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I Am Become Death

I discovered a Danish/Norwegian/British six-episode TV series entitled “The Heavy Water War” (Kampen om tungtvannet) while scanning the Netflix stream. The program, in Danish, Norwegian, German and English depending on the location, the “mise-en-scène,” is worth watching. The scene portraying the plight of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg as they met in Copenhagen in 1941 drew me in. Another production, “Copenhagen,” both a stage play and a movie, enacts the encounter of the two physicists. Bohr was in touch with the Allies, Heisenberg under the thumb of the Nazi war machine. Not much is known of the day, and nothing is answered by either drama. Why did Heisenberg request the meeting? Why did Heisenberg spend his time developing a nuclear reactor rather than working on the calculations to prove the atomic bomb would work?

Watching the episodes of “The Heavy Water War” reminded of “The Dam Busters.” The meticulous process of inventing, preparing and delivering “bouncing bombs” designed to flood the industrial Ruhr Valley by destroying the dams upstream from the Ruhr river. The movie  George Lucas used as a basis for Luke’s “impossible” shot on the Death Star. I also thought of the various films depicting the development of the V2 (Vergeltungswaffe 2) guided missile. It was “rocket science” with a devastating effect on London. It was the rocket science the world dreamed would take us to interplanetary space. A science and a technology explored by Goddard and Tsiolkovsky and Oberth.

OppenheimerI have a fascination with the story of the “Big Science” that developed during the years of World War II. A history revealed by a myriad of books, pictures, and films. Summed up in the photo of J. Robert Oppenheimer, mouth fallen open, pipe hanging down, at the sight of the first atomic explosion on a portion of what became the White Sands missile range. “I remembered,” says the physicist, “the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu… says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Magnificent intellect applied to discover a solution forced in the face of great conflagration. An indicator of the change in science fiction in the ensuing years. From the most vapid, and wonderful, of the creature features haunting our late Saturday nights to a gnawing batch of disturbing visions sounding the death knell of our optimism and the promise of a glorious future.