“Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity,” reads the opening caption of director Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster movie Oppenheimer.
Based on the true story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called “Father of the Atomic Bomb”, Nolan’s movie has already grossed over six million dollars worldwide.
But what is the link Nolan sought to establish between the American theoretical physicist and one of Greek mythology’s most tragic heroes?
Oppenheimer, the “American Prometheus”
The answer to this question comes from the book that inspired Nolan to write and direct the film, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.
During an event for the launch of the book back in 2005, Bird made the comparison between Oppenheimer and Prometheus that is alluded to in the book’s title. Bird began the presentation by saying that the scientist was a “modern Prometheus”, and that like the legendary figure of Greek mythology, he was punished for “stealing fire from the gods.”
In short, the “fire” that Oppenheimer “stole from the gods” was the knowledge to create weapons of mass destruction. In 1942, Oppenheimer joined the Manhattan Project. By 1943, he led the Los Alamos Lab in developing the first nuclear weapons. His expertise ensured success. On July 16, 1945, he witnessed the first test of an atomic bomb, Trinity. In August 1945, these weapons were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only use of atomic weapons in a conflict in history.
Oppenheimer’s legacy remains divisive. He was undoubtedly a brilliantly talented scientist, but his contribution to the development of nuclear weapons continues to stir debate. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are continually discussed in terms of military necessity and morality. Moreover, the invention and subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons are seen by some as a stabilizing force on the international stage and by others as a dangerous step on the road towards the end of civilization.
Like Prometheus, Oppenheimer faced a punishment of sorts after his work on the Manhattan Project. At the culmination of the Second World War, the Manhattan Project became public knowledge and Oppenheimer essentially became the national spokesman for science in the US. His portrait was featured in Life and Time and he became one of the leading voices on the interplay between the sciences and international relations.
However, Oppenheimer’s association with left-wing causes and his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb during the Cold War era would ultimately lead to his ostracization.
In 1954, an investigation into Oppenheimer’s political affiliations and opposition to the hydrogen bomb culminated in the revocation of his security clearance. While the inquiry did not substantiate espionage allegations, Oppenheimer’s associations with left-wing circles and his dissenting stance on nuclear weaponry led to doubts about his loyalty and reliability. Consequently, being stripped of his access to classified information significantly diminished his political influence, isolating him from critical scientific and policy discussions that shaped the trajectory of Cold War geopolitics and the arms race.
In Greek mythology, the enduring tale of Prometheus unfolds as a symbol of ingenuity, rebellion, and the price of defying the gods. Prometheus, a Titan known for his craftiness and affinity for humanity, chooses to empower mortal beings with the divine gift of fire and knowledge. Despite the wrath of the Olympian gods and their intent to withhold these privileges, Prometheus secretly provided humanity with the means to forge tools, kindle warmth, and explore the realms of wisdom.
For this transgression, Zeus, the king of the gods punished Prometheus harshly. He was chained to a rock while an eagle, an emblem of Zeus’ dominion, perpetually feasted upon his regenerating liver. Each day, Prometheus endured this excruciating torment, only to have his liver grow back overnight, perpetuating his suffering in a seemingly never-ending cycle of agony.
In some versions of Greek mythology, Prometheus is eventually saved by Heracles. As part of his Twelve Labors, Heracles encountered Prometheus and, moved by his plight, slayed the tormenting eagle and freed the Titan from his chains.
Over the centuries, the story of Prometheus has served as a metaphor and allegorical device for a myriad of subjects. His theft of fire from the gods often comes to represent the ambiguous nature of the attainment of knowledge, which may be both a blessing and a curse.