Missing from the Oppenheimer Movie: The Connection Catalyst

August 5, 2023
Mike Stallard
Employee Engagement

Ever since learning that a movie was being made about J. Robert Oppenheimer and The Manhattan Project, I have been waiting for it to come to movie theaters, curious to see how the man and his work would be portrayed. In my first book, Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity, and Productivity, I had written about a particular angle of The Manhattan Project in reference to an element that teams need in order to function well. 

Opening weekend came, my wife and I bought tickets, and we settled into the comfy chairs (with foot rests!). Three hours later, the closing credits began to roll. Debriefing as we drove home, after “that was intense” and “it was really well done,” we ventured into interesting conversations on a host of topics that the movie raised. 

Given the popularity of “Oppenheimer,” I thought you might enjoy the inspiring story below, excerpted from Fired Up or Burned Out, as, to my surprise, a piece of it was not included in the movie. Regardless of your personal feelings about the development and use of the atomic bomb, this bit of history is one clear example of the power in helping people find meaning in their work.

Inspire with Identity

In Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman’s insightful book Organizing Genius, they tell the story of America’s race to make an atomic bomb before the Nazis during World War II. The Manhattan Project, as it was called, represented one of the most challenging and significant scientific accomplishments in history.

The story began in 1939 when Albert Einstein learned from three Hungarian physicists who had defected to America that the Nazis were trying to build an atomic bomb. Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt warning him that he believed the Nazis might find a way to do it. Within days of receiving Einstein’s letter, FDR established an advisory committee to investigate using atomic energy for national defense.

During 1941 and 1942, research was conducted at four universities: Columbia, Princeton, University of California at Berkeley, and Chicago. By mid-1942, the project had become the number-one defense priority with a $2 billion budget. In the fall, soon-to-be Brigadier General Leslie Groves was appointed to head the project following his stint building the Pentagon. Groves, a 250- to 300-pound crusty veteran career officer, began to pull together the people and the resources to make it happen.

On December 2, 1942, a team led by Enrico Fermi, a brilliant physicist, successfully created a self-sustaining nuclear reaction in an unused squash court under the University of Chicago’s football stadium. It was a pivotal moment that meant the project could shift to producing an atomic bomb since the concept had been proven.

General Groves identified a tall, gangly thirty-eight-year-old quantum physicist at Cal Tech, J. Robert Oppenheimer, to be the technical leader of the scientists and engineers. Although military intelligence officials objected to Oppenheimer because of his Communist Party connections, General Groves insisted that he was the best person for the job. Refusing to back down, the persistent Groves got Oppenheimer approved.

One scientist on the project was a young genius from Princeton named Richard Feynman who was to supervise technicians supporting the project. For security reasons, the army did not want the technicians to know the purpose of the project. As a result, it was difficult for them to put their hearts into their work. Their productivity was lackluster, and the quality of their work was disappointing. Feynman asked Oppenheimer to let him inform the technicians about the project’s purpose. His request approved, Feynman explained to the technicians what they were working on, its importance to the war effort, and the value of their contribution to the overall project.

After the technicians understood the meaning of their work, Feynman said he witnessed:

Complete transformation! They began to invent ways of doing it better. They improved the scheme. They worked at night. They didn’t need supervising in the night; they didn’t need anything. They understood everything; they invented several of the programs that we used . . . my boys really came through, and all that had to be done was to tell them what it was, that’s all. As a result, although it took them nine months to do three problems before, we did nine problems in three months, which is nearly ten times as fast.

The technicians’ improved productivity and innovation helped the Allies beat Hitler in the race to make an atomic bomb. On the morning of July 16, 1945, the Manhattan Project team watched as the first atomic bomb was exploded in the New Mexico desert. Their efforts gave the Allies a decisive edge in the war. 

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Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

Photo of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence (courtesy the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) via the U.S. Department of Energy - Office of History and Heritage Resources

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