The Art of Ethics in InnovationAnne Sacks explores the ethical complexities and personal cost of Oppenheimer's atomic bomb innovation.
As Oppenheimer stares at the smoke that rises from the first bomb test on the grounds of Los Alamos, New Mexico, he ushers a few words: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
It is Oppenheimer’s journey to becoming, as he puts it, a “destroyer of worlds,” and the scandals and security issues that plague his path, that makes Nolan’s film intriguing. The complexity of Oppenheimer’s life is woven throughout the film, as the film continuously shifts from black-and- white to color, from moments of triumph to moments of anguish. The film begins in 1920’s Germany, where Oppenheimer studies quantum physics. Oppenheimer’s capacity to think outside this world becomes evident when stares directly into our eyes, almost as if he is looking through and beyond us.
10 years later, Oppenheimer finds himself at Berkeley, where his past visions of a fiery world eventually become realized. News has just arrived that Germany has invaded Poland, beginning the race to defeat Germany. It is here that Oppenheimer’s complex and ironic past begins to plague the movie: enveloped in the fight to defeat Germany as a Jew, it is Oppenheimer’s time in Germany that spurred his fascination for physics.
Oppenheimer eventually becomes head of the Manhattan Project, a secret project devoted to the creation of an atomic bomb that could end World War II. Ironically, the Manhattan Project does not take place in New York, but rather the remote Los Alamos, New Mexico. It is Leslie Groves, a military head that Oppenheimer encountered at Berkeley, who promotes him to the position of director of Los Alamos.
Oppenheimer’s decision to accept the role as director of Los Alamos is once again filled with complexity. If Oppenheimer had not aided the development of the atomic bomb, someone else would have done it. Yet, the knowledge that someone else would have built the atomic bomb was not necessarily moral justification for Oppenheimer’s own involvement in the development of the bomb. But alas, it is not that simple. At the time, the creation of the atomic bomb had the ability to end the war and potentially save the lives of thousands of soldiers as well as the lives of Jews across Europe. Yet the mere detonation of the atomic bomb could kill thousands, which it unfortunately did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Oppenheimer is immersed in the creation of the atomic bomb, ethical considerations concerning this deadly device do not appear to cross his mind. It is only after the bomb has been built, when it is too late to go back, that Oppenheimer begins to fear his own creation. It is not enough to think ethically about an innovation after one has created it. It is the responsibility of the innovator to reflect on the implications of his innovation far before its creation.
It is Oppenheimer’s devotion to the device that in his eyes makes him “destroyer of worlds” that also destroys his own family. It is at Los Alamos where Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty Harrison, has their second child. Yet, throughout his time at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer neglects to care for his own children, choosing instead to prioritize his other creation. It is Oppenheimer’s ability to look past this world that allows him to devise the atomic bomb, yet it is also this precise ability that allows him to look past his own family. As Oppenheimer stares longingly at his creation as it is being driven away from Los Alamos, he realizes that he is no longer needed at Los Alamos. His creation no longer needs him, but his children still do.
It is only after the atomic bomb has been wheeled away that Oppenheimer begins to advocate against the use of nuclear weapons, especially at a moment in time where the war is nearing an end. Yet, it is too late. His advocacy eventually leads him into the White House, where he becomes caught in the political agenda of others. Accused of being a national security threat, the public’s perception of Oppenheimer shifts from that of a hero to a disloyal scientist. It becomes evident that the pursuit of science should not be in hope of recognition, as recognition and public perception can fade. Rather, the pursuit of science should be in hope of discovering or creating something that can improve the lives of others or our understanding of the world.
Oppenheimer’s story is a complex one, but it reminds us that ethics should be at the forefront of science and not left behind until it is too late.
Anne Sacks, Huang Fellow ’26
Anne is a first-year student from the Washington D.C. area pursuing a major in chemistry and a minor in biology on the pre-med track.