Oppenheimer’s dharma and the atomic bomb

A new film, an ancient Indian text and the secrets that scientists kept from their wives

Welcome to the sixth instalment of This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s news and developments.

The few minutes you take to read this newsletter will make you smarter, faster…guaranteed. Here, you will find a deep dive on fiction and non-fiction about the week’s big story and/or perfect watercooler convo and dinner party small talk.

(The first post about books on ‘dictator chic’ is here. The second post on ecocide and the late, great Cormac McCarthy is here. The third about what to read on Russia, revolts and 1917 is hereHere’s the fourth one on America’s 247th birthday, Bidenomics and To Kill a Mockingbird. And the fifth post on fireworks in France – Bastille Day and the recent riots – is here.)

Before we get started, a request:

If you like this weekly post, please share widely. Remember, you get the whole thing here and only here. It’s absolutely nowhere else.


Oppenheimer, the film directed by Christopher Nolan about the man who’s called the “father of the atomic bomb”, releases worldwide on July 21, almost exactly 78 years after a 9,700-pound uranium bomb nicknamed Little Boy was dropped by the US on Hiroshima. That was on August 6, 1945. Three days later, a plutonium bomb Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. The bombs, which killed hundreds of thousands, remain the only use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (“Oppie” to friends and family) was sorta, kinda responsible and he knew it. He was scientific director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico where America’s sharpest physicists developed and tested the world’s first atomic bomb in a mere 27 months.

Oppie recommended Los Alamos as a remote enough location for the top secret work and recruited science’s greatest minds to join him there. Admirers and critics alike agree that without Oppenheimer, the world would not, in 1945, have had the lethal power to obliterate cities and bring a long drawn out war to a sudden halt.

On July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer’s team successfully detonated the world’s first-ever atomic device in the New Mexico desert. It was called the Gadget. Oppie, who read and wrote poetry, named the test Trinity, later saying he was probably inspired by a John Donne poem that includes the line “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”. More famously, footage exists of Oppenheimer saying that when he witnessed the world’s first nuclear explosion he “remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita…I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. (Click here for the YouTube clip.)

This line is often quoted but less well remembered are the words Oppenheimer used before “I am become death”. He referred to “duty” (or dharma in Sanskrit). The market hype over the new blockbuster film means everyone will be talking about the book that inspired it, the 2005 biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

But it may be more rewarding to consider a different text, one that explains why and how Oppenheimer, who inclined to pacifism, believed he had done his duty in creating a weapon as terrible as the atomic bomb. And how he used ancient Indian philosophy to soothe the pangs of conscience. A novel about the wives who followed the scientists to Los Alamos is also worth knowing about.

Click here to find out more about Oppenheimer’s grandson Charles’s ongoing advocacy of nuclear energy as a bipartisan solution to the climate crisis.

Subscribe now

Dear Reader, this week reminds me of those works.

Click here to read on