Academic institutions in the film “Oppenheimer”

In the first place, I want to say that I thought Christopher Nolan’s film is awesome, the way in which mixes science, with the history of science, and the historical-political context, is very good. I highly recommend that you go see it. Even though I’m not from the physics field and I imagine that, because of that, I lose a lot of the richness of some dialogues and personalities of the film, I did appreciated some of the key institutions which appear there. Besides the university of Princeton, the one from Berkeley, the main institute is the IAS, and I also tell you here about another institute which positioned itself as the most relevant in one subfield -sort of- from physics.

The context of this film is the Second World War, and later, the race to finnish it. [Sobre esto y la forma de pelear de los japoneses escribí este post.] Robert J. Oppenheimer was a physicist, but mainly, he built the team and idea behind the first bomb used as a massive nuclear weapon. But also, there was a political, burocratic and militar framework called “Manhattan Project”. Before telling you about these institutes, there’s also a scientific background which both Einstein and Oppenheimer represent and which has to do with the theories and “paradigms” of a scientific community [remember Thomas Kuhn and scientific paradigms in this post]. In this case, physics. Einstein represents one, Oppenheimer another one.

The first institution that the film shows is the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) at Princeton. It’s probably the most prestigious place in the world for a researcher. That’s where reknowned scientist, such as Oppie, Einstein, Gödel, etc., go, and dedicate to thinking, teaching, meeting with others without having to search for funding for their research, and other commitments. Something very different from how it works in Argentina. This institute is mentioned in books you’ve probably heard such as “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking . Hawking says “Gödel got to know about general relativity when he and Einstein spent their later years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His space-time had the curious property that the whole universe was rotating. ” (I had already left that part marked before even knowing about a film, seriously! It has always striked my attention to learn about those spaces in science where the most interesting exchanges occur, such as Popper’s seminar, to which Lakatos and Feyerabend assited)

Well, according to an article I recently read, this statement about the IAS belonging to Princeton University is considered as a misunderstanding. (“they only share postal code”) They currently have call for annual programs, in which participate people such as Alondra Nelson, and even in this year program in social sciences is the argentinian Pablo Boczowksy (I think he was in Chicago, I sent him an email 2 años ago and VERY cool he answered, ha)

[Image from Institute for Advance Study featured in the “Oppenheimer” film. Via IAS]

As the film depicts, Einstein walks through a forest with Gödel, throwing later bread to a pond with ducks; this place presents itself as a paradise where scientists spend time thinking and interacting without the burden of schedules, obligations, and mainly, with external funding.

[Einstein y Oppenheimer at the IAS in Nolan’s film. Imagevia Esquire]

The other one which wasn’t an institute in the film, but it is a place where the Los Alamos lab was established, and it’s mentioned from the beginning because Oppie had a ranch, is Santa Fe, in Nuevo Mexico. In the film, is the dessert where the first experiments from the bomb take place. Now is a key location for complexity science a discipline/field “born” from physics which also has the prestigious Santa Fe Institute (SFI) . As I did my phd about networks, and complexity is at the base or origins of some theories, I’ve been following this institute for years and it’s amazing what they do. They have residences for researchers, online courses from before the pandemics, science communication activities, programs for science journalism, etc. They also have, of course, generous endowments and constributions from private investors so scientists can do there the things they do. There’s a guy from Mendoza who was there, and he also teaches at the Balseiro, whom I of course, contacted 😀

Lastly, something I loved about the film is how it reflects the functioning of science. In the beginning, when they tell him “So, you’re interested in this subject? Then you should go study with this guy”. That’s when Oppenheimer goes to Cambridge, later to Germany, etc. It reminds me of my early phd days. I chose with whom I wanted to learn, before defining the project’s theme. Sometimes that goes well, others it doesn’t, because some personalities of science are quite complicated, but, for that, these advanced institutes are so important to promote the enviroment and incentives needed to make great things happen.

Was there any other institution you recognized? MAke your contribution in the comments section

Leave a Reply