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Oppie is Become Death

June 10, 2013

I am man enough to admit: writing the last few tweets of a dead historical figure has, twice now, almost brought me to tears.  I wonder if there is anything peculiar about Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer in this respect, or if picking over the whole life of any person would have such an effect.  Whatever the case: @OppieTweets (henceforth: ‘Oppie’) has died, and here are some final words. (I know of only one other eulogy of a twitter-fed historical reanimation.)

Firstly, I’d like to say thank you to everyone who’s sent their sub-140-char condolences in the last 24 hours.  @physicsteo20h said: “Thank you & Godspeed, Prof. Oppenheimer”, while @alamomar said that, through following the tweets, Oppenheimer had become “one of my intellectual heroes”.  It has been bitterly hard for me to resist replying publicly as Oppenheimer; before yesterday it would’ve been slightly anachronistic, now severely so.  But I assure you that the ghost of Oppie is very thankful.

So what were the highlights? Well it appears people like beginnings and endings, or – more specifically – beginnings and nuclear annihilation.   Oppie’s top three retweetings were: his very first one, that ‘become death’ one, and the following: “It’s OK, Bethe’s done the math and we won’t destroy the air & the sea.”  While we are on the topic of that ‘become death’ one, it’s good to see that people gave such a sensitive response to what heralded such a life-changing development for the human race.  Oppie said: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” And @chunkyknit said: “MONEY SHOT.”

There were some very sobering moments along the way.  Knowing what was to come, when Oppie was toying with how to get a 10 cm cube of uranium to ‘blow itself to hell,’ @chainbear couldn’t help but cry out: “Don’t do it, Oppie!”  Later on, @AidanMcGlynn pointed out the “uncomfortable juxtaposition of @OppieTweets gearing up to drop the bomb to end all wars on Hiroshima, and news from North Korea.”

And then there was the death threat. At one point @MichaelPacPal said:  “@OppieTweets You should die like they did – those ‘little people.’  You’re pathetic.”  Now, was this addressed to: a) a dead historical figure, b) me, or c) a twitter account instantiated on a server somewhere in California?  Hopefully it’s (a) and I should feel flattered that people got so caught-up in the drama.

On the other side of the emotional spectrum, @lukealexander casually challenged Oppie to a game of League of Legends.  No reply.

I’m very sorry about anything misleading or plain erroneous that issued from Oppie’s electronic mouth.  Thanks to @pbarreto  for scrutinising the physics facts (and the, er, date of his death – sorry!).  And to repeat what I wrote in my introduction: no, the majority of the tweets were not verbatim.  For instance, Oppenheimer was never recorded as saying: “On a train.  Trying to read thermodynamics.  A couple are having sex.  This is awkward.” One of my favourites nonetheless.

Oppenheimer himself got a considerable amount of stick – not only for building a weapon that would kill tens of thousands of people, but also for a bit of sexism along the way. Oppie said: “To understand the complete physicist, you must see him as a discover, as a citizen, and as a teacher.”  @telescoper said: “But not as a woman?”

Yet in the main, Oppenheimer the man received a lot of respect and sympathy.  @vmoman said: “I love this man.  A true genius.  Used, discarded and destroyed by the U.S. government.  The epitome of the word ‘regret’.”  And @Mixcoatlus said: “He is quite possibly the most quotable scientist of all time.  His foresight was unrivalled.”

I am indebted to Ray Monk (@Raymodraco) for the existence of this project.   He wrote the biography I was inspired by / semi-plagiarised.  I went to a talk by Ray, and at the point where he discussed how he’d spent ten years painstakingly researching nuclear physics and every last detail of Oppenheimer’s life, my achievements felt this small .

I also want to thank Ruth Waldram  (@rawaldram) at Random House, for letting me have an early manuscript so that I could write the tweets to coincide with the book’s launch.

Finally, I’d like to thank an assortment of individuals who encouraged the project along the way, at least:

@grahamvsworld, @2342, @commiemjp, @ardaniel, @BillWeiss, @Laurenatops, @bazmct, @EarsARinging, @philgyford, @afjudge, @CGYNed, @lemonhound, @visaforviolet, @MattJ19, @Renrodssor, @supasuga, @Wiseman4th, @PhilCLancaster, @RobertGaristo, @kacsaful, @StefanEJones, @dlederle

My personal favourite recommendation of the project was @mdrcode’s “If you’re looking for an intense counterpoint to your predictable/corporate life, I highly recommend @OppieTweets.”

Indeed!  Hope you liked it.

I would like to run another one of these in the future, although it’s getting harder to find the time…

PS I promised a long time ago that I would publish The Complete WittTweets. So I have.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 22, 2013 8:29 pm

    I’m happily surprised to see my name on here! I really enjoyed the project all the way through. It has somewhat of a personal meaning to me, and I think you did an awesome job on it. Thanks!

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