One character that’s hard to miss in the trailer for the upcoming movie Oppenheimer is Albert Einstein, the wild-haired, paradigm-shifting theoretical physicist who needs no introduction. Rest assured, Einstein’s cameo in the movie is not just fanciful Hollywood storytelling (such as Archimedes' unlikely appearance in the latest installment of Indiana Jones).
While Oppenheimer and Einstein never directly worked together on any project, the two scientists did cross paths throughout their lives. There’s sturdy evidence the pair grew a strong friendship towards the end of Einstein’s days in the 1950s – and perhaps even shared thoughts on the atomic monster they played a hand in creating.
Christopher Nolan's latest movie will tell the Earth-changing story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II who become known as the "father of the atomic bomb" for his leading role in the Manhattan Project, the US effort to make the first atomic bomb.
More comfortable in front of a blackboard than in a boardroom filled with military bigwigs, Einstein was never directly involved with the Manhattan Project. His iconic E=mc2 equation explains – among many other things – the energy released in an atomic bomb, but his connection to the physical creation of the atomic bomb is often misunderstood.
In 1938, a small team of scientists in Germany managed to split a uranium atom, revealing the new nuclear process of "fission" that was capable of creating an unbelievable amount of energy.
Wary of this development, Einstein signed a letter written by physicist Leo Szilard in 1939 that warned how Nazi Germany had the potential to develop "extremely powerful bombs of a new type" and suggested that the US should start its own nuclear program. It was sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who eventually launched the Manhattan Project in 1942. Given this link, The New York Times labeled Einstein’s 1939 letter as the force that “launched the atom bomb and the Atomic Age.”
With 20/20 hindsight, we can now see that the Germans were not close to developing a viable nuclear weapon despite their discovery of fission. Conversely, the US did succeed in their efforts to build the bomb – with devastating resolve. When he heard the news of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, Einstein is said to have remarked: “Woe is me.”
After the war, Einstein further suggested he regretted signing the infamous letter, saying: "Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing."
In his latest years, Einstein continued to harshly condemn nuclear weapons. Just months before his death in 1955, he was called upon by British philosopher Bertrand Russell to sign the Russell–Einstein Manifesto, which warned of the existential threat posed to humanity by their own weapons of mass destruction.
“We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death,” it concludes.
We can only guess what Einstein and Oppenheimer chatted about during the post-war era of their relationship, but the mortal angst of the atomic age must have been an elephant in the room.
In 1966, eleven years after Einstein’s death, Oppenheimer delivered a lecture titled On Albert Einstein at the UNESCO House in Paris. The following year, his words were published in The New York Review. Within the speech, he explains he knew Einstein for “two or three decades” and became “something of friends” in the last decade of his life.
“Einstein is often blamed or praised or credited with these miserable bombs. It is not in my opinion true,” Oppenheimer said.
“His part was that of creating an intellectual revolution, and discovering more than any scientist of our time how profound were the errors made by men before them. He did write a letter to Roosevelt about atomic energy. I think this was in part his agony at the evil of the Nazis, in part not wanting to harm anyone in any way; but I ought to report that that letter had very little effect, and that Einstein himself is really not answerable for all that came later. I believe he so understood it himself,” he added.
Like Einstein, Oppenheimer was known for his fractured view of his so-called "miserable bombs." In November 1945, just three months after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, effectively ending the Second World War in the Pacific, he resigned from the Los Alamos lab. In his farewell speech, he did not explicitly apologize for creating the nuclear bomb, instead seeing it as an inevitable part of humanity’s unraveling of the universe and our mastery of the natural world.
Nevertheless, he clearly knew what was at stake if nukes fell into the wrong hands. He later reportedly remarked: “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of the nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.”
The Oppenheimer movie is released in the US and UK on July 21, 2023. It’s not clear what role Einstein will play in the story, so it would be pointless to speculate too much, but it’s clear what these two figures had in common with each other.
Both were brilliant brains with a keen sense of humanity. However, just like the moral of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, they were acutely aware that the knowledge they were unleashing upon the world had the power to create monsters. As peddlers of this science, do they bear some responsibility? Perhaps Christopher Nolan will have some answers.