The world’s first atomic explosion took place on July 16, 1945, during the final weeks of World War II, in the high desert of New Mexico.

At Ground Zero, the sand melted in the fireball and rained down to the ground, where it resolidified as a mineral – what we now call trinitite, after the name of the site. : Trinity.

At 33°40’38.0″N 106°28’31.0″W, the world has changed.

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Recalling the moment 20 years later, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man history calls “the father of the atomic bomb”, said it was reminiscent of a line of Hindu scripture: “Now I have become death , the destroyer of worlds”.

Christopher Nolan, the director of films such as ‘Dunkirk’, ‘Inception’, ‘Interstellar’ and the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, has spent the past three years living in Oppenheimer’s world, writing and directing the film ‘Oppenheimer ” (opening this week). “I consider Oppenheimer the most important person who ever lived,” he told Martin. “Oppenheimer’s story is one of the greatest stories imaginable.”

Christopher Nolan, screenwriter and director of “Oppenheimer”.

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“By unleashing atomic power, he gave us the power to destroy ourselves that we never had before, and that changes the human equation,” Nolan said.

To watch a trailer for “Oppenheimer”, click on the video player below:

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Kai Bird is co-author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Oppenheimer, “American Prometheus,” on which the film is based. “It’s complicated to take on a historical icon like Robert Oppenheimer and faithfully process history while turning it into a cinematic experience,” Bird said.

Martin asked, “Do you have any qualms about what Hollywood would do with all your research?”

“Of course I did, yes! The bird laughed.

Martin told Nolan, “For high-stakes human dramas, it’s hard to improve on historical facts.”

Nolan replied, “I don’t know of any other story as dramatic as Oppenheimer and his involvement in the Manhattan Project” – the code name for the race to build the bomb.

Nolan filmed “Oppenheimer” using an Imax camera. “Only the Imax movie would be truly worthy of the Trinity project,” he said. A 70mm Imax print of “Oppenheimer”, which runs for three hours, is 11 miles long; on its tray, it weighs 600 pounds.

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Oppenheimer (played in the film by Cillian Murphy) was teaching graduate physics when he was recruited by a gruff Army general, Leslie Groves (played by Matt Damon). Bird said, “Oppie was then, you know, 38, never handled anything more than his grad students, and yet Groves selected him.”

“What did the others think of Groves’ choice?” Martin asked.

“They thought it was weird.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967).

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Besides his lack of experience, Oppenheimer had communist connections. “It took him a long time to get a security clearance,” Bird said. “His own wife, Kitty, was a long time party member.”

And what did Groves think of it? “He thought Oppie was the one leading this project, and he was a brilliant choice,” Bird said. “He could see in Oppie the intelligence and the charisma to bring all these scientists together in this secret city and make it happen.”

In Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the bomb was designed and built, it was initially thought that only about 130 people would be needed to do the job. “That number has grown to 1,700,” said Alan Carr, a historian at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Gathered in what was then the nowhereville of Los Alamos, the average age of the scientists was 29.

Martin asked, “Boys and girls together – were there any romances?”

“There were,” Carr replied, “and it became a security issue here, because before the project hardly anyone was born in this area. All of a sudden you have 8, 10, 12 children born each month How do you hide This?”

After shooting scenes in Oppenheimer’s home in New Mexico, Nolan donated the furniture he had brought to the Los Alamos Historical Society, but without the bugs placed by security guards who were suspicious of politics. ‘Oppenheimer, who watched him, even in his own house.

“He was watched for a lot of his job in different ways,” Carr said. “For example, his phone was tapped several times. And when he was talking to Kitty, they sometimes made reference to the fact that they were probably being listened to.”

By the time Oppenheimer was ready to test what he called “the gimmick”, Germany had already surrendered, but Japan fought back. Carr said, “It was literally life and death because with every day that went on during the war, thousands upon thousands more people were killed.”

The “gadget” was hoisted to the top of a 100 foot tower and the countdown began.

Oppenheimer was in a bunker 10,000 yards from Ground Zero where, before the test, he reportedly said, “Lord, these cases are hard on the heart.”

“There’s a huge burst of light,” Carr said. “He would have watched it unfold in silence for tens and tens of seconds before the shock wave arrived. Imagine someone firing a gun very close to you and someone putting a blower on you. upper right leaves on your face.”

Three weeks after the test, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Then, a second on Nagasaki.

The war was over and Oppenheimer was the most famous scientist in the world.

But that’s only half the story

Bird said: “He sank into a deep depression soon after, I think I read some of the reports about what really happened on the ground in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Oppenheimer had built the weapon that won the war, but he had also created a monster, which he believed would one day cause the world to curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. In 1947 he said: “If there is another world war, this civilization could collapse.

“The national security establishment is appalled that the father of the atomic bomb is going out in public giving speeches against these weapons,” Bird said.

Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (played in the Robert Downey Jr. film), was determined to build more and bigger bombs than the Russians – and Oppenheimer was on his way. “Strauss managed to write an indictment that made it appear that Oppie’s advice was politically motivated, that he might be a subversive, that he might be a secret communist, that he might be -being a spy,” Bird said.

Lewis Strauss testifies at a hearing
Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, testifies before the Congressional Atomic Committee on November 4, 1954.

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Meeting behind closed doors, an Atomic Energy Commission security panel heard evidence—some of which came from illegal wiretapping—of Oppenheimer’s communist connections. The judges voted against him. Bird said, “It’s a terrible tragedy, because here is America’s greatest scientist, a great public intellectual, tried and stripped of his security clearance, then humiliated.”

He retired to academic exile at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, home of Albert Einstein, who had tried to dissuade Oppenheimer from fighting a battle he could not win. Bird recalled, “Oppenheimer walks away from Einstein, and Albert Einstein turns to his secretary and says, ‘There’s a nar,’ Yiddish for ‘fool’.”

It would take decades for the humiliation to be rectified. In December 2022, the Department of Energy officially canceled the entire licensing hearing. “The message is that it shouldn’t have happened,” Carr said.

By then, Oppenheimer was long dead. So he remains, as the title of his biography says, the American Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and was tortured forever.

But it’s not a myth.

Nolan said, “Oppenheimer was at the center of a series of events that changed the world forever. Like it or not, we still live in his world, and we always will.”

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Story produced by David Rothman. Publisher: Joseph Frandino.

See also:

Nuclear explosions, preserved on film