OPINION | ART HOBSON: See “Oppenheimer,” then consider real-world implications of nation’s history

“Oppenheimer” a chance to consider past, future

Aug. 6 is Hiroshima Day, marking the anniversary of the date the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city.

I learned about The Bomb later, in 1946. I was 11. Since then, I have read innumerable books about nuclear weapons and helped write one such book, but after seeing the film "Oppenheimer," I know I must read at least one more, namely "American Prometheus," upon which the film was based.

See the film. It's beautifully acted, painstakingly accurate and totally absorbing. Unfortunately, it's marred by a script that jumps around too much, a distracting soundtrack and insufficient verbal enunciation. I prefer Shakespeare's advice to "Speak the speech ... trippingly on the tongue" over Brando-style mumbling (although, paradoxically, Brando was a wonderful actor).

The film chronicles one man's triumph and tragedy, with The Bomb hovering over the entire 180 minutes. Like a Greek drama, the nuclear age dawned with somber inevitability.

Here is some science background that's not in the film: In late 1934, Irene Joliot-Curie, daughter of the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Marie Curie, reported strange results when she bombarded uranium atoms with neutrons. Neutrons and protons reside in every atom's nucleus. She speculated that the neutrons had "fissioned" (split) the nucleus. She was universally ignored.

In late 1938, Lisa Meitner, an Austrian Jew working in Berlin, pursued Joliot-Curie's hypothesis. German anti-semitism forced her to escape to Stockholm, Sweden, but she continued her research by means of letters exchanged with her Berlin colleagues. Her calculations and her previous experimental work were solid evidence that the uranium nucleus had indeed undergone fission, with the release of a large fraction of its energy. The work was published.

The nuclear age had begun.

In 1939, leading scientists such as Denmark's Niels Bohr, Italy's Enrico Fermi and Germany's Werner Heisenberg learned about nuclear fission. It was understood that a particular type or "isotope" of Uranium called U-235 was the atom that was being split, while the U-238 that comprised more than 99 percent of all uranium atoms did not fission under neutron bombardment. The concept of the "chain reaction" was also understood: A few neutrons bombard a few U-235 nuclei, which split, releasing more neutrons. These neutrons then fission other nuclei, etc., etc.

Uranium is the last natural element in the periodic table. Without this element, nuclear weapons would not exist. Did the universe create uranium just to test humankind? The answer is "no," but there is a kind of poetic logic to this notion.

By Sept. 1, 1939, when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland and ignited World War II, the German government was aware of nuclear fission, had banned the sale of uranium, and had initiated a secret nuclear weapons program headed by Heisenberg. Albert Einstein, together with physicists Leo Szilard and Edward Teller, sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging America to develop an "atom bomb" in response to developments in Germany. Einstein's letter was not taken seriously.

For a wonderful and historically accurate stage play about these developments as they affected the close relationship between Bohr and his student Heisenberg, read or see "Copenhagen" by Michael Frayn.

American scientists continued this work without government support. They discovered that when natural uranium is bombarded by neutrons, the U-238 nuclei (which do not fission) frequently absorb a neutron. This starts a process that quickly transforms the U-238 nucleus into a new element that does not exist in nature. They named it "plutonium." It's created on a regular basis in most nuclear reactors. Unfortunately for humankind, plutonium is also fissionable, like U-235.

According to the film, Los Alamos scientists used a large bottle and a much smaller brandy glass to represent the production of U-235 and plutonium bomb materials. One marble placed in one container represented a certain number of U-235 atoms from the uranium processing plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, or an equal number of plutonium atoms from the nuclear reactors in Hanford, Washington.

The film portrays Bohr, Heisenberg, Fermi, Szilard and Teller, and quantum physicist I. I. Rabi, who was one of Oppenheimer's closest friends at the secret Los Alamos weapons laboratory. Rabi helped defend Oppenheimer in the ensuing anti-communist charade that resulted in revoking Oppenheimer's security clearance.

Most American accounts of The Bomb, including this film, omit key facts: Before Hiroshima, U.S. bombers systematically burned down 60 major Japanese cities, including Tokyo. Most victims were civilians. The same was true in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's true that The Bomb saved many lives by shortening the war. But America has been reluctant to freely discuss the atrocities of its own actions. Hopefully, the film will encourage such discussions.