The Manhattan Project and the Seduction of Technology

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Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer took Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. Nolan won best director, his first Academy Award, although he has been nominated several times, and Jennifer Lame won the award for film editing. Cillian Murphy, who brilliantly portrays Robert Oppenheimer, received best actor, and Robert Downey Jr. won best supporting actor for his excellent portrayal of Lewis Strauss. The popularity of the film provides a good cultural touchpoint for discussing human nature, trusting in God, and the technological imperative as exemplified in the Tower of Babel story.

The film is based on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.[1] It focuses on what led Robert Oppenheimer to become lauded as the “Father of the atomic bomb” and the eventual fallout in which he was investigated for allegedly being a Communist sympathizer. The book is over 700 pages and delves into Oppenheimer’s pre-war life as an academic, his sordid personal life, as well as his time as head of the Manhattan Project and the post-war McCarthyism that led to the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance and his retreat from the spotlight.

The film’s narrative is nonlinear and somewhat disorienting at first, a technique Nolan has used in prior films, like Momento. Like his film Interstellar, Oppenheimer is centered around a personal, seemingly insignificant scene that takes on greater significance as the film progresses.[2] The scene setting is a pond at Princeton about two years after the end of World War II. Oppenheimer has a personal conversation with Albert Einstein while Lewis Strauss looks on. We do not know until the end of the film what was actually said during the conversation.

The film opens with a kind of primordial montage and the line—“Who would want to justify their whole life?”—spoken by an unknown character in reference to the older Oppenheimer sitting before a panel at his security clearance hearing. In many ways, this film is about Oppenheimer, the American Prometheus, justifying his life, and evokes Victor Frankenstein telling his story in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. However, Oppenheimer is more interested in self-punishment while Victor Frankenstein wants to share his story as a cautionary tale.

Nolan said in an interview that the film is about consequences: “the delayed onset of consequences that people often forget—the film is full of different representations of that. Some visceral, some more narrative.”[3] Throughout the film, the use of ripples spreading out across water visually reinforces this theme of consequences spreading out from a single seemingly small event.

Nolan shows us the tortured guilt Oppenheimer feels through surrealist imagery, often depicting what is going on inside Robert Oppenheimer’s head. Before the Trinity Test in New Mexico, Oppenheimer’s visions are of the quantum realm, often beautiful and set to music. At one point, Oppenheimer meets Niels Bohr, who tells him algebra is like sheet music and that it is less important how well you read it than whether you can hear the music. To this, Oppenheimer says he can hear the music, and the viewer hears it with him.

After the Trinity Test in New Mexico, which was the first detonation of an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer’s visions become more destructive, and the music is less harmonious. In one scene, after the bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer stammers through a victory speech at Los Alamos as the audience, all people that worked in the make-shift city, cheer for him. But then the scene becomes deafening silent with only Oppenheimer’s breathing audible. In his mind’s eye, he sees a woman’s face flake away and a couple crying. White debris starts falling from the ceiling, reminiscent of fallout ash, and the scene becomes blindingly bright. According to the film’s editor, Jennifer Lame, they intentionally edited the images and sound so that the victory speech evoked the Trinity Test.[4]

As a viewer, you feel (with the characters) that everything changed once the Trinity Test occurred because it was at that point that theory became real.[5] These visual and auditory techniques center on the theme of delayed unintended consequences. Einstein, who serves as the voice of wisdom in the film, prophetically says to Oppenheimer that he must deal with the consequences of his achievement and when he has suffered enough, they will give him a medal.

The Bible and the Atom Bomb

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—originally subtitled “A Modern Prometheus”—was written at a time when people were contending with the implications of the discovery of electricity, and in Oppenheimer we see not only Robert Oppenheimer but many of the characters contending with the implications of the discovery of nuclear energy.

But, the title of the biography, American Prometheus, notwithstanding, Robert Oppenheimer is not Victor Frankenstein. The making of the atomic bomb is not the story of a single scientist playing God by attempting to create something in his own image through a fit of scientific hubris and unmitigated passion. The Manhattan Project was more like the city of Babel in which men (and women) who “spoke” the same language—physics—came together in a constructed city—Los Alamos—with the purpose of building something that they hoped would end all wars. It is the story of technique in service of power and security.

Not only can we draw a parallel with Los Alamos and Babel, but Nolan’s theme of unintended consequences can help us discuss the Tower of Babel as a project that led to unintended consequences that had a ripple effect throughout history.

The Manhattan Project brought the greatest minds in physics together in a government-constructed city, Los Alamos. Likewise, in Genesis 11, the people of earth decided to build a city for the twofold reasons of not becoming separated and making a name for themselves. The culmination of the city is the Tower of Babel. The tower’s height (“with its top in the heavens,” Gen 11:4, ESV) signified the builders’ intention to construct a great city. God stopped the construction of both the city and the tower because of what was possible with their concerted efforts: “and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6).

To liken the Tower of Babel to technological pursuit is nothing new; many new technologies are likened to the Tower of Babel. But it would be disingenuous to talk about the atomic bomb as man pridefully trying to reach heaven, or bringing heaven down to himself, as the case may be. Certainly, pride has something to do with it, but the impetus behind building the bomb was to end the war. To ignore the war weariness of 1945 and the evils done by the Nazis is to judge without context. It isn’t about the tower; it’s about security.

Also, a note on ethics and ascribing good and evil to technology: Atomic energy, itself, is not necessarily evil, but whether or not weaponizing it was evil is something to be debated. That is a different ethics question than whether it was right to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without warning resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians.

While God intervened to stop the construction of the Tower of Babel, he did not directly intervene to stop the construction of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. Yet, in Nolan’s film, we see the characters’ ambitions quelled because of a crisis of conscience. As mentioned earlier, Einstein served as a kind of prophetic voice and wise counsel. Additionally, Isidor Rabi, played by David Krumholtz, serves as Oppenheimer’s conscience and obliquely as a Messiah-like figure. Rabi is a practicing Jew. Oppenheimer is Jewish. Strauss, the antagonist in the film, changed his name to sound less Jewish. Twice when Oppenheimer is particularly melancholy, Rabi offers him food and tells him to “eat.” Rabi eventually joins the Manhattan Project and testifies on behalf of Oppenheimer’s character at the security hearing, even after learning of one of Oppenheimer’s illicit affairs while at Los Alamos. Before joining the project, though, Rabi says, “I don’t want three centuries of physics to culminate in a weapon of mass destruction.” He eventually joins the project because the Nazis are the greater evil.

Jacques Ellul and Why Los Alamos Is Babel

Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City can offer insights into how to use Oppenheimer’s setting at Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project as a way to discuss a biblical understanding of God, authority, security, and technology. Ellul’s thesis is that in the Bible, the “city” is a place of spiritual influence.[6] The Bible contrasts the city of God, to use Augustine’s phrasing, with the city of man as mankind’s attempt to create his own security and display his own prowess. Ellul is not writing a treatise against urban living, but he is addressing what cities, like Babylon, Nineveh, Sodom, and Gomorrah, represent in the Bible. These representations say something about human nature and our inclination for technological dominion.

Ellul begins with the story of Cain, who built the first city after he was cast out of Eden for killing his brother. Cain’s fear was that he would be killed, the very act that he initiated on earth (Gen 4:14). God promises Cain that no harm will come to him, but Cain “went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen 4:16). He then built a city that he named after his firstborn son, Enoch.[7]

Ellul sees a connection between going away from the presence of the Lord and building a city that is named after his son because Cain was seeking both security and eternity apart from God.[8] Los Alamos, located in the middle of the New Mexican desert, was built as a place with high security, and the purpose of living in this city was to create something that would help Americans rest secure during war. The film does a good job of showing how the city serves to domesticate nature and protect residents from the elements, although it is the weather, something no one can control, that almost ruins the Trinity Test.

Ellul then turns to Nimrod, who was a mighty man and, according to Genesis 10, constructed several cities, including Babel and Nineveh. Here, Ellul says that the city, beyond being a place of security and legacy, is also the center from which war is waged because the city is tied to man’s desire for power and control:

What world could better demonstrate the parallel between urban civilization and warring civilization than our own, a world where the city and war have become two of the poles around which the entire economic, social and political life of our time move.[9]

This brings us to Babel (or Babylon), the “place of confusion.” For Ellul, Babylon is not just a city, but the city, and represents a synthesis of all cities.[10] Babylon, and all man-made cities according to Ellul, represents the unholy mixing of Christian and pagan practices, which is shown in the Bible with the Babylonian exile. During exile, Jews were required to live among the pagans rather than be set apart.

In the film, the Trinity Test demonstrates an unholy mixing of Christian and pagan, which may not have been intentional on Nolan’s part but is illustrative of Ellul’s point. Oppenheimer supposedly called it “Trinity” from a poem by John Donne, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.”[11] After the test, Oppenheimer quotes Vishnu the Preserver from the Bhagavad Gita (and thereby incorporating the Hindu trinity): “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The John Donne poem is about God ravaging the heart, an almost violent overtaking of the unfaithful heart so that it would come back to the Lord: “o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” We heard the Bhagavad Gita line earlier in the film during an illicit scene with Oppenheimer’s lover, Jean Tatlock. The Trinity Test scene demonstrates the striking juxtaposition of the pagan and holy. It is also the scene in which the purpose of Los Alamos has been realized, or we could say, the culmination of the building of the Tower, shaped like a mushroom cloud.

Los Alamos In Real Life

Ellul sees the city as having a spiritual character. Living in a city shapes what you do; there is an “end” or telos to a city. The day-to-day work of Los Alamos was centered around building the bomb, Babel around building the ziggurat. People that lived in railroad towns were oriented around the train. The same is true for those living in arts districts or medical districts or college towns:

Standing before a city, man finds himself faced with such a perfect seduction that he literally no longer knows himself, he accepts himself as emasculated, stripped of both flesh and spirit. And acting so, he considered himself to be perfectly reasonable, because the city’s seduction is in fact rational, and one really must obey the orders of reason.[12]

This seduction was apparently what drove those at Los Alamos to continue working on the bomb. James L. Nolan Jr.’s book Atomic Doctors: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age at one point addresses why many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project did not stop working once Germany had surrendered.[13] Many of them had strong moral convictions, yet they could not say why, at the time, they did not step back and reassess the necessity of the project but described it as being caught up in the “technological momentum.”[14] According to Atomic Doctors, it was not until the bomb was tested, the Trinity Test, that the scientists began to question what they had unleashed.[15]

One man, a Quaker and pacifist, said, “And in terms of everything that I believe . . . I cannot understand why I did not take and make that act” [i.e., take stock and walk away from the project]. He goes on to say, “Our lives were directed to do one thing. It was as though we were programmed to do that and as automatons were doing that.”[16] Frank Oppenheimer, Robert’s brother who joined Los Alamos, is quoted as saying, “It’s amazing how the technology tools trap one. They are so powerful . . . the machinery had caught us in its trap and we were anxious to get this thing to go.”[17]

Often the work of bioethicists, and church leaders, is to address the seduction of technology as a solution to deeply felt needs. Depending on the time or place you live in, it can almost seem reasonable that one day we could genetically engineer our children, or eliminate all diseases, or cheat death through the transhuman endeavor. In other words, technique in service of power and security.

Although the film is about one of the greatest technological achievements of the twentieth century centering around the greatest minds of the twentieth century, its theme of delayed and unforeseen consequences is as old as Babel. Ellul says the city is seductive because it gives one the sense of mastery over nature and that so long as everyone works to achieve a single goal, God is not needed. As Ellul put it, “It is only in urban civilization that man has the metaphysical possibility of saying, ‘I killed God,’”[18] or, to put it in other terms, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”


[1] Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Knopf, 2005).

[2] Bilge Ebiri “The ‘Troubling Reverberations’ at the End of Oppenheimer, Explained” Vulture, July 21, 2023,

[3] Christopher Nolan, quoted in Ebiri “The ‘Troubling Reverberations’ at the End of Oppenheimer.”

[4] Ebiri “The ‘Troubling Reverberations’ at the End of Oppenheimer.”

[5] Ebiri “The ‘Troubling Reverberations’ at the End of Oppenheimer.”

[6] Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 9.

[7] Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 5.

[8] Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 5

[9] Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 13.

[10] Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 20.

[11] The full poem can be read at Poetry Foundation, accessed February 15, 2024,

[12] Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 30.

[13] No relation that I know of to Christopher Nolan.

[14] James L. Nolan Jr., Atomic Doctors: Conscience and Complicity and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age (Harvard University Press, 2020), 45.

[15] Nolan Jr., Atomic Doctors, 53.

[16] Nolan Jr., Atomic Doctors, 32–33.

[17] Nolan Jr., Atomic Doctors, 33

[18] Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 16.