Trinity: 2. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Tolkien & Doomed Scientists

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2. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Tolkien & Doomed Scientists

Save for a discarded Boromir fan fic that I typed out on my father's old Smith-Corona back in 1970, this is the first Tolkienian fan fiction I wrote.

Author's copious blathering (July 2007)

First, the usual disclaimer. I write this as a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's works, acknowledge appropriate copyright to the Tolkien estate and invoke fair use. Furthermore, I seek no profit from my fictional writing.

This and any of my future JRRT flavored fictional offerings are informed by my interpretation of Tolkien's perceptions of scientists and technologists, e.g., The Tolkienian War on Science" in the Silmarillion Writers' Guild reference section, a screed that I wrote during my days as a blogger for SEED Magazine's Science Blogs under my more public nom de plume. David Brin's essay (linked to that article) also influences my writing. So be forewarned that I am not canon-orthodox if that was not already evident.

Primary resources:

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. This is an excellent and authoritative biography of Oppenheimer. The scene of the morning of the Trinity test is derived from this book.

The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer by James A. Hijiya. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 144:2 (June 2000). This scholarly paper examines Oppenheimer's embrace of the Bhagavad-Gita. Oppenheimer learned Sanskrit so that he could read the original text. The moral lessons of the Bhagavad-Gita allowed Oppie to apply his science to his magnum opus - the atomic bomb. As the leader of the research team at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer dreaded success as much as he did failure since he knew the scientists and engineers under his supervision would bestow upon mankind the ability to destroy itself. Oppenheimer invoked the moral underpinnings of the Hindu scripture to resolve his moral conflict. Oppie's and Fionn/Fëanor's references to Prince Arjuna and Krishna are taken from these passages in Hijiya's article:

As the Gita begins, Prince Arjuna, whose courage and whose skill at archery have won renown in previous campaigns, rides his chariot onto the field of impending battle and sees in the enemy ranks his own relatives, friends, and teachers. Confused and depressed by the prospect of killing people close to him, he refuses to fight. He also, however, takes counsel from his charioteer, Krishna. Krishna is no ordinary teamster. Not only is he a friend and ally of Arjuna, but he also is a god, an avatar of Vishnu, who has assumed the appearance of a man. When Krishna talks, Arjuna listens.

Over the course of eighteen chapters, Krishna instructs Arjuna on why he should take part in the war. Though offered with many different nuances and ramifications, Krishna's arguments include three basic ones that Oppenheimer would take to heart: (1) Arjuna is a soldier, so it is his duty to fight; (2) Krishna, not Arjuna, will determine who lives and who dies, and Arjuna should neither mourn nor rejoice over what fate has in store but should be sublimely unattached to such results; (3) ultimately, the most important thing is devotion to Krishna—faith will save Arjuna's soul. As Arjuna begins to see the light, he asks to view Krishna in his godlike form. Krishna obliges by granting him "celestial sight" (Chapter 11: Verse 8). As Ryder translates the passage,

A thousand simultaneous suns
Arising in the sky
Might equal that great radiance,
With that great glory vie. (11:12)

As for Arjuna,

Amazement entered him; his hair
Rose up; he bowed his head;
He humbly lifted folded hands,
And worshipped God. . . .

Krishna tells Arjuna why he is there:

Death am I, and my present task Destruction. (11:32)

After further instruction Arjuna fully realizes his error, ends his hesitation, and decides to join the battle.

John Donne's poems also influenced Oppenheimer. It is believed he chose the code name "Trinity" based on one of three Donne works. A few lines from one, A Litany, are quoted in the beginning of my self-indulgent nattering. Hijiya remarks on A Litany:

"Slippery but entangled—thus the name Trinity suggests the premise of Oppenheimer's thought and work: forms change, things are not what they seem, one never knows how they may turn out. And yet one must act."

Likewise, Fëanor and Sauron's decisions and acts of creativity were slippery but entangled.

Chet Huntley interviewed Oppenheimer in 1965. The film clip in which he quotes the Bhagavad-Gita may be found in The Atomic Archive

Oppenheimer is one of the most tragic figures in American science. He was a brilliant man - a polymath who excelled in many disciplines. He was charismatic and kind to his students. He had no use for intellectual pretenders. He loved his country and had great concern for its people, and thus rationalized his work on the atomic bomb. His "leftist leanings" reflected the conscience of a thoughtful, enlightened man. Although he was never a member of the Communist Party, his avid support of the same in San Francisco added fuel to the Red Scare witch hunt in the mid-fifties. Lewis Strauss led the investigation against Oppie, ultimately humiliating the physicist and stripping him of his security clearance. Oppenheimer was eventually exonerated by President Kennedy and honored by President Johnson. Oppenheimer died in 1967 at age 62 of throat cancer.

Here are three relevant quotes, the first from Tolkien and two and three from Oppenheimer.

  • The news today about 'Atomic bombs' is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war-purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world! Such explosives in men's hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining, is about as useful as giving out firearms to all inmates of a gaol and then saying that you hope 'this will ensure peace'. But one good thing may arise out of it, I suppose, if the write-ups are not overheated: Japan ought to cave in. Well we're in God's hands. But He does not look kindly on Babel-builders.
  • In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
    J. Robert Oppenheimer
  • The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country. J. Robert Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer has long fascinated me. Upon my re-reading of The Silmarillion and parts of Unfinished Tales in late 2006 and early 2007, I was struck not only by Tolkien's disdain for scientists and technologists, but also by the similarities of Fëanor and Sauron (yes, Sauron) to Robert Oppenheimer, a scientist whose work was the result of elegant, sublime thought ( the Silmarils) and who justified his terrible weapon (the Ring) by its "restoration" of order in the world. JRRT didn't paint either Fëanor or Sauron as uni-dimensional beings, but based on certain similarities to Oppenheimer (in my mind anyway), both seemed likely to be far more morally complex individuals than JRRT's historians (Rumil, Pengolodh, Baggins, et al.) were letting on. History is full of revisionism.

In Trinity, the inventors use aliases that are accessible to the twentieth-century physicist, even if they don't completely disguise their mildly alien traits. [Note: Elves and Men are the same species as Tolkien explicitly notes; see Letter #153 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. H. Carpenter 1981, Houghton Mifflin Boston] Oppenheimer is not overawed by Fionn/Fëanor and Saunders/Sauron's presence as other mortals might be, dream or no. After all, Oppie has far more power than either of them. He is, at the very least, their peer, and they are both well aware of that. With regard to Sauron, his jailers, whomever they may be, are obviously allowing him to appear to Oppie in a fair form, one that is congruent with that in The Apprentice.

The interaction between Jim Watson and Oppenheimer in my story is, of course, purely fictional, but I think it's a very safe bet that Watson and Oppenheimer were well aware of one another's accomplishments. I'll also note that Watson is a prime example of a scientist who made a pivotal discovery (along with Crick, Franklin & Wilkins) that changed our world, but who is subject to moral fallibility, i.e., sexism, racism.

With regard to the putative genetic connections, having rubbed elbows with truly brilliant and sometimes morally compromised scientists and technologists, e.g., uncompromising Fëanor-like scientists and tech-savvy Sauronesque control-freak executives/CEOs bent on empire-building, I figure Fionn and Saunders' alleles (genes) survived in the pandemoniverse and got passed into mankind somehow! Heh. I'll have to see where this leads me in my crazy alternative history. Stay tuned.

This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: pandemonium_213

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: Other

Genre: General

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 12/18/11

Original Post: 12/18/11

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