Using ‘Oppenheimer’ in the classroom

In other thermonuclear news…

This week, to make up for the end of my holiday, I went to see Oppenheimer. It’s a great piece of film-making and as impressive a movie as I’ve watched for quite some time. Plus the movie theatre was packed, which was nice.

Of course, you can take the pedagogue out of the classroom, etc. etc., so my thoughts now turn to the question of whether and how you might use a film that there’s a pretty good chance your students have actually watched to support their learning.

[Two spoilers: first, I’m thinking Barbie has a lot more potential (and I’ve not yet seen that); second, the rest of this contains some Oppenheimer spoilers, but frankly if you’re not across most of the story already then [shrug emoji]]

Oppenheimer is focused on the internal dilemmas of the titular character, torn between the urgent need to understand the new domain of quantum physics and the clear-eyed calculation of what a nuclear bomb does, both immediately and for human society.

As a discourse on the larger human tension between ‘can we do it’ and ‘should we do it’ it’s highly stimulating and rather emotional.

But that’s not super-easy to fit into a political science/IR programme, because it’s more moral philosophy than anything else.

Yes, we have some rudimentary running-through of the ‘the Bomb will save lives by avoiding a ground invasion of Japan’ argument but precisely because the focus is on Oppenheimer himself, rather than on the political-military calculation to use the weapons, there’s not really enough to hang a full-on discussion on.

However, what was potentially more productive for our present range of needs was the portrayal of institutional logics. More precisely, civil-military relations and the role of individual agency within institutional frameworks.

The illusion of solidity

The film sets up very nicely how an emergent field of science builds international networks and exchanges of ideas, where ideas are tested and re-tested and shared. It highlights how knowledge is constructed and bounded and how we have to meld theory with practice to make advances and understand what we understand.

The arrival of hostilities collapses much of that into a securitised logic, where sharing is A Bad Thing and where it matters more than you beat the Others. Even if the compartmentalisation at Los Alamos is depicted as pretty entry level (even before the arrival of Klaus Fuchs), the difference in basic approach to the endevour is clear to see: do you optimise for progress or for security?

The pervasive anti-communist note throughout the movie is also interesting here, with Nazi Germany frequently treated as less of a threat than the USSR, even at the start of the Manhattan Project. We might see this as a parallel to the levels of scientific progress: the Bomb is one part of a wider project in the tussle between Einsteinian relativity and the quantum world, even as the A Bomb is already being swallowed up by the H Bomb.

The navigation of the two logics is articulated through Oppenheimer, “more politician than scientist” in the words of one colleague, and it bears reflection on how politics is a space in which we repeatedly have to do this.

To take one example, it’s clear that once the scientists have made a working weapon, then they open the door to a more purely industrialised process of producing further weapons. Their success is also their downfall, the punching of the ticket to being kicked out for all the foibles and problems that were overlooked when the war effort needed them. But does that stop them? Of course not, partly for scientific glory, but also partly because they are coopted into the logic of “if we don’t do it to them, then they’ll do it to us”.

“This isn’t a trial”

Which is a good point to swing over to the agency aspect.

Oppenheimer is a film about people with things to prove. Mostly that’s about proving their ideas are right, but it’s not insignificantly about people proving that they’ve not forgotten being humiliated. To call the relationship between Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss messed-up would be an understatement, given both men’s resolve to hold deep, deep grudges against each other for many years.

The film explores this at much length and opens up a lot of space for various characters to demonstrate how they work within assorted institutional constraints.

Whether it’s Senate confirmation hearings, or the disciplinary action against Oppenheimer, or the flaunting of directions on compartmentalisation, we repeatedly get the message that while we can build procedures and rules, we still cannot control human agency and the associated need/desire to break out of “what should happen”.

If you want to take that further, then just consider Oppenheimer’s personal life and his disregard for conventionalities about marriage, parenting or killing your teachers.

Yes, the director is also making a point about Oppenheimer’s science as being a revolution and stepping into a new world, but it does illuminate a critical question in institutionalism, namely the limits to institutional power.

18 years later…

As a postscript, I ended up watching Thirteen Days soon after Oppenheimer, partly because I enjoy actors destroying Boston accents and partly because everyone else was out.

Obviously it’s a very different kind of film, at all levels, but it was striking how the nuclear threat and its existential challenges are shifted from the the period covered by Oppenheimer. In less than two decades, the debate moves from one of Oppenheimer’s hope for a “a great peace” to a hair-trigger crisis wherein quite a lot of (military) decision-makers are cool about bouncing into nuclear exchanges.

Yes, the horror of nuclear war still hangs, but it is much more bounded and internalised. I leave it to you to consider how much that is the case today.