“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” So said former UC Berkeley physics professor and head of the Manhattan Project Julius Robert Oppenheimer, quoting from a sacred Hindu text, as he watched the world’s first nuclear weapon detonation on July 16, 1945. Today marks the anniversary of the tragedy at Nagasaki, where the United States dropped its second weaponized atomic bomb, causing the deaths of at least 75,000 people and turning Oppenheimer’s utterance into his truth.
Despite the horrors of UC Berkeley’s involvement with the development of nuclear weaponry, the school continues to honor his legacy. Nestled between Le Conte and Hildebrand halls is Oppenheimer Way, named after the aforementioned researcher. By openly celebrating the man who developed this weapon, the school is honoring the tragedy he helped make possible at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The laboratory, once a secret research site for the Manhattan Project, is now a world-renowned center that leads the country in energy research. Today, the lab’s research has expanded to the development of alternative energy and medical technology. But even though the lab is now directed toward more ethical, human-conscious ventures, it’s important that the University of California doesn’t continue to brush aside the legacy of Los Alamos Lab and UC Berkeley’s involvement in nuclear research.
In July, the UC Board of Regents, along with several other institutions, won a bid for management of the historic laboratory. UC President Janet Napolitano said at a regents meeting that this management “further solidifies the UC’s status as a national, scientific and research leader and a critical partner in protecting national security.” But in addition to a gain in status and access to state-of-the-art facilities, the UC system is estimated to earn a net fee of $24.6 million in 2018 for the management of both Los Alamos Lab and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Of all the insights gleaned during the past century of research, the most important is that developments in a lab carry an impact that extends far beyond the walls of any research facility. Control of these laboratories is an undoubtedly auspicious gain for the UC system.
The nuclear engineering department requires its students to take one class with an emphasis on ethics, but this effort is not nearly enough. More must be done to educate students and researchers on the societal implications research can have — morality needs to be woven into every lesson taught in STEM fields on campus. Going forward, the university must be explicit about distinguishing between excitement for a prosperous future and glorification of a destructive past.
Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.