‘Oppenheimer’ is a warning against the pursuit of STEM for its own sake

The curricula of the most advanced science and technology subjects contain little space for moral and social insight, says Andy Miah

August 19, 2023
A mushroom cloud
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The movie Oppenheimer spins a classic narrative about the scientist’s vocation, in which the nuclear physicist is consumed by the relentless pursuit of a world-changing idea.

It is a story about being acknowledged for the most intimate facet of our humanity as academics: the merit of our ideas and our ability to demonstrate their worth. Leaving the atom bomb aside for a moment, what academic wouldn’t wish for their niche beliefs about how the world really works to gradually inspire students to join seminars, peers to defer to their intellect, and heads of state to recognise the importance of their work in forms of national decorations?

Oppenheimer inspired me to think about what and how I teach. Do each of my lectures and seminars confront students with new ways of thinking about the world, challenging their assumptions with difficult and sometimes uncomfortable ideas – cognisant of the possibility that my own views can be improved and remade by theirs? The film also made me think about the function of teaching in the pursuit of knowledge at a time when we seem often to be struggling with the division between teaching and research.  

Of course, Oppenheimer himself was unburdened by the endless administrative tasks that now fall upon most academics and take them away from their core, unique capabilities of scholarship, research and teaching. While some of these tasks are in the service of inclusive and supportive learning experiences, they can easily overwhelm the single-minded conviction that we see as necessary in Oppenheimer’s pursuit of a complex problem. In my experience, very few modern academics are able to maintain – or even to establish – a core sense of purpose about their pursuit of a subject or an idea over their career.

The traditional single-mindedness of the academic vocation – the idea that genius is best understood in individualistic terms – is often considered a bad thing in an era of big-team science. But, to its credit, the film does a good job of showing how Oppenheimer approached progress as a matter of collaboration, encouraging others to pursue their ideas even when he could not see their merit. He is portrayed as quite self-effacing at times, noting his own incompetence at experimental physics – the need for which he is very clear on. Incredible focus is not incompatible with collegiality.

But back to the bomb. The uncomfortable tension amid all this inspirational discovery is the audience’s knowledge that Oppenheimer’s science will be applied to the most destructive invention human knowledge has ever led to. And though most research will not set the world on fire, to quote Oppenheimer himself, a large amount of research is capable of being applied to grotesque situations. The creation of new ideas, methods or insights is often a disruptive force with unexpected and undesirable consequences, whether these are realised immediately or over a longer period – and even if the separation between the science and the situation is significant.

Oppenheimer himself did not enjoy the benefit of separation: there could be no denying the catastrophic uses to which his research could be put. He convinced himself that this knowledge would be enough to dissuade the world from creating the weapon, but the film depicts this as naivety. It invites us to question Oppenheimer's belief that the Americans were the good guys, who would deploy the bomb for justifiable means or use it to deter other nations from building their own.

In the end, the film depicts a catastrophic failure in understanding of what global peace diplomacy requires. But it also fails to reveal that, in fact, we don’t really know what it does require – especially when the “we” is the academic community, who largely remain blissfully absent from the political sphere. This is the problem. In the absence of better political judgement and diplomatic skill, even capable and established democracies regard their best option to be staying one step ahead of their enemies, and it’s a conclusion that many nations, in many ways, pursue through their entire investment in science and technology.

Perhaps the greatest wisdom in Oppenheimer is that the mindless pursuit of STEM for its own sake, without attention to how intellectual journeys must be informed by moral and social insight, puts the world in a persistent state of tension. If we look for recognition of this in the curricula of the most advanced science and technology subjects, we find very little. How many courses on artificial intelligence, for instance, make time for ethical debate?

This needs urgent rebalancing to ensure that our intellectual institutions service intellectual endeavour for human prosperity rather than research that imperils its future.

Andy Miah is chair of Science Communication & Future Media, director of The #SciComm Space and academic lead for the ethics of artificial intelligence at the University of Salford.

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Reader's comments (3)

this author completely misses the point of both the film and the history. learn a little history, and less artificial ____
Indeed. The author also uses Oppenheimer as an example for their polemic. What about Albert Einstein, Marie Curie Alfred Noble, Alan Turing, Tim Berners Lee: did they too "engage in mindless pursuit of STEM?" It would have been more balanced to know who or what the author considers acceptable face of STEM. And what defines the difference.
@graff.40: What is the point of both the film and the history, in your opinion?