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The first act of Christopher Nolan's new movie shows Robert Oppenheimer's doctorate years in Germany. This act comprises impressionistic visuals of Oppenheimer's mental visions when working on the Born-Oppenheimer approximation. The emotionally resonant Act One reminded me of the book When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut. I found the book through Venkat's impeccable review Disturbed Realities (paywalled). Labatut's book is a series of lightly fictionalized accounts of scientists and mathematicians who have just discovered something that alters the course of humankind. For a brief moment in history, they are the only ones who understand the nature of their findings. From Venkat's review:
It is tempting to read these stories as tales of humans driven mad by knowledge beyond the ability of human minds to hold, but I think the opposite is in fact the case. To the extent these pioneering figures were briefly the only ones seeing reality in the truest conceivable ways at the time, ways that the rest of humanity took years or decades to catch up to, you might say that for those moments, they were the only sane people in worlds being revealed as insane. This is why the juxtaposition of radical new thoughts and the horrors of war and societal collapse is so powerfully compelling. Just as everything was coming apart, these individuals found a bit of new firm ground, outside of what was then conceivable, but had to pay a heavy price to stand on
Oppenheimer has elements of When We Cease to Understand the World but in cinematic form. In this frame, the three acts of Oppenheimer are:
Discovering a new reality and the mental fallout of that on the person who discovered it
Finding collaborators and students to share this new reality with. Combining the political acumen gained in this act and the expertise gained in Act 1 to work on the atomic bomb.
Dealing with the fallout of a new reality - the atomic bomb and a post world war two world
On further reflection, I realized that the mental fallout of discovering a different reality is a theme that Nolan returns to in most of his works.
In Inception, the protagonist Cob is the only one who knows that ideas can not just be stolen in dreams but also incepted. He pays the price for this realization with the suicide of his wife and subsequent exile from his home country. Inception is about Cob getting others to practice incepting an idea in someone's mind so that he can return home. In the Campbellian Heroes Journey sense, returning home becomes successfully seeding the idea of Inception in the rest of the world.
The Prestige is about a man who discovers a new reality and then obscures it from the rest of the world. In it, the magician Angier discovers that a clone of him is created every time he uses Tesla's machine. His original is then killed in a water tank below the stage every time he performs this act.
Interstellar is a funny one because its plot point revolves around a fictional new reality that the protagonist discovers, but one the audience had trouble believing - Love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.
A mental breakdown can also be imagined as inhabiting a different reality. The fallout of this on the individual and the people around them is explored in Memento and Insomnia.
So what is the difference between a world-altering new reality and a mental breakdown? The former is an exit from an old reality that is not sustainable anymore because of a discovery that is external to the protagonist. A new reality that others cannot yet see. The latter is an exit from reality that is inward-looking and not grounded in anything external to the protagonist other than the narrative they tell themselves. As Venkat mentions in his review, many of these reality-altering discoveries are made in particularly stressful contexts, such as war. So it would make sense that such stressful conditions would also produce people who believe in new realities based solely on pure narratives such as cults, new religions, and reactionaries who hark back to the good old days. The last act of Nolan's movie pits Oppenheimer against Lewis Straus, who appears to be a shrewd navigator of political narratives. Oppenheimer, because of its exploration of all phases of a new discovery, might well be the pinnacle of this Nolan genre.
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