This week’s selected media: The Social Life of Forests, Oppenheimer

January 21, 2024 by Joshua
in Tips

This week I finished:

The Social Life of Forests, by Ferris Jabr, about Suzanne Simard: This six-thousand-word New York Times article asks: “Trees appear to communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi. What are they sharing with one another?” and profiles a scientist at the forefront of studying forests. I came to it following up reading The Overstory, since one of its characters is based on Simard.

Here’s an interesting, tragic finding: “Although forests now cover 80 percent of the Northeast, for example, less than 1 percent of its old-growth forest remains intact.”

The article is like a primer on some recent research and on the super-organisms of forests that include trees and fungus. I’ve watched a couple videos of her, listened to her on NPR, and am a few chapters into her book, Finding the Mother Tree.

Oppenheimer, by Christopher Nolan, starting Cillian Murphy: I love many of Nolan Ryan movies. They’re incredibly engaging. I think of him as a great storyteller. Sometimes they have a deep message, but somehow easy to miss. In Memento, for example, amid all the jumping forward and backward in time, I think the biggest message is in the last scene, where we see that the main character deliberately chose to do something he’d consider wrong knowing he’d forget. We all rewrite our memories, not just people with retrograde amnesia. But I don’t think people consider that part.

In Oppenheimer, I think the key thing to ponder is Oppenheimer’s message at the end that he thinks we may have started a chain reaction that would blow up the world, but one between humans, not nuclei. The conflicts with Strauss and Teller seem minor in comparison, but they take the movie’s attention.

I like the movie for its storytelling, but can’t see how it might change how we look at the world or ourselves, which is what I look for to call something art. The nonlinear storytelling makes it engaging, but I don’t see if it creates meaning. Maybe I missed something. Maybe since I studied physics I already thought about deeply about issues others don’t.

(Update: after posting, I watched American Experience‘s The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It clarified and elaborated on the conflicts between Oppenheimer and Strauss. More importantly, it showed how Oppenheimer was the last effective voice for limiting building A bombs and H bombs. It said that in 1954, the year of Oppenheimer’s hearings, the U.S. had 300 nuclear weapons. By the end of the twentieth century, it had 70,000. Understanding the loss of his voice in that process helped me see the importance of those trials, keeping in mind many other influences.

I recommend watching the American Experience documentary.)

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