Published 20 December 2023 by Andrei Mihai

Oppenheimer: A Cinematic Journey Through the Lives of Legendary Physicists

The film had a very successful run in the cinemas. Photo/Credit: OGULCAN AKSOY/iStockphoto

It is rare for science to take center stage in Hollywood and too often, scientists in movies are misrepresented and stereotyped. This is why Oppenheimer was such a delight for science lovers. Not only are many of the leading characters actual scientists, but their work is presented accurately from a historical perspective.

The movie largely focuses on the Manhattan Project, one of the most transformative events in modern science. This event opened the floodgates of the nuclear age, with all the potential and hazards that came with it.

A good part of the movie (no spoilers!) focuses on the project itself – and it is not hard to understand why. It featured many of the time’s leading physicists, several of whom would go on to win the Nobel Prize and be extremely influential in their fields.

Robert Oppenheimer

Robert Oppenheimer
Official portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer, first director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Photo/Credit: Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs

Despite his significant contributions to the field of physics and his leadership in one of the most impactful scientific projects in history, the titular Oppenheimer did not win a Nobel Prize, which is in itself pretty surprising. There is an argument that Oppenheimer did not actually publish that much groundbreaking science, despite his undisputed scientific legacy and major impact. However, why exactly Oppenheimer was not awarded a Nobel is unclear.

Perhaps the reason is owed to his unconventional trajectory and the fact that the Manhattan Project was so controversial. Perhaps it was because of political controversy (no spoilers), or perhaps it was due to the very nature of the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prizes in Physics are typically awarded for specific discoveries or theoretical advancements. While Oppenheimer made significant contributions to theoretical physics, especially in the field of quantum mechanics, his most notable work on the Manhattan Project was more of a leadership and organisational role rather than a specific scientific discovery.

There is an argument that his work on black holes could have won a Nobel Prize had he lived longer, but we will never know. We will probably never know why Oppenheimer was not awarded a Nobel, but either way, his impact on science (and the world) is undeniable.

Albert Einstein

Although he only appears several times in the movie, Einstein’s role is a key one. Without giving too much away, Einstein serves as a sort of counterpart to Oppenheimer and, especially in the latter part of the movie, offers a crucial and bitter moment of reflection for the titular character.

Einstein’s impact on physics is almost impossible to summarise, and we won’t even attempt to do that here. Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921. However, although Einstein was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics (with his 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect), he did not always see eye to eye with other leading figures in the field.

Famously, Einstein disagreed philosophically with many quantum physicists. He famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe,” expressing his discomfort with the idea that events at the quantum level could be fundamentally random. This led to some heated arguments. Furthermore, to this day, quantum mechanics has not been reconciled with general relativity, and this remains one of the most discussed topics.

Einstein was not involved in the Manhattan Project directly. Ironically, he did not receive a security clearance. However, the Manhattan Project may have not happened at all without Einstein’s support. In 1939, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilárd drafted a letter (referred to as the “Einstein-Szilárd letter”) warning of the potential of nuclear fission and the possibility that Nazi Germany might be working on atomic weapons. Szilárd sought Einstein’s help, given his prominence, to bring attention to the matter. Einstein signed the letter.

Niels Bohr

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Historical photo
Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Photo/Credits: Paul Ehrenfest, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1913, Niels Bohr proposed a theory for the hydrogen atom, based on the quantum theory that some physical quantities only take discrete values. This idea, that there are specific, irreducible quantities, paved the way for true quantum mechanics.

Bohr, along with Werner Heisenberg and others, played a significant role in developing the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which became the dominant interpretation during the early years of quantum theory. It emphasises the probabilistic nature of quantum events and the role of the observer in the measurement process − much of this is the part that Einstein didn’t like.

Bohr was only briefly involved with the Manhattan Project. Still, Oppenheimer credits him with major contributions. However, Bohr was more of a temporary consultant than an active participant.

After the war, Bohr returned to Denmark where he became an advocate for the peaceful use of nuclear power.

Werner Heisenberg

Historical picture of Werner Heisenberg in Lindau 1959, in a crowd of Young Scientists
Heisenberg surrounded by Young Scientists 1959 in Lindau. Photo/Credit: Oskar Spang/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Heisenberg was another pioneer of quantum mechanics. He is famous for his uncertainty principle, which he published in 1927, and in fact, Heisenberg was awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics “for the creation of quantum mechanics.”

But while Heisenberg’s scientific contributions are undeniable, his involvement in the atomic world is rather tortuous. His relationship to the Nazi regime is still disputed. Having been a principal scientist in the Nazi nuclear weapons program during World War II, Heisenberg subsequently emphasised that he had never contemplated a bomb, only an atomic pile to produce energy. At the end of the War, Heisenberg was captured, along with other leading researchers working in Germany at the time, and brought to the UK (Farm Hall).

While the contradictions around his personality cannot be resolved easily, he was one of the key signatories of the 1955 Mainau Declaration against the use of nuclear weapons on the occasion of the 15th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Ernest Lawrence

Lawrence and Oppenheimer at the 184-inch cyclotron, historical picture
Lawrence and Oppenheimer at the 184-inch cyclotron, circa 1946. Photo/Credit: Wikimedia, Public Domain

Lawrence was another key physicist in the Manhattan Project. Unlike other physicists, Lawrence actually had a close relationship with Oppenheimer − Lawrence would name his son ‘Robert’, after Oppenheimer. But as the movie depicts, they had their fair share of disagreements, and these disagreements led to a souring of their relationship.

While Oppenheimer was working to unionise lab workers, Lawrence considered this activity problematic and dangerous. This led to a strange situation. Scientifically, he got along perfectly with Oppenheimer; ideologically, they were almost polar opposites. Even so, Lawrence declined to testify against Oppenheimer at the 1954 hearings.

Lawrence was a stellar researcher in his own right. He founded the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He is renowned for his work on uranium-isotope separation for the Manhattan Project, and invented the cyclotron − a type of particle accelerator.

He made numerous contributions to physics, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in November 1939 “for the invention and development of the cyclotron and for results obtained with it, especially with regard to artificial radioactive elements”.

Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi. Photo/Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

While Robert Oppenheimer is often called the ‘father of the atomic bomb’, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi can be regarded as the ‘father of the atomic age’. Fermi and his team of researchers conducted a famous experiment beneath the University of Chicago’s football field on December 2, 1942.

Beneath the abandoned football field, Fermi had made the world’s first nuclear reactor, proving that a nuclear chain reaction can be sustained and used to produce energy from a uranium atom. The work also gave nuclear scientists a model for the production of large amounts of plutonium required to make an atomic bomb. Ultimately the Manhattan Project produced both a plutonium (Fat Man) and uranium (Little Boy) bomb.

After demonstrating that an atomic bomb was possible, the U.S. government hurried to start the Manhattan Project. No expense would be spared. Oppenheimer subsequently recruited Fermi and became heavily involved in every pivotal moment in building the atomic bomb.

But despite his huge contributions, Fermi is largely absent from the movie Oppenheimer. A famous episode from history that illustrates his genius involves the ominous Trinity test itself. About 40 seconds after the initial flash, Fermi dropped bits of paper into the air to observe how the blast wave caused deflections and used this observation to quickly make a back-of-the-envelope estimation of the size of the explosion. His numbers were twice as much as the actual figure, 20 kilotons of TNT, but were closer to the truth than the official estimate produced at Los Alamos.

Fermi was a true genius who was incredibly knowledgeable about all fields of physics, from quantum mechanics to theoretical physics. Perhaps Nolan’s next major biopic should center on Enrico Fermi.

Fermi was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on induced radioactivity by neutron bombardment and for the discovery of transuranium elements.

Hans Bethe

Hans Bethe
Hans Bethe. Photo/Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

Like many scientists who made history at Los Alamos, German-American physicist Hans Bethe initially thought that an atomic bomb was an impractical project during his lifetime. But after Fermi demonstrated the first instance of nuclear energy, Bethe was firmly convinced and quickly joined Oppenheimer’s team of distinguished physicists to work at Berkeley on a design for the bomb. Later he joined the Los Alamos Atomic Weapon Laboratory, where he led the theoretical division.

Previously, in the 1930s, Bethe made his greatest contributions to science by developing a theory for the production of energy in stars, work for which he would receive a Nobel Prize in 1967.

Although he worked with Edward Teller to design a fusion bomb, or H-bomb, Bethe only did so because he was convinced the Soviets were able to build one too. He believed only a balance of terror would prevent their use. Throughout his life, Bethe was politically active and strived to educate the public and politicians about the perils of nuclear weapons, but also about the peaceful applications of nuclear power.

Isidor Isaac Rabi

Isidor Isaac Rabi
Isidor Isaac Rabi. Photo/Credit: Atomic Heritage Foundation

Isidor Isaac Rabi, played by David Krumholtz in Nolan’s biopic, is one of the personalities who were graced with a lot of airtime. It makes sense. I. I. Rabi is one of “Oppie’s” oldest friends so he is featured throughout the film that spans several decades of history.

Despite his long-time friendship with Oppenheimer, Rabi refused the latter’s offer to make him deputy director of the Manhattan Project out of ethical considerations. During WWII, Rabi concentrated on his work on radar, devising several innovations meant to thwart the German war effort. However, Rabi would eventually yield and agree to serve as a consultant for the project, making several trips to work at Los Alamos.

He was among the many Manhattan scientists during the Trinity test on 16 July 1945, and later told an interviewer that for the first moment he was thrilled. ”Then, a few minutes afterward,” he said, ”I had gooseflesh all over me when I realised what this meant for the future of humanity.”

Rabi received the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his resonance method for recording the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei.”

Richard Feynman

Photograph of the 1946 colloquium on the Super at Los Alamos, Feynman located in the second row, second seat from right. Photo/Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

If you weren’t paying close attention, you may have not even noticed Richard Feynman. Hint: he’s the one playing the bongos.

Feynman is one of the most peculiar and charismatic physicists in history. He’s famous not only for his contributions − among others, he pioneered quantum electrodynamics, quantum computing, and introduced the concept of nanotechnology − but also for his famous lectures on physics and his rather inquisitive, quirky temperament. It’s no coincidence that in the film, he can be seen playing the bongos, as he loved playing in real life.

Feynman was recruited for the Manhattan Project before earning his graduate degree. Initially, he was given a minor administrative role, but his responsibilities grew more over time.

His work in quantum electrodynamics would eventually win him a Nobel Prize in 1965.

Luis Walter Alvarez

Luis Walter Alvarez, badge
Luis Walter Alvarez’s Los Alamos wartime badge photo. Photo/Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

Like Rabi, Luis Walter Alvarez was involved in many radar projects during World War II. He devised novel Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) radar beacons and a system that prevented enemy submarines from discovering they were detected by airborne radars. However, Alvarez would leave his most lasting mark on the war effort after he accepted Oppenheimer’s offer to join him at Los Alamos.

By all accounts, Alvarez seems to have enjoyed his time at Los Alamos, which he found very stimulating. Oppenheimer charged him with testing the implosion method for setting off various atomic bomb designs. He would perform such tests far away from any people in a nearby canyon, observing the effects of tests from within an army tank. This precaution proved wise as on one occasion burning hot shrapnel was set hurling through the air in all directions, eventually setting fire to a nearby woods.

Remote handling in Bayo Canyon, Los Alamos, of a kilocurie source of radiolanthanum for RaLa testing.
Remote handling in Bayo Canyon, Los Alamos, of a kilocurie source of radiolanthanum for RaLa testing. Photo/Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

Alvarez also designed a device that could be sent from an aircraft to measure the actual yield of an atomic bomb. Such a device was used to measure the blast effect of Hiroshima’s Little Boy atomic bomb.

Alvarez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968 for his contributions to elementary particle Physics, including the discovery of many resonant states through the use of hydrogen bubble chambers. 

Edward Teller

Edward Teller
Edward Teller in 1958. Photo/Credit: Wikimedia Commons/United States Department of Energy

Hungarian-American theoretical physicist Edward Teller is one of the most controversial figures in physics. In the Oppenheimer biopic, he is depicted as a part genius, part villain due to his many feuds with the ‘father of the atomic bomb’. After WWII, the two brilliant men’s conflicting relationship would later result in severe consequences for Oppenheimer during his security clearance scandal in 1954.

Teller was among the first scientists recruited to work on the Manhattan Project. But while everyone was busy making the first fissile bomb, all of Teller’s thoughts were preoccupied with the ‘super’ − a thermonuclear fusion bomb that would dwarf the destructive potential of the merger atomic bomb.

His obsession with the hydrogen bomb consumed him and caused tensions with other scientists, often declining to do important work because it didn’t fit his agenda. After the Soviets tested their atomic device in 1949, Teller argued that a ‘super’ was necessary to ensure the survival of the United States.

President Truman was eventually convinced and appointed Teller to spearhead the country’s H-bomb development effort. Collaborating with mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, Teller developed the world’s first hydrogen bomb design in 1951. In 1952, the hydrogen bomb was successfully tested in the Pacific Ocean, proving 1,000 times more powerful than the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Nolan’s Oppenheimer is more than just a moment in scientific history. It brings to life the complex personalities and intellectual giants who shaped the atomic age. From Oppenheimer’s multifaceted leadership to Fermi’s groundbreaking experiments, and from Einstein’s philosophical struggles to Teller’s controversial ambitions, the film offers a unique lens into the minds and hearts of those who stood at the crossroads of science and history.

While it is a cinematic interpretation, its attention to detail and commitment to portraying the scientific endeavor makes it a valuable piece for anyone interested in the intertwining of science, ethics, and history. Oppenheimer is currently available on many streaming platforms.

Andrei Mihai

Andrei is a science communicator and a PhD candidate in geophysics. He co-founded ZME Science, where he tries to make science accessible and interesting to everyone and has written over 2.000 pieces on various topics – though he generally prefers writing about physics and the environment. Andrei tries to blend two of the things he loves (science and good stories) to make the world a better place – one article at a time.