Oppenheimer on his first encounters with Einstein

In Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer about the “father of the atomic bomb,” the figure of Albert Einstein plays an important supporting role. Several times and at crucial points in the film, J. Robert Oppenheimer seeks the advice of and exchanges ideas with Albert Einstein. Only about the first encounter between the two the film tells nothing. Nolan characterizes the later relationship between the two physicists in his film as respectful, but also as marked by different political viewpoints and possibilities of influence as well as by a generation gap in their respective research. He bases his portrayal of the respectful distance between Oppenheimer and Einstein on the 2005 biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

In the ETH Zurich University Archives there is a letter of Robert Oppenheimer, which in its brevity confirms this impression of the relationship between Oppenheimer and Einstein. On September 7, 1955, Oppenheimer answered an inquiry by the Einstein biographer Carl Seelig about the first encounters between the two physicists with the following lines:

Letter from Robert Oppenheimer to Carl Seelig, September 7 1955 (ETH Zurich University Archives, Hs 304:916)

Letter from Robert Oppenheimer to Carl Seelig, September 7 1955 (ETH Zurich University Archives, Hs 304:916)

Oppenheimer’s statements could hardly have been more sparse. Essentially, he confined himself to confirming the date of the first meeting with Einstein in 1930 at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, about which Carl Seelig had apparently been informed by Helen Dukas, Einstein’s secretary of many years. Then a short sentence about a visit of Oppenheimer to Einstein in Princeton in the early 1930s, but interestingly no attempt to give the biographer an assessment or details that he could have picked up and reproduced. Accordingly, Carl Seelig in his Einstein biography treats the first encounter between Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer in a subordinate sentence:

In the next decade Einstein still repeatedly went to the United States to give lectures and to get a picture of the New World, so 1930, whereby the six-week trip went through the Panama Canal; […]. On a visit to the Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, where he first met the atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer, he had a long look at the reflecting telescope, which had a diameter of two and a half meters.” (Carl Seelig, Albert Einstein, rev. ed. of 1960, p. 291, my translation)

Unlike the first meeting between Oppenheimer and Werner Heisenberg, for example, Nolan completely refrains from depicting a meaningfully charged first encounter between Oppenheimer and Einstein in his film. And this is probably completely justified.

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