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Oppenheimer would never be hired today

Cillian Murphy as the man behind the bomb

Robert Oppenheimer, who first gave humanity the capability to destroy itself, may be “the most important man who ever lived”, says Tom Chivers in UnHerd. But it’s “remarkable” that he was appointed to lead the Manhattan Project in the first place. One of the largest government initiatives ever, the effort to develop the bomb employed 125,000 people and cost as much as $50bn in today’s money – 10 times the cost of the Large Hadron Collider. Oppenheimer, meanwhile, was a “psychologically troubled, communist-sympathising attempted murderer”. In his job application he described himself as “a member of just about every Communist Front organisation on the West Coast”. And he was prone to “violent urges”: he once tried to garrotte a friend with a luggage strap, and to poison a Cambridge professor he didn’t like with an apple.

Today, we’re too “sceptical of genius” to take a risk on such a figure. Can you imagine someone under investigation for links to Chinese intelligence and “with a track record of violence and delusional mental illness” being put in charge of developing a world-changing AI system? When Dominic Cummings called for “super-talented weirdos” to join the British government – and he didn’t have in mind anyone “remotely as weird as Oppenheimer” – he was derided and encouraged to look for more orthodox figures who could get along with colleagues and had plenty of glowing references. A genius like Oppenheimer would surely get “nowhere near the top” of any major project.