"Oppenheimer" is the best film Hollywood has produced since "The Godfather." The movie brilliantly recounts how the theoretical physicist and genius J. Robert Oppenheimer led the urgent U.S. effort to develop the atomic bomb during World War II that culminated in the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and inducted the world into the Atomic Age.
The Need to Regulate Apocalyptic TechnologyWith the explosion of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer became terrified about the world-destroying potential of nuclear proliferation, about which he famously lamented, “Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” He particularly opposed developing the hydrogen bomb, which is exponentially more powerful than uranium weapons. Rather than build more and bigger bombs as the Cold War was looming, Oppenheimer urged President Harry Truman to pursue negotiations with the Soviet Union to limit the development and deployment of advanced nuclear weapons.
Oppenheimer was naive about the Soviets, and President Truman was right to disregard his advice, even calling him a “crybaby scientist.” But the great scientist was right about the need for international controls to regulate such a potentially destructive technology, while also allowing for beneficial uses. And atomic energy was and is highly regulated. Indeed, test ban treaties, verifiable explosive device limitations, and nonproliferation agreements have prevented our going over the brink.
Ditto biotechnology, which is making it possible for us to remake the world at the molecular level. For example, CRISPR—an easy-to-use gene-editing technique that can refashion any lifeform on the planet—may be the key to treating terrible genetic diseases and improving crop resilience. But it also has the potential to destroy humanity, say, if a terrorist were to bioengineer a bird flu pathogen or fashion a blight to obliterate food production.
The Dangers of Cancel CultureThe second primary plot of "Oppenheimer" recounts how the scientist’s government security clearance was revoked in 1954 for his having expressed disfavored opinions about communism in the 1930s and for opposing H-bomb research. No one gained from Oppenheimer’s fall. Not only was the scientist’s career destroyed and life ruined, but also the country was deprived of benefiting from his intelligence, heterodox thinking, and depth of knowledge for the rest of his life.
Punishing “wrongthink” was then known as “McCarthyism,” named after its primary proponent, Sen. Joe McCarthy. We now call such social excommunication “cancel culture,” and it's just as harmful to its victims and general society today as it was in the 1950s.
Canceling stifles creativity, impedes the free exchange of ideas, and thwarts the working of checks and balances over the politically powerful. This can lead to tragic policy errors. For example, take the anti-COVID policy debacles. When the public health establishment called for locking down society as a means of fighting the pandemic, contrary ideas were stifled and heterodox thinkers attacked as conspiracy theorists and quacks.
But we now know who had the better case. The millions of children whose educations have been permanently retarded might be in a far better place if the Great Barrington Declaration hadn't been so ruthlessly suppressed. The same could be said regarding officials working with social media platforms to smother opposition to vaccine and mask mandates, which resulted in mass firings of military personnel, medical professionals, and teachers, all fields now experiencing acute staffing shortages.
The transgender controversy is another case in point. Gender ideologues seek to punish medical doctors and policy advocates who object to “gender-affirming care,” which involves puberty blocking and even surgeries on children who feel they aren't the sex they were born. The potential health consequences are incalculable and often irreversible. Indeed, I suspect, thousands of mutilated victims of such ideological medicine will rue the day that contrary arguments were suppressed rather than openly debated.
So, I recommend that readers take the time to see "Oppenheimer." It not only tells a compelling and entertaining story involving legendary historical luminaries such as Oppenheimer, Truman, Albert Einstein, and Edward Teller, but also offers significant truths highly pertinent to the current moment. Let us hope we have the wisdom to take heed of the messages the movie communicates. The future welfare of humanity may well depend on it.