One of the most gripping scenes in Christopher Nolan's 2023 blockbuster Oppenheimer involves a disturbing meeting between Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. The pair of famed scientists discuss the theoretical possibility of a nuclear bomb setting the entire world on fire. And while the scene is tense, troubling, and thrilling, it is one of the few moments in Oppenheimer that is basically made up. In real life, Oppenheimer and Einstein did have a relationship, but — as is often the case — the truth is much stranger than fiction.
The movie didn't tell the real story
Oppenheimer's writer-director, Christopher Nolan, admitted that he invented the Oppenheimer/Einstein meeting for one specific reason. In fact, Oppenheimer consulted with Arthur Compton — a physicist who was part of the Manhattan Project — about whether his bomb would ignite the atmosphere.
"But I shifted that to Einstein," the filmmaker told The New York Times in July 2023. "And Einstein is the personality people know in the audience." Einstein's fame also meant Nolan could use the crazy-haired scientist in the movie's dramatic final scene. Yet that conversation didn't really take place, either.
Einstein helped get the Manhattan Project started
In truth, the relationship between Oppenheimer and Einstein was a little more complicated. Einstein was obviously the more famous of the two physicists before World War II began, even if Oppenheimer gave him a run for his money later on.
Einstein's world-renowned special theory of relativity was published in 1905 and almost instantly made him a household name. The physicist seemingly took his fame with a pinch of salt, but there was no doubting his influence in the scientific community. It was arguably even enough to kick-start the Manhattan Project.
All he had to do was sign a letter
Some historians trace the beginnings of the Manhattan Project to the moment Albert Einstein signed a letter dated August 2, 1939. And Einstein's name held such weight that it didn't even matter that he didn't write the letter himself.
The message was written by the physicists Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner. It was addressed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and concerned the terrifying potential of Nazi Germany constructing an atomic bomb.
Einstein was "the man who started it all"
Einstein's letter warned Roosevelt that "it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium" and that this "would also lead to the construction of bombs." It read, "It is conceivable — though much less certain — that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed."
The letter went on, "A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory." And the message carried a particularly pointed warning about Germany.