A friend remarked her kids were completely NOT into Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer.’ There is so much history required to understand the film, it does not surprise me one bit if young people would rather watch ‘Barbie’ instead.

Honestly, I am not surprised

J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist was the subject of a new film from director Christopher Nolan. Not the sexiest film credit for a modern teenager. Oppenheimer died at the age of 62 in Princeton, New Jersey, on February 18, 1967.
This film features him as the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the birthplace of the Manhattan Project, and he is rightly seen as the “father” of the atomic bomb. From the viewpoint of a teenager who knows little of world politics from 2023, I suspect they know even less about the 1940s.

The film centers around the worlds first nuclear explosion, which occurred on July 16, 1945 when a plutonium implosion device was tested at a site located 210 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, on the plains of the Alamogordo Bombing Range, known as the Jornada del Muerto. The code name for the test was “Trinity.”
Hoisted atop a 100-foot tower, a plutonium device, called “Gadget,” detonated at precisely 5:30 am over the New Mexico desert, releasing 18.6 kilotons of power, instantly vaporizing the tower and turning the surrounding asphalt and sand into green glass, called “trinitite.” Seconds after the explosion, an enormous blast sent searing heat across the desert, knocking observers to the ground.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” he later recalled. “A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.”

The World Was Forever Changed

Hmm. A movie about a period in American history where a scientist and engineers postulate, pontificate and eventually create a weapon so devastating it was thought that it could destroy all life on Earth. A weapon so deadly that even if it didn’t destroy all life on the planet, it was the greatest single weapon of mass destruction ever created.

An event which drove some Native Americans from their home, exposed more than 500,000 people to dangerous levels of radioactivity. Conflicting reports noted the Trinity test site was no longer as radioactive as it was fifty years ago, though easterly winds downrange were covered in fallout.

New research led by Sébastien Philippe indicates the radioactive fallout didn’t stay in Nevada. Using modern reconstruction technology and weather data collected from the 1940s it is estimated the fallout spread across the entirety of the United States as the cloud rose 50,000 to 70,000 feet into the upper atmosphere and was carried by the jetstream across the country.

Trinity test “downwinders” — a term describing people who lived near nuclear test sites and may have been exposed to deadly radioactive fallout — have never been eligible for compensation under the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act which provided $2.5 billion in payments to nuclear workers in the western United States and to downwinders located near the test site and developed cancer and other diseases as a result of radiation exposure.

Many New Mexicans were left out of the original RECA legislation and nobody has ever explained why. Census data from 1940 shows there were as many as 500,000 people living within 150 miles of the test site, some as close as twelve miles away. Yet no civilians were warned and no one was evacuated before or after the event.

The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortiums’ co-founder, Tina Cordova reports “We’ve been waiting for an affirmation of the histories told by generations of people from Tularosa who witnessed the Trinity bomb and talked about how the ash fell from the sky for days afterward.”

The conversation about the safety of the Trinity event remains controversial to this day (likely because of the negligence involved and the government’s unwillingness to accept blame — blaming spotty record keeping and the age of the source data as the reason for keeping the compensation for people damaged by fallout to workers in the technical group who created the bomb.)
Trinity’s legacy was to become the first of two later uses of the most catastrophic single uses of a weapon upon a mostly civilian population in order to cause a nation to capitulate, out of fear more would be dropped. Those weapons were called “Fat Man” and ”Little Boy” and were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan, respectively.

A weapon whose nuclear legacy held the entire world in thrall during the Cold War era as hostages in a nuclear standoff called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). This insane military stance indicated if one of these weapons is used by any world power, the possibility that all of them would be used, wiping out most of the intelligent life on Earth. This is no idle exaggeration. “Nuclear winter” is the term by which a worldwide nuclear event would rain fallout across the planet, and bring enough radioactive dust and debris into the atmosphere rendering the planet an icy wasteland from which no Human, as we understand the modern form, would ever truly recover from. If we are being truthful, we have no idea what such widespread use of thousands of multi-megaton nuclear weapons might cause on the long-term survivability of the planet even as billions of lives are sure to be lost.

Unfortunately, even as the Cold War and the imminent threat of nuclear devastation eased, the possibility of worldwide nuclear annihilation remains one of those things we just don’t tend to think about.

Oppenheimer’s quote to the world was: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” It is, perhaps, the most well-known line from the Bhagavad Gita. His work with the Trinity project was something he would regret for the rest of his days and would change the course of Human history on this planet.

In my opinion, there was so much information you needed to know regarding the Trinity test event to understand why this weapons use at Alamogordo Bombing Range was one of the most important moments in the annals of Human history. The effects on humanity across the nearly eight decades has been profound, keeping the spectre of species wide destruction in the minds of people who understand the true power of modern, multi-megaton, nuclear weapons.

Without a true understanding of the underlying context, what exactly were our children supposed to LIKE?

A Final Note

I wrote this article after talking to a friend who said her teenagers did not enjoy Oppenheimer at all. In my mind, it seemed to be a no-brainer they wouldn’t because of the historical frontloading I thought would be necessary to even consider the film interesting.
After writing the article, I was informed perhaps I was not being fair to young people because their families knew youngsters who were not only interested in the history, some were interested in the science of nuclear weapons and how they came to be.

I can only reference my own experiences as a teenage science buff who was always interested in nuclear weapons and nuclear technology and refused to hide under my desk during my years in school during the Cold War that followed. I remember trying to find people to talk about this as a teen and the crowd was fairly small in the late seventies, thirty years closer to the event than today.

Given America’s anti-science bent since the turn of the century, particularly under President Trump who underfunded scientific studies in the United States, literally getting rid of staff and technology related to the science, it should be no surprise, America has become hostile to scientific inquiry and the study of history.

My commitment to science as a teen meant I spent some time fighting against school policy when it was time to practice our anti-nuclear exercises which included hiding under a desk during the Cold War exercises. I knew the desk I was hiding under wasn’t liable to save my life because I lived in a city which would be under direct attack by nuclear weapons hundreds of times more powerful than the weapons used on Hiroshima or Nagasaki. No desk would be strong enough.

While I may have erroneously concluded there were likely to be far fewer young people interested in ‘Oppenheimer’ than ‘Barbie,’ I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some young people stood up and demanded their interest in the history, the science and the threat of nuclear weapons as well as the history of the event itself, be recognized. I stand corrected.


SCIFI Radio Staff
SCIFI Radio Staff

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