Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dr. Atomic, the Energy Bill & Edison

I have just seen one of the most moving theatrical spectacles ever, something that touches so profoundly, so humanely that it nearly transcends art. It was so powerful, so full of relevance and hope for everyone that it carries an essential message as we strive for hope in a world torn by energy wars.

John Adams and Peter Sellars's "Dr. Atomic" is an opera that was reworked in a new version now playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago ( through January. It is three hours of riveting music, splendid poetry, pointed choreography, exquisite staging and soul-searing singing and performance. It is an immutable theatrical experience that starts out with J. Robert Oppenheimer singing about losing his soul while leading the atomic bomb testing project in 1945. The Germans have surrendered and the Manhattan Project is in its last phase in the desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico. "The Gadget," as the bomb is codenamed, is nearly ready for detonation, although no one is quite sure if it will work or if it will ignite the entire atmosphere as Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, predicts.

What starts out as a military rationale for continuing the project -- while carefully picking cities in Japan where it will be dropped -- ends up being a deep examination into the human soul and psyche. John Adams's melange of electronic music and scintillating use of the skilled Lyric Orchestra, brings you deep into the human problem: What happens after we release this power that fuels the sun? What will happen to the world? How will it sunder our souls?

Peter Sellars does not attempt to answer that question fully, yet provides insights through his libretto, using Baudelaire, Donne and the Bhagavad-Gita in his soaring lyrics.

In two arias that portray Oppenheimer's torment, he sings of this disconnected sense of the divine in the words of John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV:

"Batter my heart, three person'd God.
For you,
As yet but knock, breathe,
Shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me,
and bend
Your force, to break, blow,
burn and make me new."

Oppenheimer's aria is not a religious invocation, despite Donne's context. The "three person'd God," in his meaning, is "Trinity," the name of the site of the bomb test. He's troubled by knowing that he will unleash the forces of nature, is humbled by it and admitting that it will change him -- and the world -- forever.

The perspective of the world's suffering to come is voiced by his wife Kitty, who sings in the words of poet Muriel Rukeyser:

"Those who most long for peace,
now pour their lives on war.
Our conflicts carry creation and its guilt,
these years' great arms are full of death and flowers.
A world is to be fought for, sung and built:
Love must imagine the world."

There's even a Native American perspective to the horror that's about to be unleashed, sung by Pasqualita (again the words of Ms. Rukeyser), the nanny for the Oppenheimers' children:

"We danced in prison to a winter music,
many we loved began to dream of the dead.
They make no promises, we never dreamed a threat.
And the dreams spread."

When the realization hits the Trinity team that the bomb will bring untold devastation, or in the words of Samuel Beckett "some things must remain unspeakable," the stage becomes a dynamic canvas of light and choreography that imitates death throes. The chorus then sings the words of the timeless Bhagavad-Gita:

"When I see you, Vishnu, ominpresent,
Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow,
With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring --
all my peace is gone; my heart is troubled."

Thus Oppenheimer and the U.S. in its $2 billion quest to create the bomb to end all bombs, has created a monster that still resides with us. It is no Frankenstein, however. It can only be contained by the chains of our soul. Our ever-lusting desire to understand, tame and harness the sinews of the universe has us in a bind. Can we use this power to preserve or destroy? How will we bridle the wildness of our passions and hatreds?

Dr. Atomic doesn't seek to resolve these questions. It only provokes us to think about the questions and act -- guided by the angels of our better nature.

Adams and Sellars don't even try to duplicate an atomic bomb explosion in any theatrical way. They conclude their opera with the sound of a Japanese woman's voice (after the presumptive detonation of "Fat Boy" in the opera) -- and silence. In the end, we are left with the imploring gentleness of a single, female voice and the stark isolation of our own loneliness as we contemplate our future.

The future is like Grendel the beast staring at us from his cave. He is begging us to change.

Speaking of looking ahead, some civilized, good news came in the form of an energy bill just signed by President Bush. It re-orients our priorities on energy. Like any piece of legislation, it's full of disappointments and promise. Taken as a whole, though, it's full of hope that is the first step toward a future not obsessed with energy slavery.

The "Energy Indpependence and Security Act" mandated improved efficiency standards for cars, notching up fleet mileage averages to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. While on the surface this is a pathetically modest improvement -- my 12-year-old Toyota achieves that mileage now -- it was the first new fuel standard since 1975, when I graduated from high school.

More importantly, some of the mandates of the bill are comprehensive. Higher energy standards are put in place for federal buildings. Creation of biofuels from non-corn sources is encouraged. Advanced technologies such as generating electricity from ocean waves were supported. While there's still too many subsidies for making ethanol from corn -- a process that consumes a gallon of petroleum products for every gallon of ethanol produced (and no way to abate global warming) -- the law is loaded with pro-technology breaks.

There were two huge downsides of the bill: Tax breaks were not taken away from the petroleum industry (they don't need them) and the homeowner incentives for solar energy and alternative energy were not extended beyond 2008 (Congress may revisit this next year). The petroleum lobby got to the White House and Senate Republicans at the final stage of the bill's progress. Since the Democratic leadership wanted to pass energy legislation this year -- and the GOP didn't want to take away any of the bananas from the 900-lb. gorillas pumping oil and gas -- the downsized bill lost a lot of incentives to mandate use of renewable energy and electricity.

An obscure little provision pumps up research efforts for making something that's essential to the alternative-energy equation: A long-term storage battery. This concept has entranced everyone from Faraday to today's engineers of electric cars. But no one has been able to make it work and produce it cheaply. With a long-term battery, you can store wind, wave and solar power on site. You don't have to push it into the grid when you generate it. Cars can go thousands of miles cleanly without a stop and be recharged by solar panels on their rooftops or on every garage.

No less than Thomas Edison was perplexed by his inability to design the ultimate battery. Here's an excerpt from "The Edisonian," the newsletter from the Edison archives in New Jersey (just got this yesterday in the mail -- see

"Beginning in 1883, Edison began working on a system to convert coal directly to electricity. Although Edison never succeeded in his quest, he was later quoted as saying 'I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait till oil and coal run out before we tackle that. I wish I had more years left.'"

Oppenheimer, Edison and our Congress all were striving for the same goal: Reaping as much energy from nature in a safe, economical and (hopefully) peaceful way.

Or, better put from the Bhagavad-Gita (also from Dr. Atomic):

"A serene spirit accepts pleasure and pain
with an even mind,
and is unmoved from either.
He alone is worthy of immortality."

The world-soul is gradually acknowledging the wisdom of the Gita. We need to stay on course. Energy independence should be our destiny. Who will be the immortal who will engineer a solution that will negate the reason for resource wars? Will it come from Silicon Valley, where the founders of Google are funding ways of producing power that are cheaper and cleaner than burning coal? Will it come from the engineers at Nanosolar, who are using the nascent technology of nanotechnoloy to efficiently and cheaply "print" solar cells? Or will it come from some girl or boy's tinkering in a garage or shed somewhere in the North America, China, India or Africa?

As we approach the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, we are desperately seeking many such serene souls. The solstice will pass, as we know, and the days will be become longer and more full of light.

It's my humble opinion that world peace will not be possible unless every nation can find a way of achieving energy independence without pillaging resources that contribute to everyone's demise. The cost of releasing the sun's power was enormous; the cost of not harnessing it fully is even higher.

Happy Holidays,

John F. Wasik

1 comment:

ThinkResults said...

Great review. --- and very inspiring interweaving of the natural and the spiritual as we attempt to remain humble in our transcendence of both.


PS - I am now going to see if I can get tickets for my daughter and me...