- Physicist Greg Spriggs praises the mostly accurate depiction of the first A-bomb blast in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, but questions the effectiveness of scientists donning sunscreen for protection.
- The film’s portrayal of the bomb itself and the circumstances surrounding the first test received high marks for realism from Spriggs.
- While Spriggs gave the film a 7 out of 10 for accuracy, considering Nolan’s commitment to realism, some may find this rating disappointing, given the filmmaker’s previous feats in capturing authenticity.
A nuclear expert assesses Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer for realism, addressing whether sunscreen would actually have protected someone during the Trinity test. With a box office tally over $650 million worldwide, Nolan’s film about the invention of the atomic bomb has surpassed all expectations to become a genuine blockbuster. Realism as always is the name of the game for Nolan, who is known for avoiding CGI in bringing his epic movies to life, and outdid himself on Oppenheimer, turning to practical effects in visualizing the devastating effects of the first atomic bomb.
While audiences were blown away by Nolan’s vision of Oppenheimer and the Trinity test, the question remains, exactly how realistic was the movie’s depiction of the first A-bomb blast? According to one nuclear expert, the movie got it largely right, but not perfect. In a video for Insider, physicist Greg Spriggs took apart the A-bomb sequence in Oppenheimer, praising the film for its mostly accurate depiction of the bomb itself, and for the circumstances of the first test. Spriggs did cast doubt on the actual effectiveness of one detail, wondering if the scientists donning sunscreen to protect themselves from the bomb’s flash would really have done anything. Check out what Spriggs said in the space below (around 3:00 of the clip):
They were trying to hold all the cables in place. This was a test. They weren’t certain that this particular design was going to work, and so this was sort of the prototype, and they didn’t go to great lengths to make everything really robust. So they were just basically winging it with duct tape to hold things in place. And the actual one probably was a little bit more structured and more engineered to be a real weapon.
The reason they suspended the bomb from the tower, they wanted to get it above the ground so they could measure the shock wave. There was a lot of uncertainty, since it was the first one. There was a lot of uncertainty as to whether this would work, and if it did work, how much energy would be released. And so they needed to be able to film this, and they didn’t want the shock wave interacting with the surface. They thought that if they suspended it up high enough, that they would kind of suppress the amount of nuclear fallout that would occur by all the dirt being lofted.
They had actually built several shelters for the scientists. I think the closest shelter was about 5 miles away. And of course everybody was wearing goggles. When the detonation goes off, it would look very bright, but it would protect their eyes. Here are the glasses. Very, very dark. Right now, I can’t see anything. It’s pitch black in here. But if a nuclear detonation went off, I could see it.
They were all laying down thinking that the shock wave might get to them and if they were laying down that it wouldn’t be a direct hit. You don’t want to have a big surface area if the shock wave is coming over. You want to be kind of laying flat. There have been situations where we’ve had tests where the yield was a little bit higher than what people thought or the wind blew the bomb a little bit closer to the observers, that people have actually gotten a little bit of a sunburn. I don’t think the sunscreen would’ve helped very much. It’s basically a heat flux that hits you. I guess it would’ve helped a little bit, but not much.
For the accuracy of what the weapon looked like and how they hung it from the tower and so forth, maybe a seven.
7/10 Is A Surprisingly Low Accuracy Score For Oppenheimer
Nolan’s obsession with realism has led him to pull off some great filmmaking feats, including crashing a real plane for Tenet, and setting off real explosions in order to capture the beauty and horror of the A-bomb in Oppenheimer. Nolan is also known for bringing in experts to help him nail the science in his films, even filling the supporting cast of Oppenheimer with real scientists. Given Nolan’s commitment to getting things right, nuclear expert Spriggs’ accuracy score of just seven for Oppenheimer is arguably disappointing.
It would be interesting indeed to know what more Nolan could have done to make Oppenheimer convincing in the eyes of a nuclear physicist. For general audiences, the movie was enough of a mind-blowing experience to make it an unlikely worldwide blockbuster. Even with a three-hour running time, enough people took to the theaters to see Oppenheimer on the big screen to push it over the $600 million mark worldwide. Much like the A-bomb itself, Oppenheimer proved far more effective than most would have imagined.