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The Very Real and Still Prevalent Effects of Oppenheimer's Work

by Oana-Maria Moldovan

Christopher Nolan's latest film, Oppenheimer, is a biopic based on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer focused on his time working on the Manhattan Project.

Although there are many things to both praise and critique regarding the new blockbuster release, something imperative was missing: the acknowledgment of the very real and still prevalent effects of Oppenheimer's work. 

First, let’s take it back: 

Oppenheimer’s education, Lise Meitner and the Manhattan Project

J. Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904 in New York City to Jewish immigrants from Germany. 

He was considered a prodigy, with the first conference he was invited to speak at taking place when he was only 12 years old. 

He was a chemist by training, but during his studies it was an applied physics lab that he fell in love with - later becoming interested in practising theoretical physics because of his "clumsiness" in the lab. 

In 1927, at just 23, Oppenheimer earned his doctorate and held professorships at the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology. 

He spent the next decade back and forth between the two Institutions, conducting important research in a variety of scientific fields, including nuclear physics, quantum field theory and astrophysics.

In 1942, General Leslie Groves - we'll get back to him later - invited Oppenheimer to become scientific director of the top-secret US Manhattan Project. 

After Oppenheimer chose a site in Los Alamos, New Mexico (notoriously an Indian burial site), the US military began building a series of laboratories there.

According to both relatives of those removed and a former lab employee, in order to do this, the U.S. Army gave 32 Hispano families on the Pajarito Plateau 48 hours to leave their homes and land, in some cases holding the innocent people at gunpoint. 

Homes were bulldozed, livestock shot or let loose, and families given little or no compensation, according to Loyda Martinez, 67, who worked as a computer scientist for 32 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and cited accounts from evicted ranching and farming families. 

Note: Nolan’s Oppenheimer fails to include this information

This rush and hostility was due to the discovery of Fission, the basis of the atomic bomb, in Nazi Germany less than a year before the beginning of the Second World War.  

While bombarding elements with neutrons in their Berlin laboratory, Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Strassmann found that a previously undiscovered kind of process was at work, Fission. This means that when splitting the atomic nucleus of uranium, enormous amounts of energy are released.

Meitner, an Austrian-Swedish physicist, later became the first to realise that through Einstein's discovery, E=mc2, that enormous amount of energy can be released from a small amount mass, in this instance uranium.  

Beginning with a single uranium nucleus, Fission could not only produce substantial amounts of energy but could create a "chain reaction".  

A controlled self-sustaining reaction could make it possible to generate a large amount of energy for heat and power, while an unchecked reaction could create an explosion of huge force.

Due to this, Meitner is often called the "mother of the atomic bomb" - although it’s key to note that she never won the Nobel Prize, the prize going to her colleague Otto Hahn, largely because of her womanhood and refugee status.

Note: Nolan’s Oppenheimer fails to include Meitner 

Thus began a fierce, global race to be the first country to build an atomic bomb. 

And, hence, the Manhattan Project. 

Named after the area of New York - Broadway 270 to be precise - where the first discussions were held in a hidden office about creating such a weapon, the effects were detrimental. 

The agencies that led to the Manhattan Project were set up in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after US intelligence agents reported that scientists working for Adolf Hitler were already working on such a nuclear weapon.

And here, previously mentioned General Leslie Groves - at the time a Colonel - chosen by Roosevelt as the head of the operation, comes back into play.

After a long search, and despite the belief that Oppenheimer was a sympathiser of the communist party, he was chosen by Groves as the lead scientist for the world-changing Manhattan Project.

As for how the secret was kept? 

“…most of [the] people did not know that the goal of the project was to build a new type of bomb," historian Alexandra Levy explains. "Today, between the Internet and social media, it’s difficult to imagine such a large-scale endeavour remaining secret for long."

Hiroshima, Nagasaki and all the lives lost in WWII

The USA was at war with both Germany and Japan - because of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 - and after Hitler withdrew his troops in 1945, there remained only the war with Japan.

The atomic bomb Oppenheimer's team was working on was done and ready to be used after the Nazi invasions had ceased in 1945 . 

"The Manhattan Project harnessed the enormous energy in the nucleus of the atom for the first time," said Cynthia Kelly, founder and president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the history of the project and the atomic age.

The testing of the second type of bomb, codenamed ‘Trinity’, took place on July 16, 1945 in the Jornada del Muerto desert in New Mexico. 

This marked the first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon. 

Located 210 miles south of Los Alamos, the bomb instantly vaporised the tower it was atop and turned the surrounding asphalt and sand into green glass, called "trinitite”. 

The Trinity test also sent a blast of searing heat across the desert which knocked any people to the ground, producing a heat 10000 times greater than the surface of the sun and spreading fallout across the country.

Note: Nolan’s Oppenheimer fails to include these effects 

It broke windows 120 miles away and was felt by many at least 160 miles away, and while people undoubtedly noticed, Army officials simply stated that a munitions storage area had accidentally exploded at the Alamogordo Bombing Range.

Note: Nolan’s Oppenheimer fails to include these effects 

In a video posted to TikTok by ICAN, an activism group working to eliminate nuclear weapons, the child of survivor, whose “family goes back generations into Larosa, a town just downwind of the Trinity test site”, states:

“My dad was just 4 years old when they detonated the bomb. Ash from the explosion fell from the sky for days covering his whole neighbourhood. As an adult he would die of cancer just like so many others in our community.”

Via X (formerly Twitter, Alisa Lynn Valdés, M.S. discussed its impact on her mother, stating “she was 18 months old, in the fallout zone. Of the 21 girls in her high school class, 17 had leukemia.”

Going on to argue that “Internal documents show they initially sought to test it on "a third world country” but worried about diplomatic relations. They opted to drop it on rural New Mexico because it was "nothing but cows and Mexicans" out here.”

It’s believed there were around 13,000 people who that lived near the Trinity test site. These people were not informed- never mind evacuated. 

They relied on water collection and livestock which were both taken as a result of the test and there was an apparent increase of infant mortality within 3 months of the detonation. 

Note: Nolan’s Oppenheimer fails to include these effects 

Despite these effects, they were not included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990. 

In fact, a study has shown that the radiation in some parts of New Mexico and tribal land is higher than those included in the act. 

Marking the start of the Atomic Age, the ‘Little Boy’ bomb, which used uranium-235, was later dropped by pilot Paul Tibbets on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. 

Followed by the ‘Fat Man’ bomb which used plutonium-239 and was dropped just 3 days later, August 9, on Nagasaki, Japan. 

These bombings were significant events that ultimately led to Japan's surrender and the end of World War II.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the nuclear disasters like Chernobyl, represent some of the biggest tragedies in world history, and should never be repeated ever again.

The current effects of the atomic bomb

Today, both survivors of the Manhattan Project and doctors state that we still endure very real and long-lasting effects after atomic bombs changed the world. 

We should not only be aware of these effect, but also ensure we learn not to repeat history - especially given the imminent danger that could result from the war in Ukraine.

Scientists today state that the most lethal consequence experienced by atomic bomb survivors was leukaemia, with a surge in cases occurring approximately two years after the bombings and reaching its highest point around four to six years afterward. 

Among the affected population, children and young adults were particularly impacted. 

The extent to which radiation influenced the incidence of leukaemia is measured by the attributable risk, representing the percentage difference in the occurrence rate between those exposed to radiation and a similar group that remained unexposed. 

According to the estimates by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, the attributable risk of leukaemia for bomb victims stands at 46% as of today.

Other forms of cancers did not show an increase until approximately ten years after the atomic bombs appeared. 

In 1956, the rise in cases was observed leading to the establishment of tumour registries in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

These registries aimed to gather data on the additional cancer risks resulting from radiation exposure. Notably, a comprehensive study on solid cancer (cancers other than leukaemia) was conducted by a team led by Dale L. Preston from Hirosoft International Corporation in 2003. 

The study revealed that the attributable rate of radiation exposure to solid cancer was notably lower by 10.7% than that for leukaemia.

Regarding those exposed to radiation in utero (before birth), research studies, including one conducted by E. Nakashima in 1994, have demonstrated that such exposure resulted in elevated occurrences of small head size and mental disabilities, along with hampered physical growth. 

In comparison to survivors who were children at the time of the attack, those exposed in utero exhibited a relatively lower increase in cancer rates.

Mental health was also unsurprisingly impacted by this tragedy. 

Many survivors "experienced extreme physical and emotional distress" (Oughterson and Warren, 1956; Lifton, 2012).

In fact, a research project by M. A. AmanoB. FrenchR. SakataM. Dekker, and A. V. Brenner titled ‘Lifetime risk of suicide among survivors of the atomic bombings of Japan’, sought to determine whether measures of exposure severity, as indirect measures of psychological trauma arising from exposure to the atomic bombings, are associated with suicide mortality among atomic bomb survivors. 

The results made during the 60-year follow-up period (1950–2009) showed that 1150 suicide deaths were recorded among 120,231 participants. 

The conclusion? “Coupled with other studies, our results suggest the importance of long-term monitoring of mental health among young populations exposed to catastrophic events or mass trauma.”

Some of the social effects of the atomic bombings were influenced by Japan's post-war pacifist stance and its commitment to renounce war as a means of settling international disputes. 

Japan's constitution, which was drafted after World War II renounces the right to wage war and maintain armed forces for aggression.

The devastation caused by the atomic bombs sparked an international antinuclear movement and calls for peace. 

Survivors of the bombings, as well as concerned citizens worldwide, actively campaigned for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation treaties.

The atomic attacks in Japan were a major tragedy that the world will never forget. 

The hostile treatment to those residing in Los Almos and the aftermath of the Trinity test are unforgivable. 

But, more importantly, in remembering, the world must understand that these events must never happen again. 

History only repeats itself when we stop learning about it.

The effects that resulted from Oppenheimer's work stopped WWII, yes, but it set in motion a series of negative effects that destroyed the lives of millions of innocent people.

It’s also key to note that while Oppenheimer expressed concerned with the nature of the bomb as an existential threat to humanity for the rest of his life, an actual apology was never made.

And it’s disappointing to note how little Nolan made use of his 3 hour biopic. Both failing to make an argument against the use of Nuclear weapons nor providing education of the current effects of Oppenheimer’s work. 

“Older men declare war. But it is the youth that must fight and die.” - Herbert Hoover

Edited by Emily Duff

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