By G Venkataraman

Existence and paintings of Homi Jehangir Bhabha, 1909-1966, Indian physicist.

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At the time he said almost nothing about his thoughts or motives. In February 1943, he wrote to I. I. Rabi, who was unwilling to join the project: I think if I believed with you that this project was “the culmination of three centuries of physics,” I should take a different stand. To me it is primarily the development in time of war of 23 24 OPPENHEIMER’S CHOICE a military weapon of some consequence. 1 Oppenheimer, like most of the physicists who began with the project in 1943 (including many exiles from Germany and central Europe), believed, with some reason, that atomic research was advancing in Germany.

Authorship offers one different perspective. 15 Mere association with a deed, however involuntary or “unlucky,” may carry a taint that has nothing to do with a point of “responsible” choice or agency. Hannah Arendt wrote of Nuremberg and other war crimes trials: “the judges in all these trials really passed judgment solely on the basis of the monstrous deeds. ”16 Adam Smith’s account of “the inluence of fortune upon the sentiments of mankind, with regard to the merit or demerit of actions” peers into these historical shadows more cannily than later work on moral luck.

The question for Oppenheimer was whether he should take on responsibility for the necessary research. The factors that led to his decision, and to the decisions of many others, were never unclear. As many knew, the threat of an atomic bomb in Nazi hands seemed real enough. Later, the known work of Heisenberg seemed to make this more concrete. In 1942, if there was some schism between facts and values it would have been between the fact of the research (and possible development) that was going to take place and, for Oppenheimer, the rightness of taking a leading part in it.

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