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An Oppenheimer on Oppenheimer

Charles Oppenheimer

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to the capital. Today I'm joined by Charles Oppenheimer, who's a serial entrepreneur in the software business. And you guessed it, the grandson of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Charles is also the founder of the Oppenheimer Heimer project, which I'm sure we'll learn more about today. Charles, welcome. It's great to have you on the show.


Charles Oppenheimer  0:19  

Thank you, Chris. Yeah, big fan of the podcast and an honor to come on it.


Chris Keefer  0:25  

Appreciate that. So no surprise, today, we're going to talk about the film. We're gonna talk about your grandfather's legacy. And of course, we're going to talk about yourself. So in reverse order, your guests introduce themselves. It's a couple of podcasts, why don't you take a second and flesh out that bare bones intro that I gave you?


Charles Oppenheimer  0:42  

Sure. Yeah, I'm a lifelong New Mexican, usually out of San Francisco. And I've been working in the software industry for the last 25 years, but I'm just transitioning into energy investing really, mostly in trying to support the as in nuclear renaissance. So that's, that's the biggest thing. I'm coming from the Oppenheimer family that usually is the biggest point of discussion, especially now around around the movie. And I'm really happy to discuss that I just have a perspective that by representing my grandfather, which is something that we don't do a lot in the family by speaking about his values, what we think he stood for that it's better than not doing that, and I've kind of just begun that, that effort. And yeah, so that's, that's the quick intro.


Chris Keefer  1:34  

For sure. For sure. I mean, I gotta imagine, as a family member, you know, the film, and I guess we'll jump into that pretty quickly here. It's pretty intimate portrayal of a relative, right. It's sort of like throwing the throwing the closet doors open. And in a way, you know, a very personal story. And from what I understand, you're saying, you know, your father, I guess was you're tied to him in terms of, you know, telling him the family stories and think you knew, Jared Robert Oppenheimer personally, but your father also was, was very private about it. So maybe tell me a bit more about that, how you came to learn about your grandfather. And I guess we'll get into sort of Your Comfort about having his life kind of examined in the film hats.


Speaker 2  2:17  

Yeah, I mean, growing up in in New Mexico around this stuff actually grew up up at the ranch, the same same pedo guy and a ranch that that really caused the Manhattan Project to be in Los Alamos. Ultimately, it's been in the family since the 1920s. And we kind of lived off the grid in the 1970s. And so being a little farm kid, essentially, like I didn't know or ranching kid, you know, anything in particular about my famous grandfather. But as I started hearing more from other people and discussed with my father, through my life, I would kind of learn about this legacy, sometimes in kind of surprising ways. But it was always a very open discussion, not overly emphasized. My my father, growing up in a really, you know, like a big mansion in New Jersey, with famous people around press, negative press, and like, he just didn't want anything to do with that. That was not the family that I grew up in. So there was kind of open space for us to discuss it. In the family. Anytime I have a question every book I read, I call my dad talk to him about it. What do you think? My grandfather thought it's a real open discussion. He used to do some interviews and public stuff, but he doesn't do that at all anymore. And that was kind of the journey. So when I went into work, I didn't have any thought of like, well, my grandfather's a famous guy, I'll go do what he did. You know, like, that was just not the model I grew up with. So it's taken me a while to get back to say, if I could influence the world positively through his values was something that was always told I feel a little more ready for that now.


Chris Keefer  3:55  

So I got to ask you grew up on a ranch. Was it like a horse ranch? Do you know how to ride and rope and that kind of thing? Or?


Speaker 2  4:01  

Yeah, I mean, it's, it's, it's kind of a summer home 165 acres and not really like a working ranch in New Mexico or Canada size. Some places that would be considered big, but Robert and Frank, his brother would come up here in the 20s. And just would ride horses all over the mountains. Matter of fact, they'd ride over to Los Alamos up to Colorado. So yeah, I know how to take care of horses. But it was also off the grid 1970s style. So we had Mike we had kerosene lanterns and my father who also grew up on Frank's ranch in Colorado, just loved ranching and outdoors stuff and could take care of a ranch and I was just a little kid running around. It was great to be that that kind of in touch with nature, very unusual for these days. You don't meet that many people grew up without electricity.


Chris Keefer  4:51  

Yeah, well, I did my time as a horse Wrangler. And hunting guide in the Yukon Territory. So I had my little my little fantasy romance escape, which was there you go But there's some kind of a connection. If you've worked with horses, I think that yeah, you feel with folks. So


Charles Oppenheimer  5:04  

before I got actually skilled with them, I can ride a horse comfortably, but that


Chris Keefer  5:08  

I would say the exact same thing, you know, those skills have weathered off the vine pretty quickly. Cool, cool. I mean, you know, my mom's reading the biography, I didn't have a chance to dig into the 760 Odd page, biography, Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, but she was just telling me a little vignette of him, I think, as a child, or quite young man, saying he asked me a question in Greek, and I'll respond in Latin, like having mastered those two languages. So like, where did he grow up? What was that kind of environment? Like, understand it's a Jewish family, just tell me a little bit more, so I can contextualize it a bit better?


Charles Oppenheimer  5:46  

Sure. Yeah. He grew up on the Upper West Side of New York and my great grandfather was really, he was a immigrant off the boat and became quite wealthy, like, you know, they were they were very wealthy family, kind of the American dream coming off as a poor, poor immigrant and having a very successful business. And that cause that allowed them to have the kind of luxury of you know, Robert was a special guy, I always say I'm no Robert Oppenheimer, he was a really special genius type kid from the beginning. And that family just had a got involved in the ethical cultural movement, which was, you know, derived from secular Judaism. So, in the family, they just studied this ethical values, but was removed from religion and just had this fantastic school that Robert went to that anything that he was interested in, had amazing tutor and learning. And he was the type of kid who took advantage of that and was just a huge nerd, you know, pretty awkward from what I understand. But just that ended up just driving his curiosity, famously, something as simple as rocks walking around. In Europe, he saw some rocks and said, Where did these come from, and that drove his interest ultimately, in geology, which he gave a lecture when he was 12 famously got invited to a geology conference and a 12 year old kid Joe's out, and then chemistry and physics, just let deep interest in the world, which, which just was innate in him. And it's a little bit passed down through the years,


Chris Keefer  7:18  

I get so jealous of those kinds of minds. When I examine my Oh, you're one you're a scientist, right? At least you a medical doctor, I would not call myself a scientist. Okay. Yeah. We were talking before the show about, you know, having a beginner's mind. And I do come by it honestly opining on these issues, as I do as a non specialist, but I think again, there's there's some value in that approaching things in a more holistic sense, not being trapped in in one particular particular vocation. Okay, so we kind of got the childhood, the young man out of the way. I mean, I don't want to jump too far right into the story. But it is cool filling in some of these details that the movie didn't cover as much. But you know, he's in Europe.


Charles Oppenheimer  8:00  

That's interesting, because because they did, I won't go on too long, because this could take forever. But the movie went right into his, his adolescent. I mean, his his European study time, which was an important time in his life, but it didn't cover any of his early years. So yeah, that's a good point. I guess you've seen the movie I have. Yeah, no, I started off when he was in Cambridge. Yeah, exactly.


Chris Keefer  8:21  

Exactly. So he seems like you know, from what I've been reading, like an unlikely character to have led the Manhattan Project, you know, people comment that the largest kind of group of people that he'd sort of coordinated was the seminar class. He was sort of famously a bit disorganized, and lectures and things like that, like, from your understanding, how did he How was how did he come in arise to be the chosen one in terms of the least the scientific, like, there's general groves doing, I guess, like the sort of military side and logistics side, but yet, you know, an incredible role in this in this project? Why do you think he was chosen?


Charles Oppenheimer  8:55  

You know, it has been summarized and even I have said that that was an amazing coincidence. But if you look at it pretty carefully, like he did develop the American School of theoretical physics, like it didn't didn't exist quantum physics before he came over to Europe. So he was building up a really important group of students around him and he was becoming a leader. And something when I kind of dug into sources, even outside of American Prometheus, although they mentioned the same thing is that even by the 1942, they were, you know, all the physicists knew that you could make a bomb out of this really early on, and he was becoming a really strong voice and colloquiums when there was a group of physicists explaining it to each other, including Taylor and Lawrence, and they would come to Berkeley and discuss he was already becoming a leader in that small group where it wasn't him telling people what to do. It was that synthesis and really been like, a core thing. So when groves ran into him, it was already he was already kind of leading in that small area, but it was a stroke of genius. By bike roads, there was some kind of derogatory comment that, you know, he was no genius except for picking off and Heimerdinger groves actually was incredibly smart, incredibly talented guy. And he was a really good judge of character. And, you know, he made the distinction between, you know, Robert not being an administrator, like Lawrence was, but he could tell this is the guy for the job. And, you know, I do investing, I don't know if you do any. And usually, that's the key thing about your investments turning out in early stage, do you have the spark of somebody who's going to do something and grow saw that from, from Robert and, you know, made the choice, right choice of making him the lab director of Los Alamos.


Chris Keefer  10:39  

So if you said that, you know, he grew up as a child in this kind of ethical tradition of study within secular Judaism. And, you know, went on to develop this, this weapon of mass destruction, which I think he had insight into, you know, the destructive forces that would be unleashed. This is a really complicated time, like, it's very easy, from the comparatively easy times that we live in, which may exist, in part because of the existence of the bomb. And the fact that we haven't had a world war three may well be tied up in this, in this demonic invention. We live in a complex world, but in terms of trying to understand your grandfather's role in that, and his moral compass, and his sense of sort of duty to the nation and his politics more generally, I mean, some, certainly some sympathy towards, you know, socialist causes, and, you know, labor, etc. How do you how do you kind of read, and I know you didn't know him personally, maybe through through your father in your own study, you know, the kind of decision making that led him to shake Roseanne and say, Yeah, I'm going to do this. Well,


Charles Oppenheimer  11:36  

his, his study itself, like, Hey, we're so immersed in all forms of Literature, Science and poetry. And that was one of the biggest things that distinguished him as a scientist, of course, would that helped groves choose him. And he also, I've come to understand through just trails of historical statements, he and other people in med had had a pretty strong mystical experience, like right around this time, where Nolan categorized a poison apple episode, which I tend to disagree with historically, but what definitely happened is that he said he had a mystical experience. And after that, he got really into Sanskrit like a lot of people do and moved over fully, to really try to understand when you have that type of experience, like what does it mean in the world and his, his own study of Hinduism, and, you know, kind of the value of duty and discipline to transcend the, the troubles and world was really formative in his life, he would write letters to Frank saying, duty and discipline is the only way out of the misery of life, you know. And so, when a World War Two was happening, it wasn't a complicated decision for a young man in America and World War Two, they all wanted to participate in the war, just generally, because it was a true war against good and evil. And if you were Jewish, it was even more obvious. But there wasn't an American or probably Canadian, I'm not as familiar with it on the street, who wouldn't have participated in a war at that time. And it's something that's changed. I've never been tempted to participate in a war I've never wanted to, but he felt the duty to do it. And later, as things got more difficult, and he's dealing with this terrible power, that duty remained, he felt he had, he was a leader of a wartime project making bombs there was other leaders of wartime bombs, grandmas bolting bombs on a bolts into a bomb that would be dropped on Japan, not atomic bombs, and they felt it was their duty, there was no question that they were going to do it. So I think a lot of that in what he did after the war, of trying to control encourage international cooperation, put his own career and safety at risk by fighting for that was all formed out of kind of a sense of duty, that he could refer back to these literature and spiritual traditions and say, that's, that's what we should do now. And that was really big that his education, broad education, not narrow scientific or political education helped him make decisions.


Chris Keefer  14:09  

It's interesting. I was reading one of your interviews, I think with Time Magazine, and this kind of defamation in terms of the poisoned apple episode of try understand, there's not great, great evidence for I can see why Nolan put it in there, you know, as the kind of symbolic device from the perspective of, you know, the Adam and Eve story and, you know, eating of the tree of knowledge, you know, the discovery of good and evil and even you know, the exodus from the Garden of Eden, you know, leaving these quaint times of pre atomic times when humanity couldn't truly destroy itself at the push of a button. So, I found it very poetic. I can understand why.


Charles Oppenheimer  14:46  

Any Yeah, mythological or literature allegory. The problem I have with it is it's portrayed in American Prometheus as a almost as a fact. But if you read it really carefully, their language says it's a fact and They kind of roll back saying we don't know what happened. So I'd much rather have the kind of art addressing it. I don't know if that's what Nolan was intending or just that, you know, he was having a hard time in college, and you have that narrative arc of when you fail as a student. And then he rose from that through quantum mechanics and became a except that's interesting in itself, you know, for any story. But there is also direct, yeah, literal, literary allegories that I would agree with that it could have represented,


Chris Keefer  15:32  

for sure, for sure. It seemed really out of character when I when I saw it, but you know, whatever, young men do crazy things, and sometimes writers and directors takes


Charles Oppenheimer  15:41  

I had a bad habit of getting in there and typing a furious like six page, rebuttal of the facts of exactly what American premium has said on this line, and what this person and then I let it go, I'm like, that's not that's not really what's important. Like, what's important is what we do next. So, yeah, so I mean, I think the movie, that's the downside of having your family in the right media, like I grew up with that, and I'm so used to it. I've had Opera's books my entire life, but you, you either take it personally, and it can kind of hurt you. Like, I'd say my dad's more on that side where he doesn't want to read other people's interpretations of somebody he know, knew. Or I was able to get a point with Nolan's movie where I'm like, consuming it, like, both entertainment and family, you know, and just be like, okay, that's okay, that you're doing this version of my grandfather, you know, that feels a little more comfortable than being offended.


Chris Keefer  16:33  

So your dad lived at Los Alamos. I mean, the city looks like it went up over the course of a few months, even I might be off on the details there. But does he? How old was he? Like, what does he remember of that time? And does he remember, you know, his father's reflections on, you know, that moment of pushing the button on the Trinity device?


Charles Oppenheimer  16:55  

Well, so he was born in 41. So he's a very young child, and she's almost, you know, just, you know, a few years old. And so his memories are typical kids stuff, eating sugar under the counter, letting the break out of the car, just stuff like that as dad coming home. And so he wouldn't have remembered the Trinity test or have any knowledge of that. I don't think Robert actually pushed the button. They had all the people, but he was certainly there. And he was very, very much involved with the Trinity test. Yeah.


Chris Keefer  17:26  

But I'm just trying to get like to the source as close as possible. I know where like, degrees of separation are away, but like, what are some of your father's, I guess, memories of, of, you know, I can just imagine this is, you know, the first time that not the first time that you know, heavy items were fishing, but you know, the first use of a bomb I can imagine. I'm not sure like, you know, you hear about certain, you know, my own grandfather, for instance. It's a real tragedy. You know, he wrote letters to his fiancee during the whole war and decided to burn them afterwards, you know, it felt like a real tragedy, because that would have been just a fascinating historic document. But some people were comfortable talking about their wartime experiences and traumas others not. So just curious, in a personal curiosity, whether you're aware of whether your father, you know, has has had any insights into, you know, what, what Robert was feeling at that moment?


Charles Oppenheimer  18:13  

Yeah, well, I would say, No, my father, and I haven't discussed that moment. But I do always like to refer back to my grandfather's words, when possible in any of this stuff, I try to represent him. And then I write my own version. I might also say, well, he wrote books, he wrote write letters, and he told the world he wrote policy that he didn't learn to do. And that, that that gets lost, often with the historians summarizing who he was, you know, but you can also read his own words. And, of course, he spoke about this particular subject in incredibly poetic terms. He did do it long after it happened when he did, that's what he was spoken, speaking about, you know, when he said, I thought of the Hindu scripture, and I thought of our June as saying, I have become death, destroyer of worlds. And I think he said that because he was speaking about what he thought about he thought about literature, he thought about religion, he thought about this 1000 year old experience that humans 1000s of years old experience that humans are going through of creating technology, getting it so powerful, it could destroy us. And he didn't think about just the superficial, you know, how are we going to attack Russia? He thought about what does this mean for humanity? And that's what he said about it. And I basically take his word for it, because so many people are looking at it. That's not a particularly deep thing to say. Now, you can find that whole statement repeated by historians, but for many years before this, superficially, people would say, hey, there was Robert Oppenheimer, and he was crying about he had become death and he was apologizing. So I think he was just recognizing the power of it during Trinity. And I think his insight on shared existential risk that he said it Much more after the Trinity time, but he said right after the bomb was his most important insight, and he'd said that, you know, humanity has to unite in a new way. And that's what he said later, he was feeling during the Trinity site. And he certainly said that, at the end of the war, that we're all in a tribe together, we can't interact the same way. We can't deal with risks in the same way. And it seems to be the record of what he was saying and thinking.


Chris Keefer  20:26  

Yeah, I mean, I think it makes one such a richer person to have that kind of multidisciplinary background, and just phenomenal that he was able to cram so much into one mind. But there's this thing. And while I was drinking beers in college, why wasn't I sitting there in libraries for 15 hours learning a language every week, but there's the thing in medicine, you know, he who knows only of medicine knows nothing in medicine, right? You know, in terms of understanding your patients and their context, and everything else, and maybe you could say something similar about science. But that's an aside. Yeah. So obviously, science and scientists were so central to the Manhattan Project. You know, they, in a sense, kind of owned this bomb. They theorized that developed it in order the technicians that created it, and then all of a sudden, after it's dropped, they lose ownership of it, this moves over to the purview of generals and strategists and policymakers. I imagine that was a pretty painful kind of rupture that sense of a loss of control. I probably basing this on some superficial reading, but it does that Does that strike a chord does that that makes sense in terms of your understanding his experience?


Charles Oppenheimer  21:34  

Well, I thought Nolan did a good job. Like most of the movie, where, you know, those were pages and books and actually novels full of information, you summarized it into like Roberts feeling of like, it's obvious, he doesn't have control over the bomb at that point. I think that, you know, the most important thread of history, there was boars advocacy for international control. And there was many other scientists who saw this come in, and some of them who were advocating much more strongly about how important and what an opportunity it was, if you if they understood that the world had changed fundamentally, that this wasn't just a little tactic, that the path to a nuclear arms race was obvious and would happen unless they could head it off. I think that Bohr was, he was such a leader, a philosophical leader with the scientists, he said, we could do this, this could make the world better. And he was doing everything he could by getting in touch with the president. And he passed that on to Robert. And so I think it wasn't, it wasn't that Robert assumed that he would have control or anything, it's that they, he was at various times willing to see like, we're in a war, I don't know everything about targets, you make the decision, he was willing to go with that. But he was so focused on the idea that there was still a chance, there was a ticking clock where if policy makers could get together and understand how to manage nuclear energy and fission without the obvious risk of an arms race, they felt like they could head it off. And that was a continual painful disappointment for him constantly. If you look at the record, and he just never stopped, even though he failed and failed, and things were going the wrong way. And to this day, we have the arms race, they still kept trying. And I think that it might have been his people call it naive sometimes, but I think it was what we were trying to do were advocacy today for nuclear energy, against all odds, he was trying to do that, just because it was the right thing to do it at the time.


Chris Keefer  23:30  

Right, right. And I do want to get into Atoms for Peace, and these other visions of you know, the positive use of nuclear energy. But first, I mean, in terms of this kind of description of naivete, in terms of what Boers and Oppenheimer were suggesting, can you can you walk us through a little bit more of the nuts and bolts of what their vision was and their their, you know, policy prescription to avoid the arms race,


Charles Oppenheimer  23:53  

bore, you know, just saw to the heart of things like he did in quantum mechanics, like that's who he was, he is. And he saw that, you know, the growth of technology, which is not limited to fission meant that we couldn't have the type of cooperation with separate tribes and would end up in Cataclysm. So the only reasonable solution to that is to cooperate at that point. For him, it was quite clear, and Robert was the was the carrier of that two presidents and through policy, so they, he Robert was appointed to a committee who is supposed to be just an adviser to but in his way of leading and synthesizing that eventually became the Atchison Lilienthal plan of 1947. And that was a very practical, kind of like military led industrialists led recipe that said, at this point before, there's an arms race if we collectively manage the production of fissionable material, we can avoid any one country making a bunch of bombs and that would put the three big superpowers which was the US Russia and UK at the time. And, you know, monitoring each other and make sure we make fissionable material together. And we can tell if we're refining it to the point, you can make bombs, and it would allow for the production of energy, which was not a big concern of theirs at the time, but they knew that it would be possible things like energy would be possible, but you would have to have that kind of joint cooperation. And it stood up with a test of the time a, it's what we do today, roughly, we have treaties and in conference, and that's after the arms race, but they were, they were suggesting it before the arms race. And so to me, that's proof that it would have worked. That was sabotage by us bureaucrats. And another another way of thinking, which is, you know, understandable, but wrong, which is like, let's make a bunch of these bombs as fast as possible, keep it secret, we'll have all the bombs were the good guys. And that's the safest thing that was Truman's idea out of his own mouth. You know, we'll keep this as a sacred trust. But they were just wrong. They you know, it was a misunderstanding, when the scientists said you can't keep this secret. The politicians, understandably, in the military, even more understandably, said, Let's make as many of these as possible and as big as possible, as fast as possible. And that's, we must accept the world as it is. But I get a little hung up in that period, because I feel that was so important if that 45 Through 47, with real tactical, practical policy solutions had been implemented would have been very difficult, very difficult to deal with Russia and even France. But you could have done it if the US was committed to it, and we sabotaged it.


Chris Keefer  26:31  

And so so just not to get too much into the nuts and bolts. But this would have been to, for us to retain some nuclear weapons, but not to go gangbusters, building a whole bunch of them and then attempt to prevent other countries from proliferating. And


Charles Oppenheimer  26:42  

so yes, that those were elements of it. We did have weapons at that point, small number of them, but the main point was cooperation around fissionable material. And it, the plan got changed at the last minute by Baruch bureaucrat, and he said, Well, we get to keep all of our weapons and make more of them. But the other two parties can't do that. And he did that specifically per historical records so that the Russians would balk at it, say, I would never vote for that. And then they can point at the Russians. They don't want to cooperate. It was, you know, it was a bureaucratic tool. So the US would have had to also agree to get rid of our first weapons, but not really like give up our sovereignty as a country, not change everything, the UN was going pretty strong. So it was mainly around that control of fissionable material. And there was ladders of like, if a country started enriching to the point where they could make a bomb in the next five months, the other countries could attack them, like one military force. You know, it wasn't it wasn't all, you know, play nice. And that that was the initial plan that would have avoided an arms race. Yeah, at that point?


Chris Keefer  27:52  

Well, I mean, it's interesting. I mean, that the League of Nations forming after World War One to try and make it the war that ends all wars, and then that ultimately fell apart. And then you have the United Nations, which has been much more durable. And I guess that would probably have something to do with nuclear weapons. It's obviously no coincidence that the the voting members of the Security Council are all weapons states. So it is interesting seeing and with the IAEA, and I guess we'll get into Atoms for Peace pretty soon here. But, you know, a lot of these things came into being but you know, a little too late down the road once there's been a significant amount of proliferation.


Charles Oppenheimer  28:23  

Right. And it was a I mean, you know, the movie didn't touch any of this. But it was an optimistic time. You know, Truman, even with supportiveness, Oppenheimer worked for Truman, they were supposedly enemies. He was on his committee with Atchinson and Lilienthal, and all the other politicians, and it was coming out of a time where not only scientists like Bohr, but you know, Roosevelt was very behind this and other politicians thought, you know, there's a time where maybe we can cooperate in a new way. Yeah, the US was doing heroic. We were we were the best country. We were a great country. We're helping Germany, we're rebuilding stuff. And this was very tricky, hard stuff. I don't know. You know, I don't love people revising World War Two and saying, you know, the scientists were morally wrong for dropping bombs. And I say, Well, you have to understand the context. And so I guess you could have a military person, say, of course, we got into an arms race, you have to understand the context. But I think there's a value in being right. There was somebody who was right, like the scientists, you cannot keep this secret and will cause an arms race. And there was our policy, which was wrong, it was based on a mistake, we can keep it secret, we'll build bigger bombs, and the other side won't get in that was just simply wrong. And so that policy became an arms race, out of a misunderstanding of experts delivering it to your face and you disagreeing with them and doing the other thing. But being that as of a, its history, we've got to accept our world with 10s of 1000s of weapons pointed at each other. And that's that's how we live.


Chris Keefer  29:50  

I mean, in that context, that does, I think there was a real surprise when the Russians exploded their first bomb and, you know, to be honest, even with the benefit of hindsight, It's extraordinary to me, I mean, the US Um, you know, the top economy in the world, huge massive investment in Manhattan Project, obviously, a lot of that was just the figuring out the How to elements, but also just enriching uranium not easy. And I guess there's probably a shortcut with plutonium production. I'm not actually sure of the the physics of the bombs, you know, created by Russia and later on other European countries, but I mean, here you have, you know, countries just like Russia was decimated in this war, you know, 10s and 10s of millions of people dying. So much of their infrastructure destroyed Europe as well, like, it's it's incredible the speed with which these other nations were actually able to get the bomb, even China, for God's sakes. I mean, obviously, they got it with the assistance of other powers. But it's it is it is an incredible story like, and it's surprising to me, I guess, it just emphasizes the urgency of getting one in those sort of geopolitical sweepstakes.


Charles Oppenheimer  30:47  

Yeah. But also that helps to be a theoretician and maybe the most expert have the most expertise in the world and this arcane thing. So if you were bore Oppenheimer, Fermi, even Einstein, who wasn't as affiliated with it, you knew they were gonna get a bomb. Yeah, like that's, that's what the theory says, 100%. Surety. And you're right, that it was surprising to a general and a president who sat in a meeting with these guys and said, I have a gut feeling, which is the opposite of that. But that, you know, the theory said they were absolutely going to get it and would have taken this incredible effort of saying like, this isn't just a bomb. But this is a new way to cooperate in the world. And I think what's interesting, and what keeps me going in this conversation, is that it wasn't just that one thing it is the condition of humanity, are we going to solve climate change? Are we going to handle every risk that jet that has come out of technology, there's only one solution, which is the same thing the Bhagavad Gita pointed to, and every religion and philosophy point to is that you have to work together with tribes that you would use to consider your enemy. And it's the only way out of dealing these with these shared risks. And they just saw it and tried to transmit it to policymakers, and sometimes the world's not ready for, for your wisdom, really.


Chris Keefer  32:03  

So you know, Adams for peace, I think is obviously a good sort of next next step here, again, a little too little too late in terms of the proliferation and arms race that have taken off, but, you know, as I understand it, it was influenced by Oppenheimer. Originally, this was part of, I believe, a kind of public relations or communications effort, both domestically and internationally called, I think, Project candor. And I mean, reading Spencer words, works about the nuclear fear, essentially, and the kind of population level drills of getting I don't think these are the major cities, but a city of 100,000 people to do a duck and cover drill and time them and then tell them how many would have survived. And, you know, if you get into the shelters quicker, this many will, will not have died compared to the exercise we did last week. I mean, there was a there was a real move to, I think, survive a nuclear exchange is that fear became realized by Russia getting the bomb as well and the means to deliver it, I guess. But there was this movement from let's just instill fear in the population towards something else that there's other uses of the atom. I was just doing some quick googling before we got on here. And I didn't find a lot in terms of Oppenheimer's contributions to Adam for peace. You know, I think he died in 67. And Adams for peace was I think, 53 Oppenheimer had to live to see shipping port come online to see other uses of nuclear energy. What's your understanding of of that relationship?


Charles Oppenheimer  33:26  

You know, my grandfather was very clear in his discussions in his lectures, if you listen and read his lectures that that he said that he always thought that the weapons problem and that question of whether we're going to be unified is the main thing he and he never got past that. Right. So it's basically as simple as that. He said, things like I, you know, we, the day after he dropped the bomb, I think, or November 2, which was his last day 1945, he said, you know, the Peaceful Uses are interesting and energy. But the question is, are we going to deal with weapons out of this, so very early and very consistently, that was his entire focus, and since it never got where he wanted it to be like in terms of cooperation and settling the weapons from he wasn't he was not one of the big proponents or too involved I, I know that he when he went to Japan, some components of that atoms that for Peace program was involved, because I've recently looking at some boxes of stuff out of our own library, and there's pictures of him in Japan and the atoms of Peace program. But other than that he didn't speak or focus too much on it. Eisenhower was a proponent he had considered he had worked a lot with Eisenhower, and consider him an ally until he did not stick up for him in the security hearing. And after the AC hearing of revoking his security clearance, he really did step away from all policy stuff. And when he spoke, he spoke about the scope of philosophy and science. So over hundreds of years not anything as tactical of should we have nuclear energy, he just stepped away from it. So I don't want to. I'm picking that back up. I like Atoms for Peace.


Chris Keefer  35:10  

That's totally. That's though I will get there because I really want to talk about your work and Oppenheimer foundation, but wanted to touch on that thread a little bit more. So, you know, a key part of the movie was this secret of hearing regarding your grandfather's security status with the AEC. And it was really interesting that that suspension was revoked, I believe, by Secretary Granholm last year, 68 years after the DOE, or I guess was the AC at the time took it away? I mean, that must have been a vindication for your family. Can you talk a bit more about you know what that what that meant to you guys?


Charles Oppenheimer  35:48  

Yeah, I mean, like, kind of foremost is that when that that hearing happened in this, Robert Oppenheimer is still kind of a household name and considered a war hero. So it wasn't just the family or even primarily the family that was offended by it. It was a lot of in the scientific community and even population thought, like, why, why are you doing this? And in some parts of it, if you look at the political cartoons at the time knew it was kind of like a political or corrupt element. And it turns out that so many people advocated over the year just never stopped advocating and the A's II and the do e, that we shouldn't treat our scientists that way. Like, you know, it was just what what, Granholm, which I really respect that she looked into it enough with her counsel that they were able to say, this violated our own rules and fairness, and it was a political hatchet job of taking scientists voicer way. And I think that one of the reasons they did that publicly is out of the 1000s of scientists at the DOD, you don't want to treat them like that, you know, there could be a huge amount of value out of getting scientists like Oppenheimer or fully invested in making the world a better place instead of persecuting them. Though, it was just it ended up being a really nice thing to hear that they had apologize, it wasn't something that we had actually advocated a ton for in the family, but many, many other people had because Robert Oppenheimer has such a public persona that that space,


Chris Keefer  37:26  

and the you know what, I guess what the committee was arguing was that he'd been unscrupulous in terms of, you know, security around the bomb information have been leaked to the Russians. It was his fault, I guess is what the sort of allegations were Is that Is that correct? But it was


Charles Oppenheimer  37:42  

no, no, it's pretty, it's pretty genteel, the 1950s standard. So the the real, the thing that American Prometheus made so clear is that there was only one reason they were doing it was to take away his voice politically, and so that what they did is they reached into his path, stuff that he had already been cleared for during the war. And after the war, that the government knew all about and said you had communist friends. And basically, the accusation that they accused that they finished with was that he was insufficiently enthusiastic in supporting the hydrogen bomb project. They convicted him of that. And they said in the findings is that, that, you know, that's a sign of a character flaw. And so in the 1950s, even though they were accusing him of this terrible thing, they started off with saying, Dr. Oppenheimer, I know, you're extremely loyal American. And there's no evidence that you've spied in any way. But we think you're not kind of one of us that that was enough in the 1950s. To say that, you know, we're going to take away your security clearance. And they used a technicality stuff that he had told a security officer under duress, you know, saying, Well, I talked to this guy, and then tried to change the story. But it wasn't any subsequent thing that he had ever talked to him about. But they kind of dug up these like little factoids. And it's interesting that in my life, I had to often talk about the substance of why did he say this to Pat at this time, but it turns out, it never meant anything. Nobody cared about that. They were illegally wiretapping him and he knew it was kind of like it, especially those things about what he happened to say to one security trial and I mean, security officer, and they brought it up over and over that would that just wasn't what was going on. They effectively took away his voice, his power and convicted him of not wanting hydrogen bombs, which frankly, he didn't even he was he was against the crash program, kind of a Manhattan Project for hydrogen bombs. He was such a loyal guy who was sitting there working on hydrogen bombs, even though he hated, you know, giving his advice. We shouldn't have as many of them but he didn't even go as far as like, it was just he was very much against a Manhattan project type thing for hydrogen bombs because he was morally opposed to


Chris Keefer  39:57  

it. So I have this really interesting you know, and all the He's kind of first, second, third fourth degree relationships to people and places and times. But I had this fascinating experience of debating one of Canada's premier anti nuclear activists, and he's, he's a guy in his mid 80s. And he's lived long enough that 49 years before I debated him, he debated Edward Teller. And there's this fascinating, you know, hour long video up on YouTube. And, you know, he got slayed. He's he's, I mean, obviously, he was, you know, I think one of the three inspirations for the, the fictional character of Dr. Strangelove, you know, it doesn't come off as the most charismatic person. But, you know, some Dr. Evil vibes about him. But is it useful at all to sort of like, compare and contrast those two figures at all? I mean, Teller was the driving force behind the H bomb was I understand that an Oppenheimer had some reservations, despite maybe being someone involved in the physics behind it. I mean,


Charles Oppenheimer  40:50  

one thing I was glad with the Nolan movie is that they didn't portray Teller and Oppenheimer as these, you know, Undyne enemies. Because teller didn't support Robert Oppenheimer in the trial and effectively testified against him. He was basically ostracized in the scientific community that was really painful for him, because the scientists really worked well together. But in the family, we didn't consider it a rivalry. And there's this famous story of Taylor and Oppenheimer. Working together, right after the war, a graduate student goes in there is having a terrible problem. I mean, not right after the war, right after the trial months after it. And in the institute, and Robert picks up the phone calls teller in California saying, I've got a student here. Can you help them and tellers like, Oh, well? How are you doing? Robert? How's the family? Sure, I'll help them. And so even though they had these disagreements, certainly about science and other things, they, it wasn't a true rivalry or hatred. Now. It is, it's interesting, because teller saw that stuff and said, We should make more bombs, we should have an arms race, and we should make bigger bombs. And he was always like that. And I was somewhat would take his word more than the next guy, like our family tradition was that, you know, that was not an that was not a way to peace, and it was never going to work. But people have different views. And when we got in the world was a huge amount of bombs, you know, and Teller worked for the rest of his life, not only on those hydrogen bombs, but other defense related stuff, and he hated the Soviet Union. And he certainly did better in that part of his career for his life. So maybe part of what he thought was right, but you know, I don't subscribe to bigger hydrogen bombs, I think, fundamentally evil. There's no justification for it.


Chris Keefer  42:35  

Right? Well, let's let's shift gears a little bit to talk a little bit more about yourself now and what you're trying to make out of the legacy of your grandfather and some of your own your visions and opinions as you kind of enter into the energy space and the Oppenheimer foundation. All of it really, we talked a little bit about, you know, how maybe Atoms for Peace was something that Oppenheimer wasn't focused on. But maybe it's been an inspiration for you, I don't want to put words in your mouth. I am famous for asking long convoluted questions. Go ahead and try and answer.


Charles Oppenheimer  43:04  

Well, I'm famous for a long convoluted answer. So we'll have to watch ourselves. But uh, I've been calling it the Oppenheimer project, not the foundation because I tried to pull people in now, it's not just a family thing and kind of putting my grandfather's words and values first, to try to speak for him not just to make a movie or an interesting character, but that his actual thoughts, especially around shared existential risk, that for all our, our problems in the world, that if we don't work harder on getting along with people who we consider our enemies, especially at the hardest time, when right now it would be US, China and Russia, those are the ones who should be at the table saying, if we don't work on climate change together, it's going to affect all of us. It's just a truth, right? If there was some element of unity you can get out of these groups that traditionally battled that can solve things like less nuclear weapons, more carbon free nuclear energy, approaches to pandemics there's kind of a need for unity foremost, I don't always know how to get there. You know, he said that philosophically, I believe I'm philosophically How do you get there? And I've been called to support nuclear energy as kind of like a peace building and a bridge building. Exercise. I think, starting in the US, Democrats and Republicans seem to be able to get along more on that issue than almost anything else. Right now. Everybody knows we need more energy a huge amount more in the next 30 to 50 years and nuclear energy becomes more palatable as the fear and the non science and weapons based fear of it fade and we look at the benefits that could happen for tackling nuclear energy and then maybe more, more hopeful it could it be if multiple countries are dealing with increasing nuclear energy and carbon free energy abundance, that could be an area that we cooperate, even in the midst of conflicts, even in the midst of military and economic conflict, you could still have scientists and industry people say, Well, we're gonna get along on this, you know, energy thing because it affects everybody in the world. So that's what I'm hoping for


Chris Keefer  45:14  

in my journals, you might have to have to put a little cubby on the space station, because that seems to be the only place where you can get folks from these three countries have really cooperated.


Charles Oppenheimer  45:24  

I have some wild ideas. I thought of Mongolia. In a you're writing in from multiple directions, Japan, but I'm not sure. I haven't figured that


Chris Keefer  45:34  

out. Oh, there's so much I want to run from from there. But just just again, just a curiosity, probably a distraction. But, you know, again, watching that Edward Teller debate 49 years ago, a lot of the the folks involved in the bomb, and the folks reacting to the bomb, really played on the fear of radiation as a tool to make sure that maybe it would never be used, or at least that wouldn't be tested. And certainly, we did get a ban on atmospheric weapons testing that didn't stop weapons testing, it just went underground. But, you know, that's certainly had a major legacy and impact, particularly on nuclear energy today and on people's perception and consent for it. Are you aware? Do you know anything about your grandfather's take on the danger of radiation? I mean, obviously, I can be quite sympathetic particularly to the physician groups that, you know, conducted things like it's called the Tooth Fairy study. Basically, they got, you know, the teeth of young children and found strontium 90, I believe in them. And this was a really potent symbol of, you know, something as pure as a child being contaminated by this this awful byproduct. Just just as a curiosity. Yeah,


Charles Oppenheimer  46:48  

I understand that study was really formative in starting the test bands, right? Because that were other things didn't work. When people heard about children being affected by radiation. It did, it did change people's attitudes. You know, I don't know, really, my I know that my grandfather was first and foremost, a scientist and like, extremely literal. And like to this day when I hear like conspiracy theories, like I'm, like, got that science DNA. So I think he would have thought of it in a way that is measurable, testable, and like what it really is, but I grew up with a negative feeling around, you know, nuclear weapons, certainly. And as an extension, nuclear energy and like a lot of people, you start going through this education process and say, Wait, how dangerous? Is it really like, who does it kill? And what happens? You know, rated radiation caused from testing bombs is a lot different than, you know, what a nuclear power plant is. And I think it's just, it seems to be absurd. You know, obviously, on your audience, I don't think I have to preach to the choir. But for me, I had to, over the last few years, change my attitude learn about it. And when I looked at the science and the fact, you said, wow, it's not not doesn't have the same level of danger that I thought it did. But a lot of that was completed, completed with a weapons industry.


Chris Keefer  48:11  

I believe it was interesting, because I think prior to the nuclear accidents at TMI Chernobyl at Fukushima, certainly there was a thought that nuclear power plants would be cataclysmic in the event of a core melt or an escape. And that was ultimately proven to be less serious, but even figures like, like teller, you know, how to add a imagination that they'd be far more deadly than they were. So it's just kind of interesting anecdote. So getting back to your foundation, and, you know, not just nuclear energy, but also managing the risks of novel technologies. I think you have an interest in AI, and sort of measures and controls on on technology. I'm trying to think of examples where we have reigned in kind of the sword side of like the ploughshare and sword part of a technology. And like, the only kind of reference I can think of is, I think it's an agreement between geneticists and your part of the world, some are on the Pacific coast to limit certain forms of of bio technological research. And it seems like, you know, human augmentation using CRISPR. Like we've sort of I mean, maybe it's going on. So we're in a lab in China, but we've seen to sort of set that sufficiently sacred, we won't dabble in that too much. But give me your thoughts on, you know, humanity's potential. You said there was this brief window potentially, we could have done something different on nuclear weapons and avoided a massive arms race, in terms of current sort of shared existential threats like say, AI? Where do you envisage Oppenheimer's thinking and the keep calling it the foundation, but the organization, the project, I like that


Charles Oppenheimer  49:43  

the Oppenheimer project everybody's welcome to the project, please go to the website and participate. So, you know, I've had a little bit of a curve on this, I think, a learning curve that is I think the thing that is relevant and transfer bowl is the philosophy behind human unity in this kind of technological growth and that the only solution is not really a technology related to this one type of processor for AI. But how are we going to cooperate with these risks? So I think that's the thing that's core and that transfers across technologies and across ages. But then when you apply that is it. So to me, I don't see that that becomes a policy, like the policy of that could have worked for the containing the arms race was not based on you know, just a very specific technology that we can stop and decide, let's not do science. My grandfather loved science, he said, you had to do it, you had to explore these. But it's the method of cooperation and a shared goal, especially once technology has gotten to the point where it could kill us all. So I think that's relevant. But I think what the project, I've gone back and forth, my cousin Kate, who's Frank Oppenheimer, his daughter is pretty interested in AI. But I think I'd wanted to keep it kind of towards vision. And say, like, there's so many paths to cooperating more internationally and domestically, and across the board around vision, which I was given a specific roadmap. He said, This is how you cooperate on vision, this is what it is, I brought it to the world. And this is what you do. And I know Robert Oppenheimer and your know, Robert Oppenheimer, why don't we listen to him, and put some of those things in place, and it could achieve abundant, clean energy. And if some of those framework for cooperating against these really difficult things, we know what doesn't work making some law in the US that other people are supposed to follow? In a different country, that's not going to work. So, you know, we know that like, building frameworks of cooperation could lead to a place where we reduce the wrist threat, and then I would keep that agnostic to a technology and focus in the project on fission, specifically producing more energy, and more cooperation and less bombs right.


Chris Keefer  52:01  

Now, I mean, it's really interesting on the question of proliferation, you know, we've had an episode recently with my friend, Jeremy, without get the IAEA. And certainly, you know, they play a major role in terms of providing friction for a country to ultimately pursue breaking out and pursuing a bomb. But obviously, it's a very costly thing to do diplomatically, economically, not just to develop the bomb to create the ingredients for a bomb to create the delivery mechanisms for a bomb. I mean, this is just an incredible societal investment. And we do see some countries paying that price. Generally, it has to do with, you know, geopolitical considerations. And so for me, it seems so much of our task, if we truly care about proliferation is obviously not limiting the spread of peaceful nuclear energy, but trying to ratchet down geopolitical tensions and essentially be peace act sense, right? There's, there's no surprise that the Korean leadership looked at, you know, the fate of Saddam and Gaddafi, and thought, you know, you're really good for us to have a bomb.


Charles Oppenheimer  53:04  

But let's, let's explore that a little. I've been a peace activist, you know, and like, if you're shouting from the outside, morally correct, you should do this, we should all get along. That's one technique. I have the idea that if businesses, government, even the military, these countries are saying we have real risks, let's build together, more energy production to reduce our risks. That's a different kind of standard. That's what I hope around cooperation around vision. Because if you start from a place where it's like, it, I A does very important work. But just, I just see a pathway of like bringing people together to do a productive, forward looking thing that doesn't say, Let's reconstitute our whole military or relations is the first place first step. And that potentially, that could build up in cooperation around the same material. That that's my version of it, because I found it too depressing to just say, let's talk about how we get rid of our weapons only even though it's the most important thing. Could it be just more addressable that like, let's produce more energy from


Unknown Speaker  54:07  

the conditions for peace? I think, yeah.


Charles Oppenheimer  54:10  

Right. And you have the framework to produce more uranium, you can see where it's going. You have the same scientists, same governments. And if you're battling real risks, which is like not enough energy and climate change that might be more palatable than fake ones, like, let's make this other country our enemy for political reasons.


Chris Keefer  54:31  

Now, I was just watching in preparation for this interview of a snippet of our friend the atom, Walt Disney was famously pro nuclear. And it's just interesting again, I think that was that came out in 1953. You know, this, this candor, communication strategy was in place, you know, all kinds of nuclear fear and at the same time, you know, a real sense of optimism for you know, the use of nuclear science and improvement of crops and, you know, medical treatments and imaging, you know, Having visited a few research reactors now it's, you know, extraordinary to learn about what's going on, you know, for one, for instance, you know, neutron radiography, every single blade and in a jet fan turbine and all our airplanes are inspected at, you know, this one research reactor here in Canada to make sure and maintain that quality control so the planes don't fall out of the sky. Like it's just extraordinary all the peaceful applications of the technology and the way in which it was communicated. But you know, the the image from our friend, the atom is this, you know, this genie in a bottle. And the kind of theory of change that I see amongst anti nuclear movement is this idea that we can stuff the the genie back in the bottle, kind of runtime backwards, that the pursuit of of scientific knowledge has gone too far. And that folks like your grandfather are sort of villainous in terms of having having rubbed the bottle. And I think there's a more sort of forward looking way, like, I mean, just I think that map's on so well, to romantic notions of, you know, the environmental movement of, you know, we can just move back to simpler times, we can, you know, put the apple back on the tree and walk back into the Garden of Eden. It's just it's a one way street. It's it's like entropy or something. There's something to the forward marks of time. Another convoluted commentary, but do you have any reflections on?


Charles Oppenheimer  56:15  

I mean, I've caught Yeah, I have convoluted answers. But I mean, I, I kind of agree that we can not stop science. And I would also reflect my grandfather's ideas that were words, he said, science is necessary. It's beautiful. You want to know how the world works. And I think fission is that it fission is an amazing thing, that humans have been able to understand the universe at such a deep level, we can release almost unlimited energy. And that doesn't mean we have to make bombs out of it. There's the science that should be ongoing of a constant exploration of our world. And there's the application of it. And I don't I just don't think it's practical or possible to stop those. But it is possible to like decide how we're going to get along. Even though it sounds naive and impossible, I think you just can't say it's possible. And you have to go for that in terms of advocacy. And I've moved myself from a place growing up and with no electricity in the mountains, assuming there's too many humans. And all we need to do is go back in time to thinking that that's just not going to end up working, we need more abundance, we need more energy. And that's a much more practical path forward for people that everybody in the world wants more of that. And if it doesn't produce a lot of carbon, we could get to the point where we're solving more problems. I think that's it, you know, I think it's certainly


Unknown Speaker  57:34  

better for one's mental health itself. Yeah. And it


Charles Oppenheimer  57:37  

follows organic systems like capitalism and conservatism, the part of those philosophies that really have proven true is that you put up two systems, one, a human design system that's got it all worked out in theory, and you put an organic one next to it, that's messy, and just generating self interest and often to self interest. One works, it's like, it's a little more organic. So it's possible to think like, hey, if we focus on producing a lot more energy to solve our world's problems, that's more likely than a top down decision not to do new technology that's never worked. And it probably never will. Yeah, very


Chris Keefer  58:11  

interesting framing. Well, we've got to stop at at some point. Where Can folks learn more about you and about the project? And Hadamard product project?


Charles Oppenheimer  58:20  

Yes, the Oppenheimer project.org. You know, it's conceptual. There's a few bullet points up there. And but welcome to go to the website, subscribe. There's a there's a donation capacity, get in touch. And I'm just starting to do a lot of stuff around this, trying to make it a full time effort on the project. And also starting in various investment, convening things, getting people together. That's that's the idea.


Chris Keefer  58:47  

Well, you have a blockbuster wind in your sails right now. With the movie that's just come out.


Unknown Speaker  58:52  

It's a it's good.


Speaker 1  58:54  

Hey, man, I'm very glad that the film came out because that gives us this pretty great opportunity to meet one another and have this conversation. So great having you on Charles, good to meet you. And look forward to staying in touch and see where the project leads you.


Unknown Speaker  59:07  

I have a feeling we'll be talking again, Chris.



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