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Dr. Atomic Offers Lessons on the Pros and Cons of Public Outreach

By Marvin L. Cohen

Marvin Cohen
Marvin L. Cohen

The World Year of Physics (WYP) in 2005 meant a year of outreach for the APS and its officers. I traveled around the world, showed the Einstein poster in every talk I gave, and urged those I met with the same line: "This is the World Year of Physics; take a physicist to lunch." I lauded our field every chance I got, and even snagged a few free lunches in the process.

Even before the WYP kicked into high gear, I was already deep into “physics outreach mode.” In October 2004, Alexander (Sandy) Fetter from Stanford University contacted me. Sandy said he knew the development officer working with Pamela Rosenberg, the executive director of the San Francisco Opera (SFO), who wanted [former APS president] Helen Quinn and me to learn about the SFO's future production of a newly commissioned opera, Doctor Atomic. The SFO hoped to get some type of endorsement of the opera from the APS.

We attended a workshop during which an excerpt of the opera was performed on October 30. This is when I first heard the opening lines:
Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but only altered in form
Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but only altered in form.

When the performance of the excerpt ended, my hand flew up immediately. I stated that 2005 had been designated the WYP celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein's year of great discoveries, including his equation, E=mc2. I emphasized that this equation shows that matter can be changed into energy. More importantly, considering the opera's theme, that's how you make an atomic bomb. You destroy a little bit of matter and turn it into a huge amount of energy.

The opening lines of the opera are from the 1945 "Smyth Report," which goes on to make exactly the same point about E=mc2, but in the opera, the quote was incomplete. I naively assumed that composer John Adams and director/librettist Peter Sellars would change the offending lines. It's one of the characteristics of being a professor: you assume people are listening to you, and that they will react appropriately when corrected.

At the next APS Executive Board meeting, I raised the question of acknowledging Dr. Atomic in some way. Since the APS endorses conferences but not works of art, we decided to pass the following resolution: "The American Physical Society recognizes the importance of the Manhattan Project in our history and endorses the creative role of the arts in helping the public to understand it." Some Board members expressed worries about what message the opera would convey about physicists and their ethics. I was worried about energy and matter and the possibility of other technical mistakes I hadn't seen yet. I was not comforted by the advertisements for the opera promising that it would be based on historical documents.

Unfortunately, no changes were made. I finally got the libretto in its entirety, reviewed government documents that had been used to create the opera, and met with SFO officers. Except for the opening, the libretto was technically acceptable. I had the audacity to suggest adding a line to the opening to make everything technically acceptable. I received a copy of the score with my line in it, but at one of the final rehearsals it was decided that the line didn't make it musically. I missed my only chance to be part of an opera. They went ahead with the old version and inserted a quote from me in the opera program stating "the problem."

Just prior to the opening, I participated in a panel on the University of California, Berkeley campus with Adams, Sellars, and our Dean of Physical Sciences, Mark Richards. There was an overflowing crowd in a large lecture hall. Even the opera itself seemed insignificant when I played the first part of a tape of a talk Oppenheimer gave in Philadelphia on November 16, 1945, four months after Trinity. This tape was recently discovered in the archives of the American Philosophical Society. Oppenheimer gives a chilling account of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he goes on to give his view of what the future will bring. It drove home the point that the making of the bomb is a milestone in history.

The tape also allowed me to make the point that scientists were willing to join the Manhattan Project because they thought that the German scientists might get there first. Some were refugees who escaped from Europe and wanted to drop the bomb on Hitler. However after Trinity and the German surrender, scientists were divided about the question of whether to drop the bomb on Japan. This debate goes on today after 60 years.

I saw the opera twice. I liked it. I particularly liked the music, although I wish there had been another act focusing on the Oppenheimer security clearance affair. This would have made the opera more about Oppenheimer than about the bomb. It would have been the modern Faust theme that Pamela Rosenberg wanted when she commissioned the opera. Adams had rejected the Faust connection early on. Above all, I was greatly impressed by the public interest created by the opera not only in Oppenheimer and the bomb, but in physicists and the ethical questions we sometimes face.

Regarding my own involvement, I didn't like the position in which I found myself, vis a vis the libretto. I was reminded of the famous story of the Austrian emperor telling Mozart that his opera had too many notes, and Mozart's retort that, on the contrary, it had "just the right number of notes." I never thought I'd be on the other side. I always identified with Mozart.
Marvin Cohen is APS past president.



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