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Oppenheimer’s life discussed

Peter Ninneman | Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Curious students and professors gathered Tuesday for a lecture on the most destructive man-made weapon, the nuclear bomb, and its creator, Robert Oppenheimer.

The second installment of the lecture series “Thoughts on the Unthinkable: Perspectives on Nuclear Weapons and Warfare” took place last night in the McKenna Hall auditorium and featured historian Kai Bird, a freelance journalist and contributing editor to The Nation.

The lecture focused on Oppenheimer’s troubled life, who Bird described as a key player in the creation and policymaking of the atomic bomb.

Bird characterized Oppenheimer, a physicist and government adviser who directed the development of the first atomic bombs, as a victim of McCarthyism, the FBI and the destruction of the weapon he created. The last part of the lecture concentrated on how Oppenheimer’s fears and theories on proliferation are still relevant in the post 9/11 world.

“He is today a metaphor for all the dilemmas and predicaments we encounter today,” Bird said.

Bird specifically cited the current Bush Administration’s advocacy of unilateralism, which Oppenheimer spoke against.

Bird also drew parallels betw-een Oppenhei-mer’s trial and his loss of civil liberties. In 1954, Oppenheimer was suspended from his position as chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission because of charges that he was associated with Communists. He was accused of using illegal wiretaps and officials worried he was a security threat.

Bird tried to have the audience understand Oppenheimer’s troubled mindset. He often described Oppenheimer as pacing or mumbling.

The lecture concluded with a question and answer session. A spirited debate arose between Bird and Fr. Wilson Miscamble of the history department about President Truman’s motives for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Miscamble contested Bird’s assertion that the Japanese were already successfully defeated when the bombs were dropped.

Bird was chosen to speak because of his expertise in the area of nuclear warfare, history professor John Soares said.

“Kai Bird has written a number of books … that have made an important contribution to our knowledge about some of the most important figures in American politics and diplomacy during the Cold War,” he said.

Bird recently co-authored “American Prometheus,” the first full-scale Oppenheimer biography. It was researched and written for about two decades and includes evidence from many recent documents.

The lecture series takes place during the first semester on Tuesdays at 7:30 in McKenna Hall.

The series’ goal is to provide different perspectives from people of all fields of expertise. The first lecture of the series was given by Harold Agnew, who worked under Enrico Fermi during the Manhattan Project. Other guest lecturers include a Russian professor, physicists and political scientists, among others.

The series is sponsored by the College of Science, the Department of Physics, the Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values, the Center for Social Concerns and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics.

One upcoming high profile speaker is David Kay, who was directed by President Bush to search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in June 2003.