Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Wonders Are Many"

As physicists go, J. Robert Oppenheimer is the rock star. No need to explain why. Just take a deep breath and read the Wikipedia entry.

So how does one reconcile this towering intellect of a man, the poetry-loving and Bhagvad Gita-quoting genius, and the man who believed the atom bomb would actually end all future wars? This was, of course, the subject of the opera, Dr. Atomic.

I have not seen the opera yet but I did catch the premiere of the superb documentary, "Wonders Are Many", on Independent Lens. The film looks at the making of the opera, a task which I am now convinced is nearly as complex as Quantum Physics. How does one set lines like these to music?
A sustained neutron chain reaction
resulting from nuclear fission
has been demonstrated;
production plants of several
different types are in operation,
building a stock pile
of the explosive material.
Only John Adams can. (Link to Alex Ross's column in the New Yorker.) The film shows him at work and by the end of the film, you will have an even greater admiration for the artist's talent. It is just as fascinating to watch the always controversial director/librettist Peter Sellars at work. (link to an American Repertory Theatre page.)

Movies and CGI may have made explosions commonplace, but how does one convey the magnitude of the A-bomb explosion on stage? Through decidedly low-tech means - music and words. But it does help that these are not just any words, but words taken from the Gita, Oppenheimer's favorite text:
At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous,
Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,
Terrible with fangs, O master,
All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am.
When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent,
Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow,
With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring—
All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.
(The above scene can been seen on a YT video. Link via this blog.)

This excellent film is available on DVD, but I also hope PBS considers putting up this film on their website or YouTube.


Lekhni said...

Aren't there even more explicit references in the Mahabharata to what sounds like a nuclear war - especially the effect of the brahmastra- people with their skins sloughing off and hair falling and whatnot?

km said...

Lekhni: That may well be the case, but I also know the writers/poets responsible for the epic were also fond of story-telling :)