Pinoy Humanist Watches: Oppenheimer

What is more powerful than the atom bomb? Ideals? An even more powerful weapon? Fear? Before the said bomb was even tested, scientists had fears that the detonation of a nuclear weapon could set the entire world on fire. But that fear didn’t stop them from developing “The Gadget”: the first-ever nuclear bomb. Ultimately, nuclear weapons didn’t set the world on fire. But, two detonations were enough to change the entire world and shape the lives of the people living in the afterglow.

Part I: The History and Science of the Atom Bomb

In 1905, Albert Einstein managed to publish four scientific papers, one of which was titled On the electrodynamics of moving bodies. Nobody reads the said papers save for the Physicists, but the paper is now known the world over even though people don’t realize it. After all, it contained this equation:

Most people would recognize the first half before the parentheses. For most purposes, it is the first half that really matters. The above equation is now known as “Mass-Energy Equivalence” but it wasn’t Einstein who first came up with it. Generations of scientists laid the groundwork for Einstein to arrive at such a discovery. In fact, the fraction within the parentheses is called the “Lorentz Factor,” named after Dutch Physicist Hendrik Lorentz who quantified how the properties of a particle or a body would change when approaching the speed of light, even before Einstein published his papers on relativity. 

Although people recognize the above formula, they don’t really understand it. For some, it is the formula which led to the discovery of the nuclear bomb. That is incorrect. Einstein had no hand in the discovery and development of the nuclear bomb.

The true meaning of E = mc2 is in the name: Mass-Energy Equivalence. In the 1905 paper mentioned prior, Einstein used the equation to show that the energy of a charged particle is directly proportional to its mass, and that a particle’s mass and energy are two descriptions of what should be a single “quantity.” What this means is that a particle’s mass is a manifestation of how much energy it contains.

But why is Einstein and his formula linked to nuclear weapons?

From 1911 to 1920, Ernest Rutherford was involved in works which ultimately led to the discovery of the proton. In 1932, James Chadwick—who was a student of Rutherford a decade prior—discovered the neutron. It didn’t take long for Physicists all over the world to put two and two together and discover that the nucleus in the centre of an atom is composed of protons and neutrons. Shortly after, they stumbled on a quandary. They knew the mass of the proton. They knew the mass of the neutron. However, all atomic nuclei weigh heavier than the combined mass of their component particles. What they had in their hands were nuclei which are heavier than all the parts that make it up. They called this discrepancy the mass defect.

Did they do something wrong? Was there another particle that they had not yet discovered? It did not make sense.

Well, it did make sense. Before WW2, Albert Einstein was a “rockstar” in the scientific community. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921 and he was often in academic discussions (more like academic disagreements, really) with the Physicists who were pioneering the field of Quantum Mechanics. As Einstein was famous, so were the four groundbreaking papers he had published in 1905. One of those papers held the key to understanding the “missing” mass. 

m represents the mass defect, Zmp is the mass of the protons, (A-Z)mn accounts for the mass of the neutrons, and mnuc is the actual recorded mass of the nucleus. Inserting the mass defect into Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence equation, we get:

Through the equation above, a bridge was laid out onto the lands of discovery. When the understanding of mass-energy equivalence is applied to the nucleus, Physicists of the 1930s discovered that the “missing mass” was never missing in the first place. It was energy binding the protons and neutrons together. Nowadays, the said energy is called the Nuclear Binding Energy. However, if the nucleus is broken down, it also means that the energy that binds it would be released. Einstein may have not been the one to discover the military applications of the atom, but his work laid the groundwork towards understanding Nuclear Fission.

On the scale of one atom, this energy was minuscule. However, a kilogram of any material has around 1023 atoms in it. That is, a kilogram contains approximately 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. In the case of Uranium-235, a single atom can only produce about 7.910-17 kilowatt-hour of energy (VERY MINISCULE!),  but a kilogram of the same material can produce 200,000,000 kilowatt-hours of energy. That amount of energy can power a small city for a year! Now convert that much energy into an explosion. 

Part II: The Science, The Scientist, and the Human

Why talk about Einstein when the film is titled “Oppenheimer?” Save for the Americans, ask any layperson if they know who J. Robert Oppenheimer is, and they’d probably tell you that they don’t. For most of the world, Einstein holds two titles: the “Smartest Man in the World,” and the “Father of the Atom Bomb.” Both are misconceptions. We can’t know for sure if Einstein was indeed the smartest person of his generation, but to say that he was the “father” of the Atom Bomb is outright wrong.

But one thing is for certain: ever since Oppenheimer, there has been a growing distrust of science in America. Oppie may not be the main cause, especially with the increasingly divisive politics of today, but his generation of scientists were the sparks which started the chain reaction. The thing is, it may not even be their fault. 

Most criticisms of Oppenheimer and his work on the Manhattan Project are valid. He must be made to shoulder the notoriety—and more importantly: the guilt—of building the bombs dropped on Japan. He did go on public record that he regretted it. Those who are more forgiving of Oppenheimer may say that he had no choice but to work for the military. If he had not, it may have been Nazi Germany who would have dropped the first atomic bombs on US soil. He had no choice.

Depressingly, having no choice but to work for the military is a fate shared by many modern scientists. While many factors affect why many STEM graduates are railroaded into working for the military-industrial complex, a lot of it can be boiled down to one word: funding. There is a widely circulated sentiment among the scientific community that most researchers have great ideas, but it is only the military who writes the checks. Because of this, novel researches (ones that are unique and could potentially lead to groundbreaking results) are either appropriated by the military-industrial complex so that the findings could be made secret and privatized for a time, or are ignored so that the researchers could work on systems that have more martial uses. It might be intuitive to say that the world changes with the groundbreaking discoveries of modern science. However, funding directs where the science goes. 

That is true even in the Philippines. Despite experiencing brain drain for the last few decades, many researches done in-country have been funded, partially funded, or done in collaboration with the military. The Department of Science and Technology has been developing weapons and is a development partner in the making of battle dress uniforms for armed personnel. 

Why are global militaries so intent on funding research though? The thing is, almost anything can be militarized. Knowing the microbiology of specific seas could help in understanding how to mitigate corrosion on warship hulls. Knowing when the next drought will be and how long it will take place is central to preventing civil unrest, especially in occupied and unstable regions. Knowing what crops grow in specific regions and when they are planted and harvested are major considerations when to invade, and how to defend. In the largely capitalist global landscape, knowing something first means that a country—and its native industries—would be the ones who would benefit before the rest of the world. Information itself is a weapon.

Information itself is a weapon.

Science’s intimate relationship with the military-industrial complex somehow dehumanises the researchers stuck in between. In the anime and manga “Fullmetal Alchemist” by Hiromu Arakawa, state-employed alchemists (roughly equivalent to the scientists of our world) are referred to as “dogs of the military.” The same public sentiment is shared with scientists in the real world, although it is done in hushed tones. It is as if scientists are tools for the state to use, nothing more.

For example, in the 1990s, a Chinese-American physicist by the name of Ning Li and her colleagues published multiple papers on anti-gravity, later claiming that they had produced practical results—that they were able to reduce the pull of gravity in their experiments. She and her colleagues gained widespread media attention through the 90s as they continued to publish more papers. However, this changed in 1999. That year, she left academia and founded her own research company. By 2001, she was awarded a research contract by the US Department of Defense (DoD). No research of hers has been published publicly since then, and all traces of her seem to have been lost. Internet speculation has accused her of defecting to China, and that the Chinese would be the first to develop anti-gravity propulsion in the future. 

That was until she died. In 2021, she died due to brain damage and Alzheimer’s disease. She had been a victim of a vehicular accident in 2014 which resulted in brain injuries as well as the death of her husband. Her son George was then interviewed just this year and he provided details about her mother and her work.  Working for the DoD meant that she was no longer able to publish the results of her works. Aside from this, Ning Li was also not allowed to attend her own mother’s funeral back in China because of the nature of her work. In George’s one words:

“When she was at University, she loved to publish her findings, but after she got her top-secret clearance, she wasn’t allowed to share anything anymore with anyone. She became much quieter. She would return from work looking worn down with her makeup messed up. It wasn’t like that when she was at the University.” 

Part III: My own thoughts on “Oppenheimer”

This is the part of the essay where I switch from 3rd person to 1st person. I watched Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” a few days before my final year in college began. Right now as I am writing this, I have just finished the 1st semester of my final year. My undergraduate thesis is halfway done. However, my thoughts on the day I watched the film linger to this day.

Photo by Belkaa Photographer on Unsplash

What urged me to watch this film was my course: BS Physics. I have taken two subjects on Quantum Mechanics (J. Robert Oppenheimer’s original field of expertise) and another two on Modern Physics (parts of which discuss the science of Oppenheimer’s bomb). I wanted to know the man beyond the articles about him and the papers he had published. Instead, it gave me a glimpse of the future after I graduate.

As I’ve written in this article, I do know that Oppenheimer has to bear the burden of what he unleashed into the world. What impacted me most, however, was what happened after the bombs were dropped. 

We can’t separate the science from the scientist, and we can’t separate the scientist from the human. Science is a human construct, a human affair. All the politics that affect the human also affect the science that they do. The scientists can never be removed from the institutions and politics in which they exist.

The treatment of Oppenheimer as a “traitor” reminded me of how scientists are treated in the Philippines. We have politicians who question why we have to do research. We have people in public office who do not listen to scientific consensus on health practices. We have leaders who would rather support mouthpieces of misinformation rather than solve the education crisis. Being a scientist in the Philippines is a bleak existence. Mistrust is rife, and our leaders keep on adding firewood to the burning house. 

The treatment of Oppenheimer as a “traitor” reminded me of how scientists are treated in the Philippines.

Low wages. Public mistrust. Lack of funding. What are we to do?

Having graduated from Pisay (the Philippine Science High School System), I had a lot of seniors whom I admired in my teenage years. We are contractually obligated to serve the country, but once they were done returning the debt that they owed to the people, they moved abroad almost immediately. Low wages. Public mistrust. Lack of funding. They had to go abroad.

Watching “Oppenheimer” made me realize that the scientist can only be as good as the society that they exist in.

About the Author

Junelie Anthony Velonta

Junelie Anthony Velonta is one of our most decorated HAPIskos!

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