Beauty and the Bomb

Tim Leberecht on Oppenheimer, Altman, and the order of the universe

Already got your eyeballs scanned by Worldcoin so you can prove your humanhood? 

What sounds like a line from Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report refers in fact to Open AI Sam Altman’s new digital identification system and cryptocurrency. Touted by its founders as the savior of democracy, Worldcoin appears to have botched its launch, with European regulators already up in arms and journalists relishing every opportunity to crack holes in Altman’s grand vision of a more inclusive, equitable, humane, and ultimately more beautiful world.

“Technology happens because it is possible,” said J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project and “father of the atomic bomb,” with whom Sam Altman curiously shares his birthday—and more.

A grandly ambitious project featuring brilliant nerds wanting to shake up the world as we know it—sound familiar?

In ten or twenty years from now—if there are still movie theaters—we might watch a biopic about Altman, but right now Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is the movie of our times. Part Hollywood staccato storytelling, part complex character study, it is about quantum physics, moral agency, and the threat of nuclear weapons propelled by the war in Ukraine. But Oppenheimer is also indirectly a movie about the imminent AI revolution, and paradoxically, about beauty.

Watching the movie at the Village East arthouse theater in New York, I was both intoxicated and irritated by the beauty with which Nolan stages Trinity, the debut detonation of an atomic bomb in Los Alamos on July 16, 1945. It happens in devastating silence, as a moment of awe and transcendence that reportedly made Oppenheimer think of a verse from a Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita (XI,12): “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.”

The morally conflicted physicist had named Trinity after a poem by the seventeenth-century scholar John Donne, the poet of metaphysics. Like Donne, Oppenheimer was a sensitive soul, well-read and interested in exploring the big questions of the universe, which, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, he undoubtedly dared to disturb with his man-made bomb. Oppenheimer was also a creative writer who dabbled in prose and poetry while studying at Harvard and Cambridge, and surrounded himself with artists and humanity scholars throughout his career.

Of all physical scientists, physicists are perhaps most drawn to metaphysical questions (which are naturally the very frontiers of their inquiry), and of all the physicists, it is the quantum physicists who are closest to being mystics. This is counter-intuitive, as quantum mechanics is arguably science’s most precise theory of reality.

The eponymous patron of my high school, German physicist Otto Hahn, famous for his 1938 discovery of the atom splitting, or fissioning, in a burst of energy, had been involved in the Nazi’s nuclear weapons program; as was the “godfather of quantum” and Nobel Laureate Werner Heisenberg, a controversial figure, even though, as one book claims, he later leaked information of Hitler’s top secret nuclear project to foreign scientists. It remains disputed among historians investigating the failure of the Nazi nuclear program whether Heisenberg actively sabotaged it, passively stalled it, or simply lacked Oppenheimer’s expertise and ambition to make it succeed.

The Heisenberg case made me think of my late grandfather Frank Leberecht. He was at some point running the UFA animation studios in Berlin under Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who was adamant to rival U.S. efforts at using animation features to boost morale and rally support for the war. Frank, who after the war made a name for himself as a documentary filmmaker, died two years before I was born, suffering a heart attack after a contentious debate on public television. I regret not having had a chance to find out more about what drove him to work for Goebbels and, as my dad would tell me, to eventually fall out with the Nazis after his brief tenure at the studio. His motivations, convictions, and positions remain as mysterious to me as those of Heisenberg.

The fuzziness doesn’t end there. With his Uncertainty Principle, Heisenberg claimed that any attempt to measure the subatomic world would inevitably be inaccurate because of the disturbance that the measurement itself creates. He insisted on this inevitable fuzziness in our striving to create knowledge of the world, and on science’s inherent limitations in understanding reality.

“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

Like Oppenheimer, Heisenberg was interested in spiritual matters. He opposed the view that, as he put it, “scientific truth cannot be reconciled with the religious interpretation of the world.” “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you,” he later wrote.

He is not the only quantum scientist with religious inclinations. Freeman Dyson spoke of his belief in a “world soul,” his colleague Richard Feynman believed that “the existence of God is possible,” and even self-acclaimed atheist Niels Bohr rejected the separation of “objective and subjective reality,” granting religion a complementary role in understanding the world, one “needed to convey the rich possibilities flowing from man’s relationship with the central order.”

Faith is indeed needed for honoring the transcendent agency of the world, an aliveness that we can grasp, occasionally, if we’re lucky, through the alternate, intersecting prisms of science and religion. But it is also needed for our own form of agency that is most alive when it connects to the transcendent agency of the world: creativity.

“We are required to believe in something that doesn’t exist in order to allow it to come into being.”

When it comes to creativity, belief is everything; it is the “reality distortion shield” that can actively shape reality. “We are required to believe in something that doesn’t exist in order to allow it to come into being,” legendary music producer Rick Rubin puts it in his book, The Creative Act.

Belief—the will to act despite the lack of, or contrary to, any evidence that it will work—is also at the heart of any activism. Sharon Dolev and Emad Kiyaei, the Israeli-Iranian activist duo, shared their (im)possible dream at The___Dream festival in June: nuclear disarmament in the Middle East. In their impassioned presentation, they reminded us of the messy power of informal relationships, face-to-face realpolitik, and what well-timed charm offensive diplomacy can achieve.

In the same vein, Oppenheimer is also a parable on politics at the geopolitical and personal levels. “Amateurs aspire to the sun and get eaten. True power lives in the shadows,” Oppenheimer’s nemesis, the politician Lewis Strauss, says in the movie. Oppenheimer himself, in addition to being a brilliant physicist, is depicted as a savvy political operator, equally driven by patriotism, ambition, and a desire for power and fame. And yet, a metaphysical quest underpinned all his actions: a longing to fully recognize the inherent beauty of the universe.

“Understanding is an aesthetic experience.”

House of Beautiful Business community member and sociologist Brandon Vaidyanathan has studied the role of beauty in science, based on interviews with more than 600 scientists in eight countries. For him, “understanding is an aesthetic experience,” and he pinpoints a desire for beauty—a striving for finding a harmonious order in the workings of nature—as a critical factor in motivating scientists’ inquiries. He points out how aesthetic judgments played into the decision-making of the physicists involved in the Manhattan Project. They often marveled at the elegance of mathematical formulas and were riveted by the “beauty” of the insights they detected. Obviously, these aesthetical delectations do not necessarily imply ethical actions. At the same time, it is important to remember that aesthetic choices are ethical choices.

This applies to Nolan’s blockbuster, too. Oppenheimer is not a horror movie, but one could argue that it should be. The director made the deliberate decision to not show the unimaginable suffering of the victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While it refrains from romanticizing or absolving any of the scientists of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer doesn’t take a moral stance on their decision to become complicit or actively advance the development of the first weapon of mass destruction. It depicts the program and deployment as a virtually inevitable chain reaction of events, with little or no agency for the main protagonists once the initial calculations are made and things are set in motion.

This invokes eerie parallels to AI (and Worldcoin) and Altman’s position of having to spearhead the technology’s advancement so that others, potentially rogue actors, won’t do it instead. We’re already in the middle of an AI arms race, and we must counter the perceived beauty of mathematical precision with an appreciation for the beauty of an uncertain metaphysical reality that neither artificial nor human intelligence will ever fully understand.

Like the quantum scientists vying to answer the big questions and decipher the highest order of the universe, and like Oppenheimer, driven by the desire and possibility to create a new world order, Altman and his fellow creators of AI are playing with god-like powers.

But we don’t need more god-like masters of the universe. We need a deeper connection with the beauty of the universe, and more leaders who can humbly facilitate it.

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