Science must salute the link between physics and the mystical

Despite the pursuit of hard fact, the nature of reality is illuminated by Eastern thought as much as it is by atomic theory

This year saw Cork (and, by extension, Ireland) claim the best actor prize at the Academy Awards for Cillian Murphy’s performance in Oppenheimer. Christopher Nolan’s biopic of physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, has received almost universal praise in the West. However, its focus on Oppenheimer as its protagonist has drawn criticism about the perspectives excluded, whether interned Japanese Americans or the Native American people affected by radiation near the New Mexico atomic test site.

In Japan, Oppenheimer opened in March, eight months after its US release. Screenings were accompanied by warnings about its potential to evoke traumatic memories of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Responses have generally commended the film-making but bemoaned the lack of attention given to the more than 200,000 victims of the nuclear weapons that Oppenheimer and his team developed.

The film also generated some controversy among the ruling BJP party in India. During an intimate scene, Oppenheimer reads from Hindu sacred literature, which some viewed as sacrilegious. He translates a section of the Bhagavad Gita from Sanskrit to English, rendering it as “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. This phrase is more commonly associated with the first successful atomic test; Oppenheimer told a 1965 television interviewer that the verse had come to his mind after witnessing the detonation.

A 1949 profile in Life magazine claimed that a longer section of the verse (“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one”) had occurred to Oppenheimer. In the popular consciousness, the idea that the physicist actually recited the Bhagavad Gita at the first atomic test has taken hold. While this isn’t supported by strong evidence, it does reflect Oppenheimer’s interest in Indian religion, and raises an important point about the relationship between physics and the mystical.


Oppenheimer, raised in a non-observant Jewish family, never fully embraced Hinduism. However, he did deeply revere its sacred texts, both for their profound literary value and for their moral, spiritual and metaphysical perspectives. An accomplished polyglot, he had already learned German, Dutch, Greek, Latin and French when he began studying Sanskrit in 1933. Having moved to the University of California at Berkeley, Oppenheimer befriended a Sanskrit scholar and decided to read Hindu literature in its original form.

Recent work by the historian Elena Schaa demonstrates that Werner Heisenberg, the Bavarian physicist who worked on the German atomic programme, embraced a similarly aesthetic relationship with Catholicism. On the San Francisco Bay, the philosophical tendencies were more iconoclastic, a reflection of the nascent counterculture that also proved fertile ground for communist thought.

By the 1960s, the countercultural movement’s pursuit of alternative lifestyles had moved to the exploration of consciousness and spirituality. At Harvard, Timothy Leary, who had completed a psychology doctorate at Berkeley in 1950 and was impressed by the work of its physicists, was promoting the value of psychedelic drugs. The physicists, meanwhile, had continued to take inspiration from Eastern philosophy and notions of interconnectedness, the nature of reality, and cycles of death and rebirth.

This expansive view of physics, particularly quantum physics, interacted with a growing sense of antiauthoritarianism. Some physicists, such as Belfast-born John Stewart Bell, began to question the dominant theories in quantum physics, particularly the Copenhagen interpretation. This was a set of principles devised by leading physicists in the 1920s, but most closely associated with Niels Bohr. Bohr dismissed the idea that physics should uncover the fundamental nature of reality, but instead thought it should concentrate on what could be said, scientifically speaking, about reality, based on observation.

Bell was unsatisfied with this approach and how widely it was accepted. Eventually, he demonstrated that quantum mechanics are fundamentally incompatible with classical understandings of reality. In basic terms, Bell’s theorem challenged the concept of local realism, which argued that interactions between quantum particles should not be able to be able to move faster than the speed of limit, a sort of universal speed limit. Yet in quantum entanglement, two connected particles can affect each other instantaneously no matter the distance between them.

Albert Einstein had dubbed this phenomenon “spooky action at a distance” and assumed that it was proof of a missing variable in quantum mechanics. Bell argued instead that no variable could account for the interactions. This discovery affected not only quantum physics but also our understanding of the fundamental nature of reality and forms the basis for new technologies such as quantum computing and cryptography. In that sense, the interest in Eastern philosophy and alternative lifestyles that Oppenheimer helped to ferment affects us today as much as his atomic legacy.

Stuart Mathieson is research manager at InterTradeIreland