interaction, but it certainly had impact. Pretty crazy that your mom had stories like that to share with you!

      As for the situation then and now, I think the jury’s still out on whether human beings have actually progressed enough to forestall our eventual self-immolation or a turn toward a kind of ultra-authoritarian police state. Or worse yet, eclipsed and done away with by our own machines or simply zombified by them. But maybe that’s only because I’ve been mulling too much recent history with AI and the seeming rise of populist strongmen around the world, mere decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the opening of China, and social and political scientists busily declaring democratic capitalism as triumphant once and for all. Hasn’t quite turned out that way, and coming to grips with that bare fact is proving to be a challenge for our world today.

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