August 28, 2023

TEBBUTT |  Now We Are Become Death: Oppenheimer (et al.) In the Age of Co-authorship

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Like you, I did not expect to walk out of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and into the library with renewed inspiration to crunch my dissertation data. Like you, I couldn’t begin to justify such a feeling in the face of the actual results of the Manhattan Project. Yet, while acknowledging the impossibility of putting aside the destruction wrought by the inventions at Los Alamos, those of us outside the business of weapons development have plenty to envy in J. Robert’s research setup.

How often do scientists find themselves with 2 billion dollars, a private ranch in New Mexico[1] and unstoppable self-belief? Not to mention definitive knowledge of who exactly constitute the world’s best minds, and the ability to assemble them all in one place under their direction. Dr. Oppenheimer never had to question his work’s relevance or applicability; of all the things that kept the father of the atomic bomb up at night, lack of “real-world impact” was surely not one of them (restricting that impact to the “right” part of the real world was the central concern).

Given the opportunity to interview the man, you might have more pressing questions than ‘can I take a look at that grant proposal?’, but the glamor with which Hollywood depicts the scientific process makes one curious. Does world-changing science really only convalesce around privileged, misunderstood geniuses, who require nothing less than carte blanche and universal deference to realize their prophetic visions? Were the contributions of collaborators like Cornell’s Nobel prize-winning Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman really equivalent to a few choice lines and an occasional riff on the bongos?[2] Oppenheimer would have you think so (as would A Beautiful Mind, A Theory of Everything and countless other science biopics).

Nolan’s latest offering dedicates three thought-provoking hours to dredging the soul of one man over the course of his explosive career. During this time, Oppenheimer’s, or “Oppie’s” (every patriarch needs his familiar diminutive) accolades soar from “founder, mayor, sheriff” of Los Alamos, to “sphinx-like guru of the atom,” and finally “the most important man who ever lived.” Anyone for Kool-Aid?[3]

It is compelling (as, I gather, was the Rev Jim Jones) —  and complicated enough without delving into the backstories (God forbid the mathematical workings) of our merry band of physicists. Perhaps the individual, as the atomic unit of human experience, really is the best way to communicate science to the public. Certainly, I remember being moved to close Netflix halfway through a viewing of The Man Who Knew Infinity and open up a long-unfinished manuscript that I suddenly had to complete. The scene in question featured the young Srinivasa Ramanujan running across a Cambridge quad brandishing his first publication. This sepia-toned lens made academia look like a fairytale quest for personal glory, where heroic individuals battle a world that cannot comprehend their genius.

These narratives are, of course, just that: stories[4] designed to entertain (or whatever you call  ruminating on nuclear apocalypse for three hours) cinema audiences who’d rather not spend their weekends exploring theta functions in all their glorious detail. But the fallout radiates to (and from) traditional conceptualizations of science as a “story of individual heroes […] with a hierarchical and authoritarian moral to it.”

Indeed, Oppenheimer is not alone in sensationalizing the “unstable, theatrical, egotistical, neurotic” personality of its promethean protagonist. From Einstein’s tongue to Humphrey Davy and Archimedes’ “Eureka” episode, eccentric flair appears to be the rule, rather than the exception. It is argued that Charles Darwin’s socio-economic position propelled his theories beyond those of contemporaries like Alfred Russell Wallace. Could flamboyant personalities exert similar effects?

The academy certainly still privileges the individual through concepts such as the H-index, “rockstar professors“ and “named researchers.“ By treating science as a series of individual achievements, publications and citations, the research community systematically biases against sections of academia shown to contribute more to team-oriented, educational and collaborative work. Perhaps a few brooding sages really do fill the halls over in math and physics, but the science I see every day doesn’t look like that (nor have those fields resisted the exponential increase in co-authors over the last century). Domineering faculty playing “founder, mayor and sheriff” are well known among students and avoided, except by those desperate to build their list of “rockstar” references.

My paper did eventually get published, but the process involved far more time revising and discussing with co-authors — hardly summer blockbuster material — than running across quads waving manuscripts. When we come to make films about the Predator Drone (or perhaps something that actually saved lives like the COVID-19 vaccine), will they bear the names of individuals like “Karem” and “Rossi,” or collectives like “General Atomics” and “Moderna”? I can’t say you’d find me in the front row for either, but I think it’s time we started the clock to blow the myth of the self-made scientist sky-high.

[1] There are also those few hundred square miles of stolen land.

[2] You might ask why any single person would want to take credit for the atomic bomb. While the film doesn’t hide its contention that Oppenheimer ‘wanted all the glory and none of the responsibility,’ another argument for de-centring the individual would be to distribute that responsibility more widely.

[3] Jonestown claimed 909 lives, compared to the atom bomb’s 200,000.

[4] The individuals in these films are all real, unquestionably intelligent and may indeed have worked with varying degrees of independence; but aren’t they a little overrepresented in films about science? 

Charlie Tebbutt is a third year PhD candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His fortnightly column Rêveries is a collection of musings that wander from the hill, over the Atlantic and out to the beautiful planet that we all share. He can be reached at [email protected].

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