Since its release on Jul 21, 2023, Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer has us all revisiting some of the most important scientific questions to date. Famous for leading the team that created the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer also played a prominent role at the Shelter Island Conference held at The Rams Head Inn in 1947.
The post-war Shelter Island Conference was the first of its kind. Anyone who was
‘anyone’ in the scientific community collected to solve some of the biggest problems in science. It was on this serene island that this group of passionate physicists explored quantum field theory and, more specifically, quantum electrodynamics (QED) – workings that could potentially explain the makeup of matter, of you, and of the mind-boggling entirety of the universe.
Understandably, this was a pretty big deal. So, why do we still automatically associate this brilliant physician with the atomic bomb? And what does this have to do with our very own Shelter Island hotel? Let’s take a look.
By the time he was appointed to run the Manhattan Project, a secret research program dedicated to developing the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer was already considered an exceptional physicist passionate about atomic research.
Backtrack to World War II; physicists argued that if the Nazis were the first to create a nuclear weapon, they’d potentially end the world. Oppenheimer deepened his research on nuclear fission, and three years into the war, he was instructed by the US government to lead the Manhattan Project. The atomic bomb was born, dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and ended World War II.
Now, let’s return to The Rams Head Inn.
Two years after the end of the war, Oppenheimer and other leading figures in physics held a conference at our Shelter Island restaurant and inn. In fact, even though our original buildings date back to 1919, the inn was opened ahead of time to host this event specifically!
It was a significant event in history, as it was the first time these brilliant minds could collect and exchange ideas freely since the end of the war.
It’s interesting that Oppenheimer’s passionate study about the very undercurrents of life earned him the nickname “the father of the atomic bomb” – a weapon associated with the grim reality of death.
This is mirrored in the moral dilemma people who were part of the Manhattan Project faced when developing this bomb. But at the time, Oppenheimer believed that the development of a weapon like the atomic bomb was inevitable and that it would be used to end a six-year war that killed between 70-80 million people. It seemed that, paradoxically, saving lives required ending lives.
The effects of the atomic bomb drops were huge, killing up to 200, 000 people and flattening entire cities, while making the environment unliveable for generations. Those who didn’t pass away immediately developed cancer and other health-related issues, while their children were born with deformities – all long-term effects of radiation.
Despite spearheading the world of nuclear weaponry, Oppenheimer argued that people should slow down its development, especially with regard to the hydrogen bomb.
In terms of ethics, Oppenheimer was under the impression that although the bomb would kill up to 200, 000 people, it would end a war that killed a whopping 3% of the total population at the time. He also believed that he’d only have to use the bomb once, and no one would want to use it again.
Perhaps this was wishful thinking because although the “Oppenheimer bomb” ended the war, it sparked the arms race. It’s why events like the conference at Shelter Island became so important. Oppenheimer promoted the sharing of knowledge as a way to encourage cooperation among nations – especially when it came to nuclear research. The Shelter Island convention was the beginning of free scientific collaboration.
An Atomic Bomb History Expert on the ‘Terrible Moral Dilemma’ in “Oppenheimer.” (2023, July 24). Time. https://time.com/6297240/atomic-bomb-expert-oppenheimer-interview/
Robert Oppenheimer | Biography, Manhattan Project, Atomic Bomb, Significance, & Facts. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/J-Robert-Oppenheimer
of Sciences – http://www.nasonline.org, N. A. (n.d.). The Shelter Island Conference. The Shelter Island Conference. http://www.nasonline.org/about-nas/history/archives/milestones-in-NAS-history/the-shelter-island-conference.html
Quantum Electrodynamics – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. (n.d.). Quantum Electrodynamics – an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics. https://doi.org/10.1016/B0-12-512666-2/00294-7
Ram’s Head Inn, Shelter Island. (n.d.). Ram’s Head Inn, Shelter Island. http://www.aps.org/programs/honors/history/historicsites/shelterisland.cfm
In-Text Citation: (Ram’s Head Inn, Shelter Island, n.d.)
Seitz, M. Z. (n.d.). Oppenheimer movie review & film summary (2023) | Roger Ebert. Oppenheimer Movie Review & Film Summary (2023) | Roger Ebert. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/oppenheimer-film-review-2023