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Why Oppenheimer Liked Hinduism

November 23, 2023 11:30 IST
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'Hinduism meshed with his sense that the world was paradoxical and puzzling.'

IMAGE: Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss and Cillian Murphy as Dr J Robert Oppenheimer in Christopher Nolan's film.

Earlier this year, Director Christopher Nolan released his biopic of American physicist J Robert Oppenheimer.

Based on Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin's American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer, Nolan's film reignited interest in the life of the 'Father of the Atomic Bomb' and reinitiated a discussion around the development of nuclear weapons and the role of scientists in it.

Ray Monk has also written a comprehensive and authoritative life story of Oppenheimer, Inside the Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer.

What makes Professor Monk's book stand out amongst other biographies of Dr Oppenheimer is the fact that it focuses as much on his life as a physicist as on his role as director of the Manhattan Project.

In an e-mail interview with's Utkarsh Mishra, Professor Monk discussed various aspects of Dr Oppenheimer's life, including his love for Hinduism and ancient Indian scriptures, about which he has written in the book that Dr Oppenheimer 'found it so inspiring that he learned Sanskrit in order to read them in their original language'.

About the controversial scene in the movie that was later censored in India, Professor Monk said it was "very embarrassing and looked silly".

Your book is called Inside the Centre because, as you have written, Dr Oppenheimer 'always liked to be at the centre'. And it was this quest to be at the centre that got him involved in the Manhattan Project.
But more interesting was to read that it was an accidental revelation about the project to build an atomic bomb, followed by Ernest Lawrence's repeated insistence, that led to his inclusion.
Was he not so crucial for the project? How appropriate, then, is it to call Oppenheimer the 'father of the atomic bomb'?

He was absolutely crucial to the project.

(Lieutenant General Leslie Richard) Groves insisted on having him, which turned out to be the best decision Groves ever made.

What made Oppenheimer the man for the job? Several things: One, his incredibly quick intellect, which could get to the heart of a problem faster than anyone else; two, his breadth of interest which meant that he could discuss all aspects of the project with a wide range of experts and finally, his determination to get the job done.

You write about Oppenheimer losing touch with his subject in the summer of 1941. Did he feel that he would never be 'at the centre' if he was not included in a military project?
What would have been Oppenheimer's legacy had he been kept out of the Manhattan Project? As you mention, perhaps he would have got the Nobel Prize for his work on black holes if he took it further.

If he had lived longer, he would have got the Nobel Prize for his work on black holes when empirical evidence started to be discovered.

I doubt that he would have worked on black holes, however. I think he would have worked on particle physics and QED (Quantum Electrodynamics).

Your book covers Oppenheimer's work as a theoretical physicist in remarkable detail. And while you call American Prometheus 'a monumental piece of scholarship', you also say that it 'summarises very briefly' Oppenheimer's contribution to physics.
This has also been the case, more or less, with his recent biopic. Do you think the movie has reinvigorated interest in Oppenheimer, but only insofar as his contribution in the making of the bomb, and his other scientific achievements have been relegated to the background?

Curiously, the only bit of Oppenheimer's scientific work that the movie deals with is his work on black holes -- which is more or less irrelevant to his work on the bomb.

I get the impression that Nolan was not very interested in the science and judged (probably rightly) that his audience wouldn't be either.

Albert Einstein said about Oppenheimer that 'he loves a woman who doesn't love him -- the United States government'. Was this love the reason for Oppenheimer's struggle with his German-Jewish identity? And why did this love not stop him from drifting towards Communism?

I think, for him, his struggle with his German-Jewish inheritance was irrelevant to his love for the USA, but, unfortunately, the antisemitism rife in the USA played a part in his love being unrequited.

I don't think -- in the '30s, at least -- Oppenheimer saw any conflict between Communism and a love for the USA. During the Cold War, of course, it was different, but by then he had severed his ties with the Communist Party.

You have written that Oppenheimer 'felt a sense of belonging in Left Wing circles'. The movie also shows an enthusiastic Oppenheimer joining Communist gatherings, even ignoring the possibility of being put under surveillance.
Did he suppress his affinity towards the Left after being included in the Manhattan Project, or was it some kind of realisation that extinguished his interest in their politics?
He never revealed the full extent of his involvement with the Left.

I think he became disillusioned with Communism for a number of reasons, including the Nazi-Soviet Pact and reports from Russia about what it was like to live and work under Communism.

You say that Oppenheimer was 'extraordinarily good at not revealing things about himself'. So, what does the Chevalier episode tell about him, which he himself later termed as his 'cock and bull story'?
Was he worried that his security clearance would not come and he would be taken off the project?

He was certainly worried about being taken off the project.

He also wanted to shield his friend Chevalier.

He also under-estimated the rigour with which the security services would pursue the matter.

On one hand Oppenheimer was an unapologetic rich man, and on the other, he was attracted towards certain principles of Communism. And in-between he also developed an interest towards Hindu philosophy and scriptures. How did that happen?

I think Hinduism meshed with his sense that the world was paradoxical and puzzling.

I think Communism satisfied certain principles he had acquired from the Ethical Culture movement.

You mention Oppenheimer's meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru in 1950, during which he asked the latter about the 'Hindu notion of control or restraint'. Can you tell us more about that meeting?
Is it true that Nehru offered him Indian citizenship in 1954?

I'm sorry, but everything I know about this meeting is in the book.

Did Oppenheimer regret his role in making the atomic bomb as shown in the movie? Didn't he once say that it is the 'problem of governments, not scientists' how their discoveries are used?
And was his opposition to the H-bomb programme rooted in this regret or was it because he knew that he won't be 'at the centre' of this programme in the same way as he was in the previous one?

He was asked several times if he regretted his work on the bomb and he also said no.

His opposition to the H-Bomb was rooted in: 1. His conviction that it would never be built because it was not feasible, 2. His view that no sane person would use a bomb thousands of times more powerful than the atomic bomb so it was therefore pointless to try to build it.

There was controversy in India over a scene in the movie where the character playing Jean Tatlock makes Oppenheimer's character read verses from the Gita during an intimate moment.

I found the scene very embarrassing.

Nolan is in many ways a great director, but I don't think he handles intimacy very well.

This was supposed to be an intimate, sexy moment but it just looked silly.

Oppenheimer is currently available for streaming on rent (for Rs 149) on Amazon Prime Video.
You can rent a 4K version on ZEE5 for Rs 169.

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