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Oppenheimer Biographer David C. Cassidy Weighs in on Movie’s Accuracy and Relevance to Modern-Day Scientists

Man with glasses, Black Blazer, white button up with gold tie
​AAAS Fellow Dr. David Cassidy Ph.D, Photo credit Dr. David Cassidy

David C. Cassidy never inhabited a world without the threat of nuclear weapons. The award-winning author and historian was born on August 10, 1945 – one day after America dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

That day – and the preceding bombing of Hiroshima – culminated years of scientific advancement propelled by great minds including German physicist Werner Heisenberg and Los Alamos Laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Both of these polarizing figures feature prominently in the recently released blockbuster “Oppenheimer.” Long before the silver screen, though, they served as biographical subjects in multiple books by Cassidy, an AAAS Fellow with decades of experience researching and cataloging the history of physics in the United States and Germany.

“It is very important, especially today, for the public to comprehend what science is: that it is a constantly developing human enterprise that is making amazing advances in understanding how nature, including ourselves, operates,” he says.

These breakthroughs can sit at the crossroads of good and evil – a concept Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, wrestles with throughout the storyline as he opposes building the more powerful hydrogen bomb.

“Oppenheimer is the protagonist of the film, and as Greek tragedy teaches, the creators of the film should want the audience to be cheering for him, even if he fails,” Cassidy says.

Was the Manhattan project leader a genius? Cassidy doesn’t use this hard-to-define label, telling Science that Oppenheimer was simply “no Einstein.”

“It’s a combination of extraordinary brilliance and extraordinary results,” he adds. “Oppenheimer had the first, but not the discoveries in physics for various reasons.”

As both a nine-time author and trained physicist, Cassidy relates most to this title character, a multifaceted personality with affinities for literature, language, poetry and art.

Cassidy’s own story begins in his childhood home of Detroit, Michigan. His maternal grandparents and mother, a librarian, survived the Armenian genocide, fleeing to France and eventually the United States, aided by a British missionary schoolteacher.

While the details are fuzzy, Cassidy says the tale of their escape influenced his career and interests in the entanglements of scientists with genocidal ideologies and regimes.

“From an early age, I wanted to be a scientist,” Cassidy recalls. “With books from my mother’s library I learned more about the planets and the sun and the controversy raging over the origin of the universe – big bang or steady state? Big bang won.”

In 2004, after four years pouring through non-digitized archival materials, Cassidy published the biography “J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century while teaching at Hofstra University.

There, he taught a science program for non-science majors, which emphasized contemporary applications including global warming and generating electricity without the use of fossil fuels.

Science is “one of the most spectacular achievements of humanity,” he says, adding that studying its history helps make these marvels publicly available.

“We approached the subject from the historical perspective so that we could teach the students not just the facts and formulas, but how we got here, who the scientists were, how they did it…” says Cassidy, who has since retired.

Movies like “Oppenheimer,” when executed correctly, serve as an additional tool to bring scientific history to the forefront.

Cassidy commends the movie’s accuracy – especially the government hearings that resulted in the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance.

“This is probably the closest encounter that many viewers will have with the science and the significant real-life issues surrounding the Oppenheimer story,” he says. “These include the entanglements of science and scientists at times with policy makers and scientists’ responsibilities to defend the freedom of research and the moral and ethical uses of science.”

He also appreciates the movie’s introductions – though brief – to the lesser-known characters and events of the Manhattan Project timeline. This is important, he says, because major advances in science and technology are rarely the result of a single person’s efforts.

“The film emphasizes this by showing its myriad viewers that the Oppenheimer story was

not about just one man – who actually acted more as an administrator – but about an entire community of known and unknown scientists and technicians performing a wide range of large and small tasks, all in support of achieving their one objective, the atom bomb,” Cassidy says.

Soon after the war, the Soviet Union shocked the world with its own bomb – sparking deep fears and paranoia about communism and espionage.

Cassidy says the movie should have emphasized this much more to add context to the hearings, where Oppenheimer’s loyalty to the United States was questioned. In addition, he feels the movie missed the opportunity to acknowledge more openly the destruction and human suffering that followed – including the dilemma scientists face when called upon in dire times, including a war for survival.

“This is a film about building and using a weapon of mass destruction,” Cassidy says. “I think it’s important for the public to be reminded often of what massive nuclear destruction really entails, especially so today when the potential for nuclear war is greater than at almost any time in the past.”

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Lauren Boyer

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