Einstein! The Real History Behind Oppenheimer's Most Unexpected Character

The famous scientists were contemporaries with an intriguing relationship.

Universal Pictures

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has made waves at every point of its production. During casting, it seemed like every working actor managed to get a role. Then it was scheduled alongside Barbie, prompting fans to plan an intriguing double feature. Then we got a trailer and remembered that this is actually going to be a movie.

The biggest reveal in that trailer is arguably the appearance of Albert Einstein, who stands near a pond as Oppenheimer approaches him for a chat. Is that creative license, or did Einstein affect Oppenheimer’s work on the atomic bomb? Here’s the history for you.

Oppenheimer is based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus, and Einstein makes several appearances in the biography. While they were both physicists, they belonged to different generations. In a letter about the field of quantum physics that Oppenheimer was just starting to explore, Einstein wrote, “Heisenberg has laid a big quantum egg. In Göttingen they believe in it. (I don’t.)” Years later, Oppenheimer would call Einstein “completely cuckoo.”

Despite their differences, the two did have conversations like what we see in the trailer. According to American Prometheus, Robert Oppenheimer’s father, Julius, wrote that while teaching at CalTech, Robert was “always busy and has had a couple of short talks with Einstein.” In 1947, the two became colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study, where they worked until Einstein’s death in 1955. Oppenheimer described their relationship as “close colleagues and something of friends.” They moved past their initial prejudices, and were at least friendly around the water cooler.

While the two weren’t close because their fields of study were so different, they did interact often. Maybe the real timeline doesn’t match what’s hinted at in the Oppenheimer trailer, but either the scene we’re shown comes later in Oppenheimer’s life, or it’s simply within the realm of creative license. Why not show them discussing the science they both dedicated their lives to?

Einstein and Oppenheimer in 1947, when Oppenheimer was the director of the Institute for Advanced Study.

Historical/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

It’s likely this pondside scene between the two will be a memorable one. Maybe Tom Conti’s Einstein will show concern for Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer and warn him about weaponizing the atom as they discuss their philosophical and ethical differences. Maybe they’ll just chat about particles and relativity, or the weather. Either way, this cameo brings a different kind of star power to Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer hits theaters July 21, 2023.