Oppenheimer and the ‘guilt-ridden scientist’ myth

Move over, Dr. Strangelove: Oppenheimer and the myth of the ‘guilt-ridden scientist'

The face that launched one bomb, and a thousand theories.
The face that launched one bomb, and a thousand theories.

Carl Sagan once observed, "We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology." He was right.

Never mind debates on evolution or global warming; as various polls demonstrate, a disheartening number of American citizens don't seem to realize that the Earth revolves around the Sun rather than the other way around. So it's hardly surprising that scientists are one of the least understood subsets of our population— as remote, enigmatic and indecipherable in their thoughts and actions as a cult of religious mystics on a mountaintop.

Fortunately, we have a handy set of stereotypical scientists to help us cope. There's the misguided Dr. Frankenstein type probing into Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. We have the evil Mad Scientist, like Rotwang from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Lex Luthor from Superman, or any of several James Bond villains. Then there's the disheveled, wild-haired, sweater-wearing Einsteinian genius, shuffling absent-mindedly down the street with his shoelaces untied and maybe even his fly unzipped; and the soulless, bloodless technocrat like Dr. Strangelove who talks about megadeaths as casually as he orders lunch.

And then there's the tormented, conflicted scientific martyr who's discovered Forces Beyond Our Control and is torn with guilt for his part in unleashing them onto a wary world. More than anyone else, the prime example of that image is J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific leader of the Manhattan Project— father of the atomic bomb, as he's usually called.

An opera character, no less

Although he could easily have played the martyr, Oppenheimer always rejected any depictions of himself as a guilt-ridden scientist agonizing over the Bomb— whether in fiction (as in several novels and plays that appeared during his lifetime) or in historical and journalistic accounts. Yet more than four decades after his death, Oppenheimer's guilty scientist image persists, finding its most recent incarnation in the John Adams/Peter Sellars opera Doctor Atomic, in which, on the eve of the test of the world's first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer is depicted as— you guessed it— torn with remorse and doubt.

How did J. Robert Oppenheimer end up becoming the poster boy for scientific guilt and soul-searching?

Oppenheimer's status as a scientific icon is rivaled only by Einstein, and has persisted into the 21st Century. For anyone contemplating the moral and ethical issues of any new and potentially hazardous realm of scientific inquiry, Oppenheimer is always available as a role model for scientifically moralistic navel-gazing. He possesses all the necessary credentials: a brilliant enfant terrible picked to lead his country's greatest scientific project who succeeded beyond all expectations and won the war, only to eventually question that country's policies and oppose its military buildup, ultimately facing public humiliation and banishment from government service at the hands of McCarthyite forces, ultimately dying in exile and obscurity.

A not-so-arduous ordeal

The real Oppie was more complex and contradictory. He was indeed barred from public service after his censure by the Atomic Energy Commission and lived the rest of his life under the shadow of that "security risk" label. But opinions differ as to how "destroyed" Oppenheimer was by the entire ordeal.

Some of his friends and colleagues, in fact, thought his public exile was the best thing that ever happened to him. And even with his official influence and power stripped away, Oppenheimer still managed in his later years to create for himself a tentative role as an international scientific spokesman, his worldwide reputation as a scientist and as a thinker largely intact.

While Oppenheimer held strong and controversial opinions throughout his career, some of which indeed cost him his role as a governmental advisor, he always stopped short, time and time again, of taking the final step and making an irrevocable commitment to his ideals. When some of his Manhattan Project colleagues urged him to support a demonstration of the first atomic bomb on an uninhabited island, he rejected the idea, siding with the military and civil officials who insisted that the first use had to be a surprise attack on Japan. After World War II he opposed a crash program to build the hydrogen bomb, then reversed his position when a design breakthrough made the project "technically sweet" in his eyes.

A tale of two scientists

He sympathized with the ban-the-bomb and anti-testing campaigns but consistently balked at actually putting his own name on the line in open support. In 1962, for example, both he and Linus Pauling were invited to a special dinner at the JFK White House. Pauling arrived late, because he'd been busy leading an anti-bomb protest outside the White House. Oppenheimer was right on time, and would never have conceived of staging such a protest.

Until the end of his life Oppenheimer maintained that building the Bomb and using it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while regrettable and tragic, had also been necessary and good. But he always refrained from using his great celebrity and scientific authority to speak out openly against the Cold War he had helped to create; he was no longer close enough to the issues to offer informed judgments, he explained. In effect he used his inarguably undeserved fall from grace as a shield to recuse himself from making a firm moral commitment. Instead he spoke his mind only in broadly poetic and often willfully obscure philosophical pronouncements about peace, war and the condition of man.

Our ultimate Rorschach test

Since Oppenheimer left behind no diaries, journals or other personal writings, we have only his actions, public speeches, correspondence, and the descriptions of those who knew him to go by. Those sources give us not just one Oppenheimer, but many, and they don't always agree with each other. This makes Oppenheimer into something of a Rorschach test: You can project onto him almost any motives or beliefs that you like.

So perhaps the ultimate responsibility for the Oppenheimer-as-guilty-scientist stereotype lies with Oppenheimer himself— that is, with his own moral complexities and personal contradictions. But that still doesn't explain why the trope is such an attractive dramatic fantasy.

The regretful scientist myth isn't merely an irresistible artistic device; it's also supremely comforting and reassuring for those of us who ultimately must trust these exalted folks who do possess intimate knowledge of the workings of the universe. We who don't understand science want our scientists and engineers to agonize over the moral implications of what they're doing and what they know. The only thing more frightening than a person possessed of the profound power afforded by the atom or control of the genetic codes of life is the thought that such a person lacks any sort of moral compass.

So if J. Robert Oppenheimer is doomed to serve pop culture as a scientific Hamlet or Raskolnikov, maybe it's because that particular Oppenheimer— the one who agonizes over the big ethical questions that science can inspire— is the one we need most in a world of scientific advances like genetic engineering, nanotechnology and nuclear technology. Whether it's historically accurate or not, this stereotype reassures us that scientists are as confusingly, annoyingly and gloriously human as the rest of us. But it also reassures us— correctly, I think— that, more often than not, scientists understand the moral implications of their work better than the politicians and policymakers who often seek to control or suppress it.

Mark Wolverton is the author of A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

To read a response, click here.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.