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David Buller
 on August 11, 2023

Oppenheimer: The Dilemma of Scientific Power

David Buller reflects on the blockbuster biopic about “the father of the atomic bomb” and how it gives an urgent warning about scientific power and moral restraint.

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It’s not every year that scientific ethics is at the heart of a summer blockbuster. Moviegoers used to blockbusters like “Interstellar,” “Inception,” and “The Dark Knight” are packing theaters for Christopher Nolan’s newest film: a three-hour story of scientific discovery, world-changing power, and morality. And as scientific breakthroughs continue to expand our technological powers today, Christians would do well to reflect on the warnings Oppenheimer’s story conveys.

J. Robert Oppenheimer is best known as “the father of the atomic bomb.” Christopher Nolan calls him “the most important person who ever lived.” Ever since I first read a biography of Oppenheimer ten years ago, I’ve thought he’s at least one of the most fascinating people I’ve read about. His story is so dramatic, world-changing, and thought-provoking that it burrows into your brain like a great novel.

Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb

Before the atomic bomb was even an idea, Oppenheimer was making an impact on modern science. After studying quantum physics in Europe as a graduate student, he was central in bringing this novel science back to America. Just before World War II, he published several scientific papers predicting that stars could collapse into such unimaginable density that not even light would escape their gravity. Oppenheimer’s predictions were eventually borne out, and we now know Oppenheimer’s “dark stars” as black holes. (If Oppenheimer had lived long enough to see his predictions substantiated, he might well have won a Nobel Prize for this work.)

But while Oppenheimer was clearly a brilliant scientist, he was even more skilled as a lab director. He continually inspired others to do their best work, pointing them in fruitful directions and helping them work through problems.

These gifts were on full display when Oppenheimer was appointed to lead the Manhattan Project in 1942. Since German scientists successfully split uranium atoms apart in 1938, scientists knew that the enormous energy this nuclear fission released could potentially power a devastating bomb. With the supersecret Manhattan Project, America was determined to race forward and create the first such atomic bomb—before Hitler’s German scientists might get there first.

Oppenheimer’s hope (painfully naive in retrospect) was that the atomic bomb would prove such a terrifyingly powerful weapon that it would end not just World War II, but war itself.

The rest is, of course, history. Nazi Germany surrendered in May 1945. (Hitler, it turns out, was never much interested in pursuing atomic bombs; the underlying science was too “Jewish.”) Three months later, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and hastening Japan’s surrender.

Oppenheimer’s hope (painfully naive in retrospect) was that the atomic bomb would prove such a terrifyingly powerful weapon that it would end not just World War II, but war itself. It didn’t exactly work out that way. One of Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project scientists, Edward Teller, continued to push the envelope, developing the thermonuclear (or hydrogen) bomb. Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb relied on conventional explosives to trigger a nuclear fission explosion. Teller’s hydrogen bomb, however, used fission to trigger a vastly more powerful nuclear fusion explosion. Far from ending all war, the atom bomb had now birthed a weapon vastly more destructive than the bomb developed in the New Mexico desert.

Scientific Power and Restraint

In the years following World War II, Oppenheimer discouraged the development of the hydrogen bomb and was a leading public voice urging restraint in nuclear armament. It wasn’t a message those in power wanted to hear. After a brief White House meeting where Oppenheimer confessed to feeling that he had blood on his hands, President Harry Truman dismissed Oppenheimer as a “crybaby.” Oppenheimer also had a history of communist sympathies, rooted in a time when American communism brought to mind New Deal-like policies in America, support of democracy over fascism in the Spanish Civil War, and the embrace of Jews like Oppenheimer amid societal antisemitism.

But as the postwar world morphed into a Cold War with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union, Oppenheimer’s past as a “fellow traveler” was viewed with fresh suspicion. Combine that with an emerging McCarthyist politics of fear and petty interpersonal grudges, and Oppenheimer soon saw himself deemed a security threat to his country. If Oppenheimer was genuinely loyal to America, the reasoning seemed to go, then why would he urge nuclear restraint and arms talks with the Soviets? Then as now, we tend to admire power more than restraint, a brilliant mind more than a sensitive conscience. In 1954 Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked, and he soon found himself pushed to the margins of the country he loved so dearly.

And so, once again, researchers are using cutting-edge science that few of us fully understand to create technological tools that will reshape our world in ways that none of us can fully predict. What are we to do?

David Buller

The Manhattan Project was a history-altering scientific milestone. Yet its significance was of a particularly modern sort. Science had long advanced our understanding of nature. But Oppenheimer was furthering a kind of scientific mastery over nature, allowing us to take the power that fuels the sun and stars and unleash it where we wish, for good or ill. In that sense, Oppenheimer’s legacy is hardly unique. For example, modern genetic science doesn’t simply let us understand inheritance and disease better. With breakthroughs in gene editing, we can now rewrite our DNA, curing certain diseases but also raising a host of ethical questions about how and when we wield this tremendous power.

With the rapid development of artificial intelligence, we’re at another point in time with eerie similarities to Oppenheimer’s. AI is a powerful tool with the potential to revolutionize medicine and solve fiendishly complex scientific problems. Yet it also has the potential to push genuine human interaction to the margins, create convincing disinformation, or even automate battlefield decisions in rapid yet unpredictable ways. And as with nuclear bombs, the worry that our enemies will get there first is a common argument against voices urging restraint.

And so, once again, researchers are using cutting-edge science that few of us fully understand to create technological tools that will reshape our world in ways that none of us can fully predict. What are we to do?

Ethics for Fallen People

Toward the end of his life in the 1960s, Oppenheimer gradually regained his reputation, delivering a range of public talks on science and our nuclear age. He cared deeply about science popularization, recognizing that shared understanding was essential to a unified society. He knew science was on the cusp of tremendous discoveries. Yet he argued that the discovery “of greatest import” would be for us to learn “something about ourselves.” That something he referred to is an insight that resonates with the deepest truths of Christianity. Oppenheimer called it “knowledge of the inwardness of evil” that exists within every one of us. Without it, we “project and externalize what we cannot bear to see within us,” seeing evil only in our enemies. This is an uncomfortable truth about human nature that secular societies too often try to ignore. But recognizing the fallenness of our nature makes a profound difference. It’s hard to think of a more powerful motivator for an attitude of humility, caution, and ethical reflection in using the tools of science.

The diplomat George Kennan eulogized Oppenheimer in 1967 as someone who wrestled with “the recent conquest by human beings of a power over nature out of all proportion to their moral strength.” That quote distills the urgent challenge that Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” brings to theaters. Modern science and technology are advancing at a tremendous pace. Will our moral strength keep up?

Modern science and technology are advancing at a tremendous pace. Will our moral strength keep up?

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About the author

David Buller

David Buller

David Buller is Director of Programs at BioLogos, where he works with program leads and editorial staff to advance the organization's mission. He also directs overall planning of BioLogos conferences and participates in organizational planning with BioLogos leadership and advisors. Before coming to BioLogos in 2016, David was a Program Associate in the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC. At AAAS he helped plan and lead engagement initiatives in collaboration with scientists and faith leaders around the country. After completing his BS in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, David earned an MA in Theological Studies, Religion and Science Emphasis, from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. While there, David worked as a student coordinator on various events and symposia at the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. He is an elected Fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation, having previously served as Student and Early Career Representative to the organization’s Executive Council.