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It’s not for nothing that Robert J. Oppenheimer is called the “American Prometheus.” The leading physicist on the Manhattan Project and the future director of the Atomic Energy Commission, his ingenuity led directly to the creation of atomic weapons. He thus played a key role in harnessing a power theretofore unimaginable, and the consequences would permanently alter the trajectory of modern warfare and statecraft by unleashing a new scale of destruction. For better or for worse, he had changed the world.
Though this feat initially made him a celebrated national hero, Oppenheimer entered his twilight years a deeply conflicted man, and he watched with growing horror as his fellow American physicists moved far beyond the destructive capacities of atomic weaponry with the hydrogen bomb—a fearsome device a thousand times more powerful than his earlier wartime efforts. That dawning apprehension is evident in an MIT lecture, in which this thoroughly skeptical physicist briefly resorted to unabashedly theological language to describe the breakthroughs that would culminate in the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
Vision - Wisdom - Heads - State - Physicists
Despite the vision and far-seeing wisdom of our war-time heads of state, the physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
In the first episode of Craig Mazin’s new HBO miniseries, Chernobyl, two engineers try to stop a nuclear meltdown by manually turning scores of valves to keep water flowing to a core that they fear may already be destroyed. Despite vehement protestations...
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