Poised for Oscar Gold, Oppenheimer Boasts a Big Red Distinction

Thanks in part to its physics-centric plot, the hit movie may depict more Cornellians than any other feature film in history

By Corey Ryan Earle ’07

With 13 Academy Award nominations, Oppenheimer is the frontrunner at this year’s Oscars. Dramatizing the efforts of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II, it’s the highest-grossing biopic of all time.

But it may also hold a more niche record: it depicts more real-life Cornellians (both alumni and former faculty) as characters than any other feature. They include:

An illustration of Corey Earle with the title Storytime with Corey

A photo of Hans Bethe
(Cornell University)

Hans Bethe

(Played by Gustaf Skarsgård)

Bethe was on the physics faculty from 1935–75, and remained active as an emeritus professor until his death in 2005. He led the Los Alamos Theoretical Division of the Manhattan Project and testified on Oppenheimer’s behalf at the 1954 hearing that ultimately stripped him of his security clearance.

The namesake of Hans Bethe House on West Campus, he won the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics (the actual medal is in the University Library’s collection).

After the war, he was active in the push for peaceful use of nuclear energy.


Richard Feynman

(Played by Jack Quaid)

Feynman was a group leader under Bethe’s Theoretical Division, working on the Bethe-Feynman formula for calculating the yield of a fission bomb.

After the war, Bethe and colleague Robert Bacher recruited Feynman to Cornell, and he taught physics from 1945–50, living at Telluride House for much of that time. While the Ithaca weather spurred his departure for warmer climes at Caltech, the work that won him the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics was largely conducted on the Hill.

Richard Feynman in front of a chalkboard
(Wikimedia Commons)

(In the film, you can spot Feynman because of his passion for playing bongos.)

Feynman would later cross paths with another Cornellian: he played a key role in investigating the Challenger space shuttle disaster on the commission led by former U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers, LLB ’37.


Isidor Isaac Rabi
(Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Isidor Isaac Rabi 1919

(Played by David Krumholtz)

A longtime friend of Oppenheimer’s, Rabi was a consultant at Los Alamos. He attended the Trinity nuclear test and allegedly won the betting pool on its yield (18 kilotons).

Like Bethe, he testified for Oppenheimer at the 1954 security hearing.

Rabi won the physics Nobel in 1944, less than a year before the Trinity test.


Maj. Gen. Kenneth Nichols ’32, MS ’33

(Played by Dane DeHaan)

Depicted as a villain in the film, Nichols—who served as district engineer for the Manhattan Project—initiated the 1954 security hearing against Oppenheimer.

Kenneth Nichols sitting at a desk
(Wikimedia Commons)

He was also the project’s deputy director under Leslie Groves (portrayed by Matt Damon), and later became general manager of the Atomic Energy Commission.


Philip Morrison at a blackboard
(Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Philip Morrison

(Played by Harrison Gilbertson)

Morrison was a Los Alamos group leader who helped calculate the amount of plutonium needed for the bomb.

He later traveled to Hiroshima as part of the Manhattan Project’s mission to assess its damage.

Like Feynman, he was recruited by Bethe to Cornell’s physics faculty, serving from 1946–65 despite tensions over his past Communist activity. And like Bethe, he became an outspoken advocate for nuclear nonproliferation.


Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz, PhD ’51

(Played by Josh Zuckerman)

Lomanitz was a protégé of Oppenheimer’s while in graduate school at Berkeley’s Radiation Lab, but his Communist affiliations and union organizing prevented him from joining the Manhattan Project.

He was indicted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949 and eventually finished his PhD at Cornell under Feynman.


More Big Red Oppenheimer connections

Dozens of other Cornellians played roles at Los Alamos and in support of the Manhattan Project.

With many physics faculty returning to campus after service on the project, department leadership pressured the Board of Trustees to support a program in nuclear physics in order to retain top talent.

In January 1946, the board formally approved creation of a Laboratory of Nuclear Studies, with a coordinating committee led by Bethe.

(The very next item listed in the trustee meeting minutes: the hiring of future Cornell president Dale Corson as an assistant professor of physics.)

Oppenheimer himself visited the Hill in spring 1946, living at Telluride while giving six lectures on “atomic physics in civilization” in Bailey Hall over two weeks as part of the University’s Messenger Lecture series.

He returned in 1949 to speak at a symposium on “America’s Freedom and Responsibility in the Contemporary Crisis.”

The poster to the movie "Oppenheimer"
(Universal Pictures)

And Oppenheimer’s brother, Frank, nearly joined the Cornell faculty in the late 1950s.

Blacklisted from academia due to his earlier affiliation with the Communist Party, Frank kept in touch with his close friend and Los Alamos alumnus, physics professor Robert Wilson, who had arranged a job offer.

Unfortunately, the offer was contingent on signing what amounted to a loyalty oath, denying involvement with the Communist Party, and Frank declined.

Oppenheimer himself visited the Hill in spring 1946, living at Telluride while giving six lectures on “atomic physics in civilization.”

During Oppenheimer’s climax, two non-physicist Cornellians play small roles off-screen.

In 1959, the U.S. Senate held a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Commerce nominee Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), who helped orchestrate the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance.

Among the many senators who voted against Strauss’s confirmation are Thomas Hennings Jr. 1924 and future presidential candidate Edmund Muskie, LLB ’39. The 86th U.S. Congress remains the only time that two Cornellians have served in the Senate together.

An expert on Big Red lore, Corey Ryan Earle ’07 teaches “The First American University,” a wildly popular spring semester course on Cornell history.

Published February 26, 2024


Comments

  1. Steve Kawaler, Class of 1980

    Ken Greisen was a key part of the detonator development group for the Manhattan project and, later, chair of the astronomy department at Cornell in the 1970s (he gave me my first TA job back then). There’s a “funny” story in the last paragraph of his NY Times obituary about a harrowing drive from Los Alamos to the Trinity site with the detonators in the trunk of his car…
    https://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/03/us/03greisen.html

    • Ted Gull

      And Ken’s son, Eric, was born at Los Alamos. I knew Phil Morrison as a physics professor at MIT. Richard Feynman would come to Hughes Research Labs in 1969-1970 to lecture on biology while I was a Hughes Fellow. I enjoyed the many lectures by Hans Bethe on nuclear physics.

  2. Jason R Gettinger, Class of 1964

    Very interesting. Too bad Feynman didn’t like the Ithaca weather, also too bad he died young, shortly after his service on the Rogers Commission. Isador Rabi became a professor at Columbia University.

    • Amy Christian, Class of 1985

      Prof. Robert L. Patton, entomology, also worked in the Manhattan Project, I believe in Chicago. He was my father-in-law’s dissertation advisor (my father-in-law went in to work at NASA). He was at Cornell for a very long time and lived into his early 90s.

  3. Kenneth R. Kupchak

    My Dad was seconded by Westinghouse to the Manhattan Project at the Lawrence Lab at Berkley. Dad, having Project Priority, was flown in 1944 to Berkley. Mom and I, then two, had to day the multi-day train ride from Pittsburgh to Berkley. (I still recall a stop in Ogallala , NB. to visit relatives and a stop in Salt Lake where I remember not being able to sink in the buoyant salt water.)

    At Berkley Dad world periodically see Robert Lawrence and Frank Oppenheimer, while Mom and I steeled peas on the sun deck roof of the Oakland Hotel, where we lived for a year. Dad recalled looking into a small peep hole in the cyclatron(?) at the lab and swore that it created a hole in his retina– as I seem to have inherited the same malady, it obviously was not the cyclotron..

    Among my toddler memories are riding on the shelf of the back seat of a car as we toured the tall redwoods and even drove through one of them. Once our cable car got stuck on one of the steep hills in SF and we got off and went into a trinket store and they bought a small metal bear and a china elephant for me, which I had until I went away to Cornell, where Hand Bethe was still holding fort. Small peripherals for a 2-3 year old.

  4. David Harding, Class of 1972

    Boyce “Mac” McDaniel was another Cornellian physicist at Los Alamos. He had earned his PhD from Cornell and was doing a post-doc at MIT when he joined the effort on the Manhattan Project. After the war he joined the crowd in Ithaca and gained a reputation as both an excellent experimenter and a builder of accelerators. He took over as director of the Cornell Laboratory of Nuclear Science when Bob Wilson left to build the accelerators at what is now Fermilab. One of Mac’s claims to fame was that, being responsible for the electronic instrumentation, he was the last person to touch the Trinity Test bomb up on the tower in a lightening storm.

  5. Robert Meller, Class of 1973

    John DeWire was assistant director of LNS, under Mac. I don’t remember his role at Los Alamos, but he had a piece of glass from the Trinity crater as a souvenir. It was about the size of his palm. He took it down from the shelf once and showed it to me. He commented that it was hardly radioactive anymore.

  6. M. Jane Klein Epstein, Class of 1977

    Morton Camac was also at Los Alamos and he received a phD in Nuclear Physics from Cornell.

  7. Allan L. Schwartz

    It is with renewed memory/pride that I reflect back on taking/passing Physics 101-102 in my sophomore year at Cornell (1959-1960). …. In retrospect, I must admit that I enjoyed the 3 hours spent watching the Oppenheimer movie much more than taking what was back in the day, at least for me, a challenging academic experience!

  8. Eric Norman, Class of 1972

    I fondly remember a guest lecture that Hans Bethe gave in my Physics 443 class during my senior year. It was thrilling to hear quantum mechanics explained by someone who helped to invent it!

  9. Karen Tallentire, Class of 1989

    Another Los Alamos/Cornell connection: Bill Hudson, one of the first men to be trained as SEALs fought on Iwo Jima (one of the few to see almost the entire battle) and afterward was trained as a USMC officer at Cornell in the V12 program (https://navy.cornell.edu/about/). After the war ended, he became a PE teacher and coach at Los Alamos, teaching several generations of scientists’ children to swim.

    Pictures on this page show him doing acrobatics (or is it a physics experiment?) at Cornell (note that this was after he was wounded!)
    https://historyonashirt.com/pages/iwo-jima-about-the-author

  10. Julian Max Aroesty, MD, Class of 1953

    In my senior year, I enrolled in a course called Physical Chemistry that was taught, not largely by graduate students which was a common arrangement, but by Hans Bethe himself. He had exceptional teaching skills, that were critical for transmitting complicated physics to fourth year chemistry majors.

    In retrospect I recall the following attributed to Albert Einstein: “If you are unable to explain it in simple terms, you do not understand it yourself.”

    • Martin Sahn, Class of 1958

      You were lucky to have been taught physical chemistry by Hans Bethe. It must have been a great experience. Many of us had Professor Simon Bauer for physical chemistry, which we called the “mystery hour with Bauer” because he seemed to go out of his way to make the difficult material even more difficult.

  11. Diane Matyas, Class of 1984

    My parents returned to Ithaca in the mid 60’s when my dad Robert Matyas (Arch ‘52) was recruited by Bob Wilson to head up the construction of the Wilson lab. All these characters were part of my childhood, and my mother (soon to be 94) recognized so many when watching the film. Physicists are special. I especially loved the Physics Dept picnics – they loved kids and we always could feel the warmth of their nature. The irony that the bomb was the result of all this new thinking, and I think became their connection to humanity, has always resounded through time.

  12. Betty Matyas

    My late husband, Robert Matyas, Class ’51, was privileged to work with and become good friends with the men mentioned in this article, Bob Wilson, Hans Bethe, John DeWire and Boyce McDaniel while heading up the construction of the synchrotron built in 1965-70 under Alumni Field. Bob passed in May 2021, but he would have been most interested in viewing this wonderful film Oppenheimer.

  13. George Weiner, Class of 1964

    Paul Olam, Mathematics faculty for 25 years beginning in 1949. During his time at Los Alamos, he was among the scientists who questioned the implications of the atomic bomb, and after its use against Japan, he became a lifelong advocate for world peace and for nuclear arms control.

    • George Weiner, Class of 1964

      Oops, misspelled his name, it’s Olum.

Leave a Comment

Once your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other stories You may like