Oppenheimer biographer Tours Lab

Hollywood movie filmed locally; NSRC produces documentary

By National Security Research Center Staff | October 10, 2023

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Kai Bird, co-author of a biography on the Lab’s first Director J. Robert Oppenheimer, visited Los Alamos and Lab sites with his wife Susan Goldmark. Bird’s book is the basis for a Hollywood film on Oppenheimer by Christopher Nolan; Bird is also included in an Oppenheimer documentary created by the Lab’s National Security Research Center.

LANL Director Thom Mason invited Kai Bird, co-author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, to visit the Lab while Bird was in town. Bird’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, published in 2005, forms the basis of Oppenheimer, written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Oppenheimer was a physicist and the Lab’s first director during its wartime mission to develop the atomic bombs that would help end World War II.

“It was a privilege to meet Kai,” Mason said. “His knowledge of Los Alamos history and Oppenheimer is unsurpassed and I enjoyed talking with him about our Lab’s earliest years and the diverse work we do today.”

Bird and his wife, Susan Goldmark, were given an unclassified tour of the Lab’s National Security Research Center (NSRC), which houses classified and unclassified World War II materials. They were also shown various sites around the Lab and in town that were significant during the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government’s top-secret effort to create the first atomic weapons.

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Kai Bird toured the Lab while he was in town to meet the cast and crew filming the Oppenheimer movie, which is based on Bird’s book. Bird is shown here with a recently donated Manhattan Project–era truck.

Touring Oppie’s library

The NSRC traces its origins to the technical library that Oppenheimer started in 1943 as part of the Lab’s inception, and curates those collections today. NSRC staff showed Bird and Goldmark unclassified legacy items, such as Oppenheimer’s handwritten notes, badge photos from the Lab’s wartime staff, physicist Enrico Fermi’s observations from the Trinity test, and Oppenheimer’s office chair.

One item that Bird said he had not previously been aware of was a 1954 petition (see page 48). It was signed by hundreds of Los Alamos staff in protest of Oppenheimer’s security clearance being revoked following unsubstantiated allegations of disloyalty, among other issues.

The Lab’s senior historian Alan Carr said, “From one student of history to another, it was wonderful to meet Kai and share with him the truly fascinating artifacts from a time—and a man—that we’ve both dedicated a significant amount of our professional lives to.”

Seeing where it all began

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American Prometheus, published in 2005 and written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Cover photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt / Pix Inc. / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images. Cover design by Stephanie Kloss.

Bird and Goldmark’s tour included Bathtub Row, the only wartime homes with bathtubs, which were reserved for lab leadership; the V-Site, where the Trinity device’s high-explosive components were prepared; and the Gun Site, where the Little Boy weapon was developed.

The two were led from site to site, swapping historical anecdotes along the way, by Jonathan Creel, Manhattan Project National Historical Park’s public engagement specialist; Elliot Schultz, historian of science; and Cheryl Abeyta, Manhattan Project National Historical Park program manager.

“It was fascinating to hear Kai reminisce about his work on the book as we showed him around,” Creel said. “I enjoyed his enthusiasm for these historic places that our team works with every day, plus it was exciting to hear him relate these sites to his own work.”

Face to face

Bird has visited Los Alamos two previous times; on this occasion his visit was at the invitation of Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan, to see Bird’s book brought to life. 

Bird said, “We were allowed to watch about three hours of filming on the set. . . . During a break in the filming I was introduced to Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor playing Oppie, and I greeted him, ‘Dr. Oppenheimer, I have been waiting decades to meet you!’ Murphy laughed.”

Oppie’s legacy and LANL

Meanwhile, the NSRC created the documentary Oppenheimer: Science, Mission, Legacy.

The three-part film tells the story of Oppenheimer using notes, photos, and films from the NSRC’s collections and through interviews with the Laboratory’s past and present leadership, as well as historians, physicists, and biographers. In addition to Bird and Mason, interviewees include current and former Lab staff; Jim Kunetka, author of The General and the Genius; and recently retired U.S. Senate staffer Tim Rieser, who was instrumental in the recent vacating of Oppenheimer’s security clearance revocation. Oppenheimer: Science, Mission, Legacy can be viewed at nsrc.lanl.gov.

“The Lab is in a unique position to tell this story, thanks to our historic collections, which actually began as Oppenheimer’s wartime technical library during the Manhattan Project,” said Brye Steeves, director of the NSRC. “Oppenheimer’s legacy is part of our legacy today. The work that he began underlies our contributions today to our nation’s security."