Make a Date with History

By Kirsten Laskey

In honor of Valentine’s Day, the Los Alamos Historical Society is inviting the community to “Make a Date with History.”

Dr. James Hopkins chats with students. Courtesy/LA Historical Society

Dr. James Hopkins, a professor at Southern Methodist University, will continue the Historical Society’s lecture series with his talk, “Oppenheimer and his Colleagues at Los Alamos” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 at Fuller Lodge.

So what attracts people to J. Robert Oppenheimer?

Hopkins said, “Oppenheimer is a familiar and affecting figure to anyone interested in the Manhattan Project but it was not until I read Richard Rhodes book, ‘The Making of the Atomic Bomb,’ that he materialized into the extraordinary person that has proved so captivating to his later biographers and their readers.

“The recent, magisterial study by Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, as well as others, opened up Oppenheimer as the fabulously conflicted and complicated personality that he was and, I think, made him more accessible as a human being.”

Hopkins continued, “More directly, Oppenheimer, who had never led any kind of organization before Los Alamos , demonstrated something that each of us is capable of, more fully realizing our own qualities of mind and spirit. Second, his security hearing in 1954 showed forevermore the dangers of allowing the pursuit of political advantage to destroy those who disagree.”

Historical Society Executive Director Heather McClenahan added, “The thing about Oppenheimer that is so interesting is that he was such an enigmatic person. Anytime there is scholarly research on Oppenheimer there is always a new take.”

One of the takes Hopkins said he gained on Oppenheimer was from “The British physicist and novelist, C. P. Snow, (who) gave a famous lecture at Cambridge University in 1959 called ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’ in which he argued that the segregation of culture into humanists and scientists was unnecessary, individually and societally impoverishing, and, moreover, dangerous for humankind.

Not that Oppenheimer’s genius can be duplicated but, as both a scientist and humanist, he seems to me an extraordinary example of how the two cultures can and must communicate with and nurture each other if we are to make our way through the nuclear minefield that in all probability will always lie in front of us, and survive.”

Dr. James Hopkins Courtesy/LA Historical SocietyMcClenahan said, “Oppenheimer was such a deep person; there are so many aspects (to him) – he was so brilliant (and able to work well with people in the Manhattan Project.)” She described Oppenheimer as being “dynamic” besides a scientist, Oppenheimer was a poet and spoke a multitude of languages.

Hopkins himself is a multi-faceted person. McClenahan said he travels to Los Alamos during the summer months with groups of students and is helping the Historical Society on the Oppenheimer House museum project.

Despite the Manhattan Project occurring decades ago, Hopkins said it is still relevant today.

“Without exception, my students find a visit to Los Alamos a riveting and deeply informative experience,” he said. “Los Alamos exists very much in the present, and for that matter, in the future, but it also manifests a place and a time in the past when a group of what Richard Feynman rightly calls ‘great men’ (I would also add ‘great women’) changed the world forever.

Both the Los Alamos Historical Museum and the Bradbury Science Museum are instrumental in bringing to life that time and place, of restoring the past to its human dimensions, whether one was a technician, a military policeman, a construction worker, a pueblo Indian, a wife and mother, or a Nobel Prize laureate.”

McClenahan added this particular event still attracts a lot of attention. Talks on the Manhattan Project are some of the Historical Society’s most popular lectures. The Manhattan Project, she said, “is really the greatest gathering of scientific talent at one given time to solve a problem.”

One reason Los Alamos is what is, she added, is because of this period of history. The lecture is an official event of New Mexico’s Centennial Celebration. In recognition of the state’s centennial, McClenahan said Historical Society’s lecture series have taken its audiences through 100 years of history. This has included talks on the homesteaders, Ranch School as well as general facts on the state.

Next up in March is a talk on the Cold War in Los Alamos. In April, the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) will co-host the talk and will address environmental history. In May, the lecture series continues with “New Mexico’s Struggle for Statehood, Featuring Political Cartoons Before 2012 Concerning New Mexico’s Image.”

James Hopkins graduated from the University of Oklahoma before spending three years as a captain in the Army, and then did post-graduate work at Cambridge University and the University of Texas at Austin where he received his PhD.

He began teaching British and European history at SMU in 1974. Hopkins has written two books and several articles, including one entitled “Conversations I Never Had With My Father.”

“My father was Group Operations Officer of the 509th Composite Bomb Group,” Hopkins said. “This unique unit trained for a year in Wendover, Utah to drop the atomic bombs. In addition, my father was the pilot of the photographic plane that took part in the raid on Nagasaki. He was killed in a crash in 1951, hence the title of the article.”

Some years ago he made a film called “The University and the Fate of the Earth” in which he advocated the need for universities to teach courses on atomic energy.

“Then some years ago I began bringing students to Los Alamos. It is an extraordinary privilege to give a talk on the Manhattan Project in the magnificent Fuller Lodge where so much of its history took place.”

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