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July 28 panel to discuss Robert Oppenheimer's Berkeley years

By Robert Sanders

side by side headshots of the scientist and the actor playing him

J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) and the actor Cillian Murphy, who plays Oppenheimer in the new film.

Photo credits: Atomic Archive and Universal Pictures, respectively

UPDATE (8/7/23): The panel discussion is now online on YouTube.

The story behind the summer blockbuster movie Oppenheimer, which opens across the nation on Friday, July 21, began at the University of California, Berkeley.

A 25-year-old J. Robert Oppenheimer arrived at UC Berkeley in fall 1929 as an assistant professor, and over the next dozen years established one of the greatest schools of theoretical physics in the U.S. — one that continues to this day. He made UC Berkeley’s physics department the center of American thought about the new field of quantum mechanics and how to apply it to atoms, nuclei and even neutron stars.

He and Ernest O. Lawrence, who made the campus the go-to place for experimental particle physics with his work on the atom-smashing cyclotron, were instrumental in raising the alarm that the Germans could be trying to develop an atomic bomb, and that the U.S. should do the same.

The three-hour movie, directed by Christopher Nolan and partly filmed at UC Berkeley, follows Oppenheimer through his leadership of the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear weapons and his subsequent humiliation when the Atomic Energy Commission stripped him of his security clearance in 1954 because of claims that he was a Communist sympathizer and an unreliable adviser.

To provide a different perspective on that history, four UC Berkeley faculty members and a nuclear physicist from Los Alamos National Laboratory will assemble for a panel discussion at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, July 28, to discuss Oppenheimer's pre-war UC Berkeley years and his scientific and human legacy.

The public can register here for the in-person-only event in Chevron Auditorium at International House in Berkeley.

people milling around shooting a film
Christopher Nolan brought his film crew to UC Berkeley in May 2022 to film scenes for the movie Oppenheimer, opening July 21, 2023, across the U.S. Along Campanile Way, cast members seen in 1930s attire include Josh Hartnett (gray suit) playing Berkeley professor E. O. Lawrence, and Cillian Murphy (brown suit, seen from rear), playing J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Berkeley theoretical physicist who led the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb.
Brittany Hosea-Small
The discussion will be moderated by Cathryn Carson, UC Berkeley professor of history and a specialist in the history of 20th century physics, including its cultural, social and political contexts. She co-edited a volume of papers about Oppenheimer, Reappraising Oppenheimer: Centennial Studies and Reflections, that was presented during a 2004 conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Carson will be joined by Jon Else, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of journalism and longtime director of the documentary program at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Else directed the 1981 documentary, The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb, which was the first documentary about Oppenheimer's role in the Manhattan Project. Trinity was Oppenheimer's name for the first-ever test of an atom bomb, which lit up the night sky in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945.

headshots of 1 woman and 4 men
The participants in the July 28 panel are Cathryn Carson, Mark Chadwick, Jon Else, Yasunori Nomura and Karl van Bibber.

Also participating in the July 28 discussion will be two physicists: Yasunori Nomura, professor of physics and director of the Berkeley Center for Theoretical Physics; and Karl van Bibber, a professor of nuclear engineering who spent 25 years conducting nuclear energy research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Mark Chadwick, chief scientist and chief operating officer for weapons physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory, will round out the panel. In 2021, he edited and published a suite of papers on the technical history of the Trinity test, written on the occasion of its 75th anniversary.

Christopher Nolan’s five-minute Opening Look trailer for his new film, Oppenheimer. The movie, from Universal Pictures, arrives in theaters July 21, 2023.
They'll delve into Oppenheimer's impact on quantum mechanics and quantum field theory, the school of theoretical physics he created at UC Berkeley — where he supervised 25 Ph.D. students and many more postdoctoral fellows — and the left-leaning milieu at UC Berkeley that made it an unusual place from which to select the director of a top secret government project.

"However unexpected his colleagues found his appointment at Los Alamos, its spectacular accomplishments came to stand for the Manhattan Project at large," Carson wrote in an introduction to the centennial volume. "Then his postwar apotheosis epitomized the physicists’ entry into positions of power, just as the McCarthy-era stripping of his security clearance defined their political bounds."

The movie is based on American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a book published in 2005 that won the Pulitzer Prize for authors Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. That book and numerous others have contributed to what Else refers to as the "mythologizing" of Oppenheimer, not only for his incredible accomplishment at Los Alamos, but for his tragic fall from grace. Oppenheimer died from throat cancer in 1967. Only last year did the U.S. government vacate the decision to strip him of security clearance.

In the movie, the intense, chain-smoking Oppenheimer is portrayed by Irish actor Cillian Murphy. Other UC Berkeley luminaries are also portrayed: Ernest O. Lawrence (played by Josh Hartnett); physicist and future Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez (played by Alex Wolff); Frank Oppenheimer (played by Dylan Arnold), a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicist who later founded the Exploratorium in San Francisco; and Haakon Chevalier (played by Jefferson Hall), the professor of French literature whose Communist sympathies entangled Oppenheimer in a web of suspicions about the physicist's own ties to the Communist Party of the United States of America.

Other key protagonists are Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty (played by Emily Blunt), who was a biologist and mother of their two children; and Oppenheimer's ex-lover, Jean Tatlock, the daughter of a UC Berkeley literature professor (played by Florence Pugh).