Doctor Atomic—and the events it depicts—continue to interest scholars from a variety of disciplines. For instance, here’s how a physicist and an economist responded to both the opera itself and the ongoing history of the atomic bomb in 2005, the year of Doctor Atomic’s premiere.
Creation and Destruction
The first version of the Doctor Atomic libretto began with the line “Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.” But at a sneak preview of the work at San Francisco Opera, Berkeley physicist Marvin Cohen objected to the opening lines of the opera, since the explosive power of the atomic bomb was due entirely to the “destruction” of matter. Sellars revised this line to begin “We believed that matter can be neither created nor destroyed,” and the show went on as planned.
A Spectacular Event
In the years following the end of World War II, it was generally assumed that atomic bombs would become a standard weapon in warfare—a terrifying development, given the destructive potential of this new bomb. Yet although many countries rushed to develop their own atomic weapons, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain the only two cases in which an atomic bomb has been dropped as an act of war. In 2005 (the same year that Doctor Atomic premiered in San Francisco), the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Thomas Schelling and Robert Aumann, game theorists who had spent much of the Cold War strategizing how to avoid nuclear conflict. When Schelling received his prize, he acknowledged that this tacit nuclear cease-fire would have been unthinkable in 1945. “The most spectacular event of the past half century,” he declared, “is one that did not occur. We have enjoyed sixty years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger.”