Doctor Atomic: Science Communication in Modern Opera

Doctor Atomic: Science Communication in Modern Opera

Author: Constantinos Morfakis, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece

Co-authors: Yannis Hatzikiriakos

The opera, as an undoubtedly a large-scale artistic and cultural event, which portrays social behaviour patterns and often criticizes a number of socio-political issues. Furthermore, as a popular spectacle nowadays through digital technology (online streaming and live in HD), the lyric art and great opera productions can reach the most remote corner of the planet.

In this paper, we consider issues about the public image of scientist in the opera of contemporary American composer John Adams, in libretto of Peter Sellars, called Doctor Atomic (2005). The opera focuses on the great stress and anxiety experienced by those at Los Alamos while the test of the first atomic bomb (the “Trinity” test) was being prepared. Doctor Atomic concerns the final hours leading up to the first atomic bomb explosion at the Alamagordo test site in New Mexico in July of 1945. The focal characters are the physicist and Manhattan Project director, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer; his wife Kitty; Edward Teller; and General Leslie Groves, the US Army commander of the project.

More specific, we shall attempt to examine the following issues in the opera Doctor Atomic and in connection to recent developments in STS scholarship and Science Communication. First, we are interested in the shaping of the public image of a famous scientist in a modern opera which is available online. Second, we pay special attention to the directing of opera and how this contributes in the shaping of a public imaginary about the nuclear bomb and its creators. Finally, we are focusing on the official website of the opera and in which way the informative content that provides for the first atomic bomb constructs a public image for this. We believe that Doctor Atomic provides us with interesting insights on contemporary questions regarding public communication of science and technology