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Late in this summer’s blockbuster Christopher Nolan film Oppenheimer viewers are presented with a disorienting set of images. It is the evening of August 6, 1945, the day when the first atomic bomb was exploded over Hiroshima. News of the successful use of the bomb reached the Los Alamos facility where scores of people had been laboring in secret for years on the Manhattan Project headed up by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Most everyone from the facility had gathered in a gymnasium for a kind of celebration of their achievement topped off by a speech given by Oppenheimer.
But already then Oppenheimer was beyond conflicted in his mind and heart on the horror they had brought to life. And so as he delivers what was intended to be a rousing celebratory speech—“I just wish we could have used it on the Germans!!”—the picture and sound keep cutting back and forth between the raucous scientists and the silence inside Oppenheimer’s tortured mind. We also see him imagining the blinding white light of the bomb going off right there and filling the gym. Then in his imagination he sees the stands empty, as though everyone in front of him had been evaporated.
As he leaves the podium following his speech, once again we see in his imagination that he nearly stumbles over the charred remains of a child. But then we see things that seem not to be in Oppenheimer’s head. In the midst of the people still cheering their achievement, he sees one woman in the stands crumpled down to her knees and weeping uncontrollably. As he leaves the building, he encounters a fellow scientist outside who is vomiting and who looks up at Oppenheimer with terror on his face.
A bit later in the film Oppenheimer has a congratulatory meeting in the Oval Office with President Harry S. Truman. I have always had the impression that Truman was overall a kind person but in this scene he comes across as rather harsh. When Oppenheimer tells the President he feels he has blood on his hands, Truman takes the handkerchief out of his coat pocket and waves it at him, telling him the Japanese don’t care who made the bomb but who ordered it to be dropped: namely, Truman. As Oppenheimer leaves the Oval Office, Truman is heard saying to his Secretary of War, “Don’t ever let that crybaby in here again.”
“Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” That is the quote from the Bhagavad Gita Oppenheimer is said to have uttered on the day they first successfully tested the atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. The conflict and cross-currents Oppenheimer felt then and for the rest of his life are surely shared by many others who developed the technology that has led to a world now filled with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet many times over.
Some years back I read a book by Roger Shattuck titled Forbidden Knowledge. The book asks the question, “Are there some things we human beings simply should never know?” It is an important and curiously complex question. After all, I have long contended that a key part of the Image of God in us is our native curiosity to learn all that we can. Near as we can tell on planet Earth, humans are the only creatures who have vast interests that lie well beyond what most creatures desire; namely, meals and mates. Survival.
White-tail deer in the forest by my house take no note of the other creatures in the forest. They don’t do what humans might do like birdwatching and keeping a life list of different species they encounter. When my wife and I used to snorkel around the island of Bonaire, we catalogued each day the new fish we spied: a Midnight Parrotfish, a French Angelfish. Each day when we got back to our hotel room, we would add to our life list the new species. And the fact that all those fish on the reef even have names in the first place is because people have been naming them for centuries along with different kind of prairie grass, wildflowers, trees, ants, rocks and well, you get the idea.
It’s the spark of the divine in us that makes us curious. Even as God spent the seventh day of Creation enjoying and watching all that he had made across the first six days, so we also delight in immersing ourselves in the wonder of otherness and exploring as much as we can.
But even so are their limits on curiosity? Are there things we should not know? Is the world a better place because exceedingly gifted physicists figured out nuclear fission and fusion? Well and of course the knowledge gained through quantum physics has led to an array of also good things. Everything from computers to cellphones to MRIs to nuclear medicine is built on some of this same knowledge. But is getting nuclear weapons out of this same mix simply the price we have to pay for an iPhone?
If you suspect I am not intending to answer these kinds of questions in this blog, you are correct. But the fact that some people like Oppenheimer ended up spending their lives trying to mitigate and limit the very technology they had helped to create indicates more than a little bit that yes, we might well be better off not knowing certain things, not achieving certain things. Given our native and God-given curiosity, that seems counter-intuitive on some levels. But it surely is another instance where what we need most when it comes to certain kinds of knowledge is a whole lot of that other biblical form of knowing: wisdom.