What Did You Learn From Oppenheimer?

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When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re a physics and astronomy major swimming in a sea of humanities majors, everything looks like an atom.

Or, quite possibly, a planet.

I guess it depends if you’re talking to someone who just got out of a micro-economics course or a macro-economics course.

Here’s the thing about majoring in physics in astronomy. Back when I did it, it was considered a double major. In reality, given the amount of required math courses, it was really a triple major. Only the folks in New Haven didn’t officially recognize triple majors.

The point, however, is that your schedule doesn’t have a lot of room for much of anything else.

Now, here comes the twist. On top of all those courses required for the physics and astronomy major, the university also demanded students meet certain “diversification” requirements.

Don’t worry. It’s not what you think it is. In this case, “diversification” refers to academic distribution. You couldn’t spend your entire college career hiding in the “safe place” of your major. You had to venture out and experience other fields of study. Something about it being a “liberal education.”

Again, this is not what you think it is. It’s actually a good thing. It goes back to ancient Greece. At least that’s what they said in the Middle Ages when scholastics invented the term “liberal education.” The basic idea is you must learn across a broad spectrum of studies in both the sciences and the humanities.

As a hammer of science, I shrugged at the notion of humanities (as the past two weeks of Commentaries show). Still, I dutifully filled my distribution requirements. I had to choose carefully, since I had precious few slots open in my schedule. This limited my options.

I was able to sneak in a few interesting courses. This fulfilled my obligation to study life beyond physics and astronomy. That’s when I turned the tables on them.

You see, physics and astronomy meant more than math, quantum mechanics, and stellar evolution. It reached back in time. And, no, not in the sense that the photons of light that reach the Earth from distant galaxies first emerged from their stars thousands of years ago. It’s the field of study itself.

Astronomy was one of the seven liberal arts that reach back to Pythagoras, that ancient Greek philosopher, polymath (which means he was into everything), and inventor of the famous Pythagorean theorem so aptly expressed by the Scarecrow when the Wizard of Oz gave him a brain.

Incidentally, mathematics and geometry, two key courses of study required for all physics and astronomy majors, represented two of the other three “arts” in the “quadrivium” of the liberal arts.

Why was astronomy one cornerstone of the liberal arts? Plato once said “God invented and gave us sight to the end that we might behold the courses of intelligence in heaven, and apply them,…” More directly, the Greek philosopher said, “He who has not contemplated the kind of nature which is said to exist in stars,… is not able to give a reason for such things to have reason.”

Beyond the obvious philosophical context of astronomy, the physics part of the major intersected with history. Real history. Recent history. Significant history.

Modern physics centers on two opposite extremes that actually come together in a weird way. At the macro (or very big) level, we have relativity. That’s Einstein’s stuff. On the other end, we have the micro (or very small) level. That’s the sub-atomic arena.

Believe it or not, both come together in the bowels of particle accelerators and their predecessors. From the early twentieth century, a small close-knit group of physicists worked diligently, trying to solve the mystery of the fundamental building blocks of nature.

It was like a fraternity. Everyone knew each other. It didn’t matter where you were born. You belonged to a family whose ties transcended any national identity.

Then the seriousness of the Nazi menace consumed the world. That changed everything.

Or did it?

That’s one of the enduring questions within the physics community. As the movie Oppenheimer hints, it was unclear how far Germany had progressed in the development of the atomic bomb. Even after the war, the story remained mixed.

Oppenheimer captures the essence of the Manhattan Project, if at least on the periphery. There were just as many questions as there were answers coming from Los Alamos in the mid-1940s. One thing was clear. Germany and Japan both represented an existential threat to the civilized world. Their aggression had to be stopped, no matter what the cost.

It was during one of the required non-science courses that I explored this with the zest of an investigative reporter. Our assignment: Write a recommendation report to President Truman for his meeting with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin in Potsdam. This meeting occurred just as the first A-bomb test occurred in White Sands. The report would be written immediately after this test.

Because this paper was for a history course, we had to write it using the same terms, idioms, and language as if we were there on July 17, 1945. We had to make the same mistakes someone back then would make. We had to use the same derogatory terms people used back then. We had to show the same patriotic fervor someone who earned the trust of the President would have had back then.

Would you like to see how that turned out? Click this link to look at it. If you’ve seen the movie Oppenheimer, you’ll recognize some names. You might even be better prepared to immerse yourself in that time of history. This wasn’t the last paper of this type I’d write for a non-science course.

As an aside, while the area of physics I studied was on the opposite end of the spectrum from particle physics, the sense of fraternity within this academic field remained. Seeing Oppenheimer was almost like a reunion. I got a chance to meet again all the familiar faces I once knew so well. My favorite was the character who had no lines in the movie but received a screen credit. He appeared in a couple of scenes, playing the bongo drums.

Can you guess who he is?


  1. […] following the successful testing of the first atomic bomb? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “What Did You Learn From Oppenheimer?” to see a strange path that led to answering this precise […]

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