Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Oppie and Dylan

by Rob - September 4th, 2020.
Filed under: Awards, Oppenheimer Alternative.

Near the end of my new novel The Oppenheimer Alternative, I have J. Robert Oppenheimer thinking:

Gödel … was already out there, as were Feynman and five of the newer crop of physicists, two of whom were women; the times were indeed a-changin’.
Oppie and almost all of his male contemporaries would be considered flagrantly sexist by contemporary standards &#151 although I did my best to call out that sexism in Chapter 26, in which Kitty refuses to go to Princeton unless she, too, can work as a scientist there. Still, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Oppie and his ilk really had to face up to the fact that women were becoming major scientists in increasing numbers, hence the line above, from a scene set in 1967.

Oppie’s thought here is, of course, a reference to the Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” (For those who recall that Oppie had been out of touch with pop culture, note that when this Dylan song — the title track from his album of the same name — came out, Oppie had a 19-year-old daughter living with him; he certainly would have heard this hit song a lot.)

I didn’t choose the Dylan reference only because of its appropriateness to the moment, but also as a bit of irony. The Oppenheimer Alternative is filled with people who had or went on to win Nobel prizes, but Oppie himself never got one — a reality many consider unfair, especially given his seminal papers on what we now call black holes.

But Bob Dylan did eventually get one, surprising himself and the whole world: in 2016, the Swedish Academy, feeling pressured to give the Literature award to another American, twenty-three years after the last one had taken the prize, named Dylan for his song lyrics, something some contend was unfair to the novelists, short story writers, and poets who had been hoping to receive the award. Me, though, I think Dylan was an excellent choice.

For more pop-culture references in my novel, see here.

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