Saturday 18 February 2017


Earlier I was having a snarky side-swipe at my Alma Mater Trinity College Dublin for being 'nice' [in the old sense of possessing, marked by, or demanding great or excessive precision] about my pension rights. Writing the word Trinity gives me, as it should any heterosexual male who has seen the film The Matrix, a tiny Carrie-Anne Moss frisson. Because Trinity things always come in threes it turns out that today is the 50th anniversary of the death of J Robert Oppenheimer the godfather of the atomic age.  He was hired by the military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves to herd the scientific cats at Los Alamos and construct first a theoretic and then an actual atomic bomb. Oppenheimer was an odd / inspired choice. It seems that Groves was impressed by the breadth of knowledge that Oppenheimer had acquired during his very expensive education: Harvard, Cambridge, Göttingen, Cal Tech. He was definitely not the mumbling, over-focussed cliché of a theoretical physicist. Richard Feynman [bloboprev] expressed his admiration for the pragmatism and clear-cut decision making of the best officers in the military. Their can-do attitude was not going to get side-tracked by a fit-of-the-vapours over the private life of the men under their command.

Oppenheimer was a self-admitted fellow-traveller in 1930s California with decidedly left-wing views and many friends in radical circles; although never a member of the Communist Party. That acquired much more significance after the war was well over and the US had immersed itself in its decades long cold war with its former ally the USSR. In 1941-1945, there was a real war to win and the US military-industrial complex was prepared to have [m]any strange bed-fellows to get the job done against Germany and Japan. In San Francisco, Oppenheimer had a long-term relationship with Jean Tatlock, a definite member of the CP, a physician/psychiatrist, and a lover of poetry. She introduced her bloke to the works of John Donne the English metaphysical poet from the 17thC. She suffered from depression all her life and committed suicide in 1944 shortly before her 30th birthday. Oppenheimer was devastated and named the Alamagordo atomic test site Trinity in tribute to a couple of much loved Donne poems:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you 
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend 
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. 
John Donne Holy Sonnet XIV
Whilst my physicians by their love are grown 
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie 
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown 
That this is my south-west discovery, 
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die, 

I joy, that in these straits I see my west; 
For, though their currents yield return to none, 
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east 
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one, 
So death doth touch the resurrection

Oppenheimer's more famous foray into the territory of the Arts Block is his recollection when the Trinity site was finally used and generated a massive explosion. Two Hindu references vied for his attention; quotes from the Bhagavad Gita (XI,12): "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one" and at the same time "kālo'smi lokakṣayakṛtpravṛddho lokānsamāhartumiha pravṛttaḥ" (XI,32)

"I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Whatever his unspoken thoughts at the time, observers noticed a change in his demeanour immediately after the successful test at Trinity. Whatever his later doubts about whether atomic weapons were a good thing, at the time his palpable relief at success was transformed into a sort of swagger; as captured by fellow physicist Isidor Rabi "I'll never forget his walk; I'll never forget the way he stepped out of the car ... his walk was like High Noon ... this kind of strut. He had done it."

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