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Left: Manhattan Project veterans Ernest. Lawrence, Glenn Seaborg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer in early 1946 at the controls to the magnet of Lawrence's 184-inch cyclotron, construction of which effectively created what is now Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Oppenheimer is the central character in Doctor Atomic, the greatly anticipated new opera composed by John Adams (seated in photo above right) and directed by librettist Peter Sellars (standing on Adams's right). The idea of an opera centered on an "American Faust" was conceived by the San Francisco Opera's general director, Pamela Rosenberg (behind Adams). (Photo at left courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; right courtesy San Francisco Opera )

Berkeley thinks new opera is da Bomb
Campus connection to the birth of the Atomic Age gives new production a particular meaning here

22 September 2005

Is Doctor Atomic's physics up to snuff?
One Berkeley prof thinks not...
A "buzz" as animated as an electron field is spinning around John Adams' new opera, Doctor Atomic, set to have its world premiere by the San Francisco Opera company on Oct. 1. Like his earlier operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, the new work takes up contemporary themes - in this case modern man's Faustian bargain with powerful technologies, with physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (who at the height of World War II led the effort to develop an atomic bomb to use against the Nazis) as protagonist. The University of California and UC Berkeley connections to that effort run deep: Not only Oppenheimer but many other campus scientists were part of the Manhattan Project, while faculty and students have debated for decades whether UC should continue its role as steward of U.S. atomic-weapons research at the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national labs.

Appropriately, the campus is joining a Bay Area-wide conversation on the nuclear age - timed to coincide with the debut of Doctor Atomic and the 60-year anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - with a handful of fall courses and a series of campus happenings. The lineup of public events (most of them free) is coordinated by the campus Consortium for the Arts.

Science and the Soul: J. Robert Oppenheimer and Doctor Atomic
Monday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m., Wheeler Auditorium

Program webcast
RealMedia stream

A conversation between director Peter Sellars and composer John Adams about the making and meaning of their opera. They will be joined by San Francisco Opera General Director Pamela Rosenberg; Mark Richards, dean of physical sciences; and University Professor Marvin Cohen of physics.

Presented by the College of Letters and Science and Cal Performances, the free program will include an exclusive musical preview from the opera. Tickets are available at the Zellerbach Hall ticket office Sept. 20-25, and at the door of Wheeler the night of the event.

On Nuclear Time
Thursday, Sept. 29, 5 p.m., 160 Kroeber
A lecture by art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson of the Rhode Island School of Design, about designs for a marker to go over a New Mexico nuclear-waste dump, in order to warn Earthlings up to 10,000 years in the future (who may not speak English or share our cultural codes) of the site's radioactive risks. The designs were created by an eclectic group of futurists and designers for the Department of Energy and the private company that oversees management of the dump. In her talk, Bryan-Wilson will discuss how codes can be read, or totally misunderstood, through time, and "how one contemplates these unimaginable stretches of time" in an era not known for its longsightedness. "Some of the markers that they're considering are fascinating," she says, "in that they might attract tourism - although what they're tying to do is keep future people away. That's the paradox at the heart of this project."

100 SUNS (For Robert, Ernest and Edward's Berkeley, 1945-62)
Oct. 3-8, on the edge of Memorial Glade
A weeklong "public bookwork" sculpture, based on a 2003 book by San Francisco-based photographer and bookmaker Michael Light. Also named 100 SUNS, the book consisted of 100 previously classified American nuclear-detonation photographs, made by the military during the era of U.S. atmospheric atomic testing (1945 to 1962). Light imprinted images and text from the book on a 300-foot weatherproof scroll, to be temporarily attached to the perimeter of Memorial Glade outside Doe Library.

Created in collaboration with the Graduate School of Journalism's Center for Photography, the installation highlights the work of Berkeley scientists J. Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller and the campus's subsequent role in the nuclear-arms race and the Cold War. The title refers to Oppenheimer's quotation of the Bhagavad Gita upon witnessing the first atomic explosion in the summer of 1945, shortly before the bomb was dropped upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One . . . I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Doctor Atomic Goes Nuclear
A monthlong series on Wednesdays and Saturdays, beginning Oct. 5, Pacific Film Archive
Fourteen films, plus several shorts, depicting the aftermath of nuclear war, the anxiety of the Atomic Age, and the unsettling tradeoffs in society's promotion of science and technology.

Curated by PFA's Steve Seid, the series presents - through a mix of factual documentaries and fiction films - an historical record of how our culture has tried not only to think about nuclear war but to represent it. "Often it's been represented by no representation," Seid says. "There's the technical problem to depict the destruction, but also the imaginative limitation; it's hard to fathom."

Hence, Arch Oboler's 1951 film Five - thought to be the first movie to contemplate Earth after a nuclear war - never depicts the war itself; instead it follows five survivors, ensconced in a mountain setting, as they "try to talk themselves into a brighter tomorrow." The 1950 British film Seven Days to Noon (winner of an Academy Award for best original story), likewise, depicts an eerily empty London following a nuclear threat and an evacuation. The lineup also features two classics of the genre, Fail-Safe and On the Beach.

Director Peter Sellars and journalism professor and filmmaker Jon Else will be among those providing commentary on the series' films. At the Oct. 12 screening of Else's The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb (1981), the filmmaker will show roughs from Wonders Are Many, his work-in-progress on the making of Doctor Atomic. See the PFA website calendar for schedule updates and admission prices.

Controlling Nuclear Weapons - Oppenheimer to the Present: Authors in Conversation
Wednesday, Oct. 5, noon, Bayley Library, North Gate
Participants will include Martin Sherwin, professor at Tufts University and co-author of the recent biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Jonathan Schell, senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of Globalization at Yale University and author of The Fate of the Earth, The Unconquerable World, and other works on the history of nuclear weapons.

The Aesthetics of the Bomb and the Aesthetics of Doctor Atomic
Monday, Oct. 10, 4 p.m., 370 Dwinelle
A colloquium and roundtable discussion by members of the rhetoric department, concerning the aesthetics of nuclear weapons and the practices and politics surrounding them, as seen in the opera Doctor Atomic, the film Crossroads, the work of photographer Richard Misrach, and what author David Nye calls the "nuclear sublime."

Atomic Poetry
3 p.m., Saturday, Oct.15, Berkeley Art Museum Theater
A reading by more than 25 poets of new work created for this event. Professor of English Lyn Heninian put out a call for works that take the atomic bomb as a point of departure. She says she was surprised by both the range of subjects that the poets chose to consider and the stylistic variety - from lecturer John Shoptaw's narrative poem on Harry Truman to Brenda Hillman's visually structured piece (in columns, as if to represent string theory) to visiting scholar Judith Goldman's use of language from government websites and accounts of bombings.

Participants in the event, organized by the English department, include faculty poets Robert Hass and Lyn Hejinian; Bay Area poets Brenda Hillman, Bill Berkson, and Leslie Scalapino; and a number of graduate-student poets.

An anthology of the poems, Ghosting Atoms, will be on sale at the event for $10 a copy, and available thereafter from the Consortium for the Arts.

More information on these events is available from the Consortium for the Arts at 642-7784 or www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/bca.

- Kathleen Maclay and Cathy Cockrell