How the movie Oppenheimer illustrates the need for theoretical…sociologists

Roderick Graham
6 min readAug 4

At an early point in Oppenheimer, the title character was shown struggling in a Cambridge University physics lab. One of his professors urged the young man to leave the lab and do theoretical work elsewhere, which he did in Germany.

At a later point it was mentioned, I believe by Oppenheimer himself, that he was bad at math. Of course, bad here must be put in the context of other world-class scientists. I don’t suspect he’d have any trouble acing the math portion of the SAT and teaching physics in any program in the country.

In another scene, Oppenheimer, now teaching at UC Berkeley, is told by experimental physicist Ernest Lawrence “theory will take you only so far.” This was immediately after Lawrence and his team had split an atom that Oppenheimer had believed, in theory, couldn’t be done.

I am pointing out these scenes to illustrate what Oppenheimer was not. He was not a great experimental physicist or mathematician (again, compared to other world-class scientists). I am also pointing out these scenes to illustrate what he was: a genius in theoretical physics. And he, the theoretical physicist, was chosen to lead the Manhattan Project. He had the vision and ability to see how all the parts could fit together.

I wouldn’t deign to know enough about the physics community to tease apart the differences between a theoretical physicist and other physicists. But within social sciences, the people who focus on theory generate the broad ideas and big questions that we bean counters (I am a bean counter) use to conduct research. They may or may not collect evidence to support their theories. Their primary focus is the production of logically coherent ideas that can be used to explain our world.

A data-driven social world

All students majoring in sociology will take a theory course. In graduate school, they will take at least two — a course in classical theory and a course in contemporary theory.

The classical theorists are understood to be the founders of the discipline. They produced work during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. The big three are Frenchman Emile Durkheim, German Max Weber, and the most well-known of the three…

Roderick Graham

Gadfly | Professor of Sociology at Old Dominion University | I post about social science, culture, and progressive politics | Views are my own