The Importance of Being Unselected

318 2

I remember visiting Japan in 1994, when I was the faculty coordinator of a US-Japan program, on Manufacturing Management, where several of our MBA students had summer internships in Japanese companies, such as FANUC. Beyond Tokyo (and other usual places one is expected to see), I also visited Fukuoka: as we sat down for dinner – in a wonderful Japanese restaurant, on a hilltop with majestic views, our hosts surprised me by having the owner-chef come out, a twinkle in her eye, to serve a special meal (for all of us!), that was Indian! Daal-Rice! (My Japanese hosts had realized that, for over two weeks, throughout my stay in Japan, I struggled with finding “decent vegetarian food”!) Before, we started to eat, the owner said they have a customary moment of silence, for gratitude and remembrance, to acknowledge that Fukuoka was an unselected alternate site (to Nagasaki) for the dropping of an atomic bomb.

As a prep to go see Oppenheimer I decided to quickly skim through Richard RhodesThe Making of the Atomic Bomb, and re-read Richard Feynman‘s essay from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: Los Alamos From Below.

Richard RhodesPulitzer Prize winning book – one of the earliest non-technical physics books that I purchased, soon after coming to the US, and it turns out, funded by, wait for it, the Ford Foundation! (see The Tayur Musings on Physics) – begins on Tuesday, September 12, 1933 in London, when Leo Szilard was crossing the road thinking:

As the light changed to Green and I crossed the street, it suddenly occurred to me that if you could find an element which is split by neutrons, and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbs one neutron, such an element, if assembled, in sufficiently large mass could sustain a nuclear chain reaction.

The first demonstration?

On Enrico Fermi (“The Last Man Who Knew Everything” is a good biography), the National Academy of Science memoir:

In May, 1942, at the University of Chicago, where the effort to produce the chain reaction had been concentrated, Fermi and his group demonstrated, by means of measurements in a sub-critical assembly, or “exponential pile,” that if sufficient material of the same purity could be made available, the chain reaction would begin. Sufficient material was available on December 2, 1942, and the predicted reaction took place.

In political matters, he was more to the right than most physicists, being quite skeptical of any extension of governmental powers which he believed might interfere with the possibility of each individual acting for himself.

Of course, this is vintage Feynman (who has the distinction for being the only man to stare straight at the first atomic blast without protective goggles, an experience that changed him forever):

What I mean from below is although in my field at the present time I’m a slightly famous man, at that time I was not anybody famous at all. I did not even have a [PhD] degree when I started to work on my stuff associated with the Manhattan Project…I was not worried about no big decisions. I was always flittering about underneath somewhere. I wasn’t the absolute bottom…Now I want to tell you about the censorship that we had. They decided to do something utterly illegal, so it had to be set up delicately, as a voluntary thing…Oh, I forgot to say, Oppenheimer said to me…I had lots of interesting experiences with Bethe…Then there was von Neumann…I also met Neils Bohr, his name was Nicholas Baker those days, and he came with  James Baker, his son, whose name is really Aage…I returned to civilization shortly after that and went to Cornell to teach, I got a very strange feeling,  I would think, you know, how much the radius of the Hiroshima bomb damage was…They just don’t understand, why are they making new things, it’s so useless? But fortunately, it’s been useless for 30 years now…So I have been wrong for 30 years about it being useless making bridges and I am glad those other people could go ahead.

And Stanislaw Ulam (the inventor of the modern version of the Monte Carlo method of computation, although Fermi independently invented it earlier, but did not publish):

It is still an unending source of surprise for me to see how a few scribbles on a blackboard could change the course of human affairs.

(You know that I like Randomized Algorithms: Here is my Mathematics of Operations Research paper from 1995. Of course, IPA: see The Art (and Craft) of OM.)

I am sure not many of you have seen the very disappointing movie (I unfortunately did, while a PhD student at Cornell):

Fat Man and Little Boy (released in the United Kingdom as Shadow Makers) is a 1989 epic historical war film directed by Roland Joffé who co-wrote the script with Bruce Robinson. The story follows the Manhattan Project, the secret Allied endeavor to develop the first nuclear weapons during World War II. The film is named after “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, the two bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively.

The film has been criticized for distortion of history for dramatic effect, and miscasting in its choices of Paul Newman for the role of General Groves, and Dwight Schultz for the role of Oppenheimer. Noted critic Roger Ebert felt the film lackluster, giving it 1½ stars, saying, “The story of the birth of the bomb is one of high drama, but it was largely intellectual drama, as the scientists asked themselves, in conversations and nightmares, what terror they were unleashing on the Earth. Fat Man and Little Boy reduces their debates to the childish level of Hollywood stereotyping.”

On the positive side is this:

Copenhagen is a 2002 British television drama film written and directed by Howard Davies, and starring Daniel Craig, Stephen Rea, and Francesca Annis. It is based on Michael Frayn‘s 1998 Tony Award-winning three-character play of the same name.

Of course, I expected Christopher Nolan to do a much better job on this topic. (And he did. I largely agree with this Roger Ebert review.)

Many of you have asked me, if I would see Barbie before, or after, Oppenheimer. (After. But not on the same day. Tomorrow ☺️) What I did see before Oppenheimer was Beyonce, on her Renaissance World Tour. Her opening – (only) 15 minutes late, better than Adele who was 30+ minutes late, and Celine Dion, who was an hour late! These contrast with The Who, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Santana and U2/Edge: they all started on time! Just saying😏 – was spectacular: Dangerously in Love, which is my favorite song of hers!


  1. I saw both yesterday (Saturday July 22). Both OK, fine, not my favorites.

    1. Agree. I liked Oppenheimer (4 stars out of 5 in my view) better than Barbie, which had its moments, but is more like 3 stars out of 5.

Leave a Reply