synthetic zero

January 4th, 2009

Just saw the opera (in HD on TV) about J Robert Oppenheimer called Doctor Atomic, libretto by the remarkable Peter Sellars, composed by John Adams. The opera was exceptionally moving; I have to admit I was in tears at the end.  The story is very poignant to me, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is I was a physics major in college, and my uncle was a nuclear physicist, so the subject of the responsibility of physicists has always been very much an issue close to me, growing up, but even more so because my father was a child at the time, living in a suburb of Hiroshima called Itsukaichi; he lived just over the hill from where the atomic bomb was dropped; his aunt and uncle were killed in the blast.  His brother, my uncle, the one who later became a physicist, went into the city the day after the bomb dropped — much later he died of cancer, possibly caused by his early exposure to radiation in the aftermath of the bomb blast.

The part of the story which has always fascinated me, however, was the story of the designers of the bomb, and the semi-tragic tale of Oppenheimer himself; the opera captures this event in vivid fashion, taking many of its lines from declassified documents verbatim, as well as poetry Oppenheimer happened to be reading at the time. By all accounts, Oppenheimer was himself a political progressive, but the subject of the ethics of what he and the other brilliant physicists at Los Alamos were doing did not significantly deter him, until the moment of the Trinity test when he famously thought to himself lines from the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” After the bomb was dropped on Japan, and the vivid reports of the civilian casualties came in, Oppenheimer came to realize the extent of what he had done; he reportedly confessed to Truman that he and all the physicists involved in the project had “blood on their hands.” Later, when there was a push to develop the hydrogen fusion bomb, he tried to slow the project, for which we was rewarded by being summarily banished from government service, something he reportedly never recovered from.

What really struck me, however, while I was watching this, was this extremely strong and vivid realization that the opera was not merely a representation of what happened, of the event, but was in some sense the event itself. That is to say, this opera would not have come into existence without the actual events that occurred, and in a very vivid sense. There is always a mediated quality to perception of anything; even if you were physically present during those times, what you get is just one slice of what happened; the presentation of the events in this opera is another perception of those same, real, events. Particularly as presented by artists of this caliber, it gives you a vivid connection to something real that occurred, that has a mysterious resonance and solemnity even though it is “just” a performance. It’s not just a performance, it is the thing itself, right now; the past is present.

permalink |

comment trackback

one response to this post:
  1. Brian says:

    Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?


    January 5th, 2009 at 10:28 pm

leave comment


synthetic zero is powered by WordPress

posts(rss) . comments(rss)