‘Oppenheimer’ film brings renewed attention to scientist’s connections to New Jersey

J. Robert Oppenheimer was director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for nearly 20 years.

Matt Trapani

Jul 22, 2023, 2:44 AM

Updated 330 days ago

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Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” a movie about the scientist who led the development of the atomic bomb, is now out in theaters. The movie is bringing fresh attention to J. Robert Oppenheimer's connection to New Jersey.
Oppenheimer was director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for nearly 20 years. He, along with leading scholars, discussed how science could best serve mankind. That mission continues at the Institute for Advanced Study to this day.
“The Institute for Advanced Study is full of the ghosts of giants,” says Dr. David Nirenberg, the institute’s current director. “And all of them inspire us, the present generation, to greatness.”
The leafy greenery of Princeton is a distinct difference from the stark desert of the Trinity site where Oppenheimer led America's successful project to develop the first atomic bomb.
“People often talk about him as haunted,” says Nirenberg. “It’s very difficult to be the author of one of the most significant – and also one of the most potentially destructive – technologies in humanity.”
The Institute for Advanced Study is not affiliated with Princeton University. It brings in scholars from around the world.
“I think Oppenheimer, who was here from 1947 until his death, was tormented by both what he had achieved and what he had wrought,” Nirenberg says.
“Oppenheimer” filmed on campus for three days at Fuld Hall, where the director’s office is located. Nolan consulted the archives as part of his research, which includes letters from Oppenheimer.
“I love the appointment letter because it shows a little negotiation on Oppenheimer’s side,” says Caitlin Rizzo, the institute’s archivist. “There were not many physicists working at the level of our scholars: Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Polly, Neils Bohr.”
“The big problems, the problems that we have to solve in the world, if we want to survive as humanity, require all of us to work together at institutes like this,” Nirenberg says.
Nirenberg says he now wants scholars at the institute to tackle the development of artificial intelligence.
“A.I. is not just a question for technologists. It’s not just a question for statisticians,” he says. “How do technology and humanity evolve together? How do they coexist? How do they affect each other?”
He works at a desk that once belonged to Oppenheimer at his home in St. John.
“I work on it every day… I think the desk brings me closer to his wisdom, his memory, the problems he was wrestling with,” Nirenberg says. “A lot of the questions that Oppenheimer was wrestling with, and that he built the institute to wrestle with, are the questions we’re wrestling with today.”
Oppenheimer’s office in the movie is one at the institute that was used by Albert Einstein.


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