Science in a Vacuum
It’s important to keep in mind what was going through the scientists’ mind at the time
It’s certainly, when you're talking about particle physics that resulted in the creation of arguably the most horrific weapon ever created, it’s important to keep in mind what was going through the scientists’ mind at the time and you have to put in the background that they were at war, they were convinced that Heisenberg and the Nazis were going to beat [them to] building an atomic weapon first, so the real fervour and excitement of these men was something that I had to make sure was in the play. It’s all very well in hindsight to kind of look back and go, why didn't they stop, why were they creating this absolutely horrific weapon, but the ramifications of the weapon, their understanding of radiation, wasn't nearly as complete as it is now. They understood that people would get radiation sickness but they kind of assumed that if you dropped a bomb on a city, anyone who would've died of radiation sickness would be also killed by the blast, so they didn't think that was massively important. They had no idea of the ongoing issues with radiation hanging around for years afterwards. I think one of things I desperately wanted to capture was that the average age of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project was 25 and Oppenheimer was…how old is he at the beginning of the play, 36 I think? And so it’s very important to show this youthful enthusiasm led by the charismatic Oppenheimer and this idea that we’re doing science and it’s massively exciting to discover things. Whereas so many of the more seasoned scientists of the time refused to work on the bomb, perhaps because they had a bit more experience of life and the world rather than being caught up in the fervour and the discovery.
No one’s criticised me for that, I think one of the fascinating things that I found when I was…whenever I’ve come across a story of the Manhattan project, in art, in the films, in the books, in the TV series, the opera and comic books, those sort of things, they generally take a very strong anti-nuclear stance and say these people were creating…they turn it into a Frankenstein story, creating a monster, and I think that the reality and also where we are now politically in terms of the importance of nuclear power in combatting climate change and what it means to us today, I think it’s much more nuanced than it was 20 or 30 years ago when people were writing much more anti-nuclear stuff.
So, yeah, it’s one of those situations that it’s such a grey area that it was obviously one of the worst things humanity has done, but if you think about what would've happened if they didn't continue to develop it and used it during war time, there’s a very strong possibility that had the Second World War ended without dropping the atomic bomb, those weapons would still have been developed but in private and so 10, 15 years later, if there was a stand off between nuclear powers then the weapon would have been used straight away and you'd have all out nuclear war using hydrogen bombs. So when you’re kind of going, it’s obviously bad but it could've been worse, is there any good in this, it’s obviously built with the intention of beating the Nazis so the people involved were doing it for the best of reasons, its such a grey and contradictory and complicated subject and that’s what I find interesting in drama, theres no no or yes or right or wrong.
I think the way that technology and the world has advanced over the past hundred years, it’s been incredibly fast and…you can pick up an iPad or you can pick up a mobile phone and if you didn't know that it was a piece of technology you'd think it was a piece of magic and I think there’s a desire…where science is getting closer and closer to being, and technology is getting closer and closer to being, seemingly magical, that there’s a desire to kind of understand why that technology works, how that technology works, and how important science is to our lives; people are naturally curious and if something seems fantastical I think there’s a desire for people to ask, well, why?
- Tom Morton-Smith