Editorial: Politics over Science

Redaksi Omong-Omong

3 min read

If there is one truth Oppenheimer, a biopic by Christopher Nolan, can tell us, it is that science can really change the world, profoundly impacting people on the planet in so many ways. But this film shows something truer than this. It is that no matter how important the science is, it is politics which decides, and no matter how brilliant of a scientist you are, you are just a pawn within a political game.

By the end of the day, it’s the political leader – in this case, then US President Harry Truman, not Oppenheimer – who has the last word if the US would drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and changed the world forever.

When out of guilt Oppenheimer, played brilliantly by Cillian Murphy, told Truman (played by Gary Oldman) during their ultimate meeting in the Oval Room that “he has blood on his hands”, the latter looked at him, and cynically handed him his handkerchief, saying,”Well, here, would you like to wipe your hands?”, and then scolded Oppenheimer, telling the scientist that the atomic bomb was never about him, and it’s the president who made the decision to drop the bomb, not him.

And when Oppenheimer walked out the room, the president was heard saying, “Blood on his hands, dammit, he hasn’t half as much blood in his hands a I have,” and told his Secretary of State Dean Acheson that he did not want to see “that son of a bitch in this office ever again,” and later referring to Oppenheimer as a “cry-baby scientist.”

Oppenheimer is just a hired man. It’s his big boss who decides the fate of human beings – not only the Japanese who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also people across the world. After all, it was a political decision by Truman predecessor Franklin Delano Roosevelt that started the Manhattan Project, which Oppenheimer and Los Alamos complex were part of.

That’s the whole problems with the movie. It is made based on Nolan’s conviction that Oppenheimer is the most important person who ever lived. But if you watch the whole movie, it does not show convincing scenes to prove this. In fact, you will struggle to understand what actually the man is doing. He is more like a manager of an assembly site than a scientist, with limited authorities under the much more powerful Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves (playfully portrayed by Matt Damon), who oversees the whole Manhattan Project.

The movie can neither portray the greatness of Oppenheimer nor his role in creating the atomic bomb because in reality there is nothing to show. The science is thin. When he meets with 1922 Physics Nobel laureate Niels Bohr, who contributes tremendously to the possibility of making atomic bomb, it could have been presented in an exciting and simple dialogue on the science of the project. Or, as he interacts closely with Ernest Lawrence, another Noble laureate in Physics who invented the cyclotron, there should have been some conversations on what they are doing.

But by the end of the day, this is after all a political movie.

What we get, instead, is somebody says of him as “the man of hour” or “the man people talk about”, or the cover of Time Magazine stating he is “The Father of Atomic Bomb”. Repeating verse from the Bhagavat Gita “Now I am become death, destroyer of the world” does not make one a great man either.

In fact, no author who compiles the list of the most important or greatest persons in history put Oppenheimer in their top 20 or even top 50. Time Magazine, the same magazine that called him the Father of Atomic Bomb, did not not even include him in its list when in 2013 it published the 100 most significant figures in history.

Nolan himself only heard the name Oppenheimer for the first time from a 1986 song by Sting titled “Russians” in which one line states “How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?”

But you get the point. Oppenheimer is just one part – albeit an important one – of the whole plan. He’s just another brick in the wall. There were so many smart guys contributing to the making of the atomic bomb.

However, we are convinced that Oppenheimer is a lot smarter and much more honest and sincere – like his apparent guilt after the bombing – than Truman ever was.

And this is the sad tragedy of the real life.

Despite the clear superiority of politics over science, those who are elected into public offices, and thus making important public decisions often much more impactful than scientists do, are the much less inferior persons – dumber and less wiser.

Perhaps if Oppenheimer was the president, the atomic bomb would not have been dropped, or at least only being dropped on Hiroshima. Or, it was possible that if Anthony Fauci, for instance, was the US president instead of Donald Trump, the fatalities from pandemic there could have been much lower.

Or, should Indonesia had smarter and wiser person as the president, he or she would not have to depend on another smarter guy with vested interests deciding over the fate of more than 250 million Indonesians, and possibly we should have been in better position in many ways now.

But it’s just the sad truth about electoral democracy: It’s a contest of popularity and power. Political parties don’t need smart politicians. What they need is loyal people regardless how dumb they are. Political recruitment is based on how much you can provide for the party, not how capable you are to work for the public.

Thus, wishing a scientist, philosopher or smart guys with wisdom becoming our leader is as naïve as Oppenheimer wanting to notify the Soviet about the atomic bomb to persuade them not to make it after the US has it, or his wish to stop atomic bomb from spreading after helping create it.

Redaksi Omong-Omong

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