Einstein and Oppenheimer’s Real Relationship Was Cordial and Complicated

There’s a gutting scene midway through Oppenheimer that finds Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer at one of his lowest moments. Despite the scientist’s service to his country, he’s being accused of harboring treasonous sympathies; an unofficial trial with a foregone conclusion is dragging him through the mud. Outside his home in Princeton, he encounters a colleague: Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), who doesn’t seem to get why his fellow physicist is lying down and taking it. 

If this is the reward the American government gives Oppenheimer after the years he spent developing the nuclear bomb that ended World War II, Einstein tells him in the film, Oppenheimer should simply “turn his back” on America. (It’s what Einstein was forced to do to his homeland of Germany, after all—and for understandable reasons, he would never trust governments or politicians.) What the essentially stateless Einstein doesn’t understand is that for New York City–born Oppenheimer, this simply isn’t an option. “Damnit,” he replies, “I happen to love this country.”

Like many of the details in Christopher Nolan’s script, both lines of dialogue come straight from Oppenheimer’s source material, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s biography American Prometheus. (Though Oppenheimer’s memorable reply is actually lifted from a different exchange.) The scene is a neat illustration of how these two scientific giants both mirrored and opposed one another. Einstein only has a handful of scenes in Oppenheimer, but each of them packs a similar punch—particularly another (fictionalized) Princeton meeting that the film keeps coming back to, revealing its full significance only in the movie’s final moments.

It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that the man whose name has become synonymous with “genius” is only a supporting character in Nolan’s film. Though it was Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt that convinced FDR to begin a nuclear weapons program, Einstein was not involved in the Manhattan Project. (The government deemed him a security risk due to his left-leaning politics—though it cleared Oppenheimer, despite his various ties to Communists and Communist sympathizers.) 

And though he and Oppenheimer both lived and worked at Princeton after the war—specifically at its Institute for Advanced Study, where Oppenheimer served as director from 1947 to 1966—they were not particularly close friends. While they had known each other for years before he came to Princeton and he respected Einstein—who wouldn’t?—Oppenheimer thought of his predecessor “as a living patron saint of physics, not a working scientist,” Bird and Sherwin write. 

The older physicist was skeptical of quantum theory, which Oppenheimer would advance, and didn’t believe black holes could possibly exist. As shown in Oppenheimer, the younger physicist helped to prove they do. (In a paper published the same day Hitler invaded Poland!) Though Oppenheimer thought he was essentially old-fashioned, “Einstein eventually acquired a grudging respect for the new director” of the Institute, write Bird and Sherwin, “whom he described as ‘an unusually capable man of many-sided education.’ But what he admired about Oppenheimer was the man, not his physics.”

That said, the biographers indicate Einstein and Oppenheimer did still enjoy each others’ company. They relay a charming anecdote about the two that didn’t make it into Oppenheimer but would’ve been a gas to see. In 1948, they write, “knowing Einstein’s love of classical music, and knowing that his radio could not receive New York broadcasts of concerts from Carnegie Hall, Oppenheimer arranged to have an antenna installed on the roof of Einstein’s modest home at 112 Mercer Street. This was done without Einstein’s knowledge—and then on his birthday, Robert showed up on his doorstep with a new radio and suggested that they listen to a scheduled concert. Einstein was delighted.” 

Years later, when Oppenheimer was targeted for his past Communist ties and stripped of his security clearance, Einstein was firmly on his colleague’s side—even if he didn’t understand Oppenheimer’s response. “The trouble with Oppenheimer is that he loves a woman who doesn’t love him—the United States government,” he told a friend, per Bird and Sherwin. “The problem was simple: All Oppenheimer needed to do was to go to Washington, tell the officials that they were fools, and go home.” Einstein was (ahem) smart enough to keep those views private. Publicly, he expressed his support in a more palatable manner: “I admire him not only as a scientist but also as a great human being,” he told the press. 

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