My Barbenheimer Childhood

I saw a movie this past weekend that brought me back to my most cherished childhood memories.  In fact, it took just 15 minutes to find myself overcome with emotion.  The movie was Oppenheimer, and the scene that brought me to tears was when the young professor asks his first graduate student, “Is light a particle or a wave?”

I, too, was asked that question, only I was 7 or 8, and the questioner was my father.  We were in the basement of our house, a dim, unfinished space of concrete and cobwebs, where he set up a blackboard to teach physics to me and my sister.  He explained step by step, from the particles that comprise matter to the forces that act upon them, how all the solidness around me was really just empty clouds.  More than any of his strange science, I remember the stories my father told us about his heroes, the great physicists who had discovered all of this.  When he pointed to the bare lightbulb overhead and asked us that question about the nature of light that no one could not answer, he proposed for us a mission.  “I’ll give you until you’re 40 to figure out the answer,” he chirped.

The attic of our house, in contrast, was a bright, finished space with a steeply sloped ceiling pierced by a skylight.  My sister and I turned it into Barbieland, home to dozens of dolls and their houses, cars, clothes, and playsets.  The room and its toys became conduits for the stories we wanted to tell—long, elaborate, intersecting narratives that swept up all our Barbies into dramatic adventures.  Through them, we acted out our own ideas of the world, our evolving conceptions about people and relationships.  “We played all day and wasted no time,” my sister’s childhood diary records. 

All this fun went on until my parents announced we were moving.  The new house had nowhere to recreate Barbieland.  Although at 11 I wasn’t ready to be done with Barbies, I felt it was right to move on.  We created a closing ceremony for Barbieland modeled after the end-of-summer rituals from overnight camp, and then I packed up the room. 

As childhood slipped behind me, schoolwork became my focus.  I excelled in math and science, albeit not at my father’s elite level, and wondered what my own career in science might look like.  Though Barbieland was gone, I never grew out of the creative play of childhood, all the storytelling and craft projects I was supposed to set aside in service of becoming a serious adult.  Throughout high school and college I felt like my interests careened from one extreme to the other, science vs. humanities, logic vs. creativity, but everyone around me reinforced that only half of these pursuits were worthy of my intellect.  The eventual crisis came when I entered my senior year of Harvard with no major.  I looked back to all the happy afternoons I had spent junior year doing programming assignments I was supposed to hate and settled on Computer Science.  After graduation, I started work as a software developer in New York City.  It sure seemed like I had made my choice at last.

The truth is, however, that my father never chose, nor had he wanted me to choose.  When he co-invented the nuclear fuel rod during his years at Westinghouse Electric, he was both inventor and patent attorney, but thereafter his career was lawyer, not scientist.  He enjoyed practicing law, but I saw all that he lost by not focusing on his first love.  I was the one who minded that he had only confused children and equally confused golf buddies to hear his own theories of the universe.

I didn’t want to become my own version of that—living one life while perpetually distracted by another—yet that’s exactly what happened.  I built a career in technology for almost 14 years, and on the side I wrote and baked and crafted and did genealogy and even took years of classes at Juilliard.  But unlike my father, I obsessed over my unfulfilled, creative side.  No matter how well I did professionally, I felt like there was an unanswered question looming above. 

Over time, one of my many hobbies solidified more than the others, and I decided to pause my career to explore what my life would look like if I centered my childhood love of telling stories.  Exactly 9 years to the day before Barbenheimer, I moved to Pittsburgh, where the stories I wanted to tell began. They were origin stories like my father’s—not the origins of the universe, nor the origins of the theories we have to explain the universe, but the origins of the communities that shaped the family members who shaped my father who, in turn, shaped me.  Telling those stories felt like returning to my source, and yet, I found that there was still space I wanted to fill with software engineering.  Slowly, I rebuilt a life where I made myself equal parts technologist and storyteller. 

Barbenheimer may be an international phenomenon that has drawn thousands of people into its orbit, but it feels uniquely personal to me.  I can’t imagine anyone else who had the same excitement at spotting Astronaut Barbie as I. I. Rabi, recognizing Day-to-Night Barbie’s outfit as Richard Feynman’s bongos.  Perhaps my greatest joy in seeing so many stories from my childhood on the big screen is that it no longer provokes such angst for me to revel in both.  I have made no discoveries about the nature of light, but I did figure out before I turned 40 what would bring the most light into my life.  

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer can push the boundaries of science and indulge his lustful urges; Gerwig’s Barbie can wear pink and grapple with an existential crisis.  No life fully lived has only one narrative thread.  No story fully realized stays on one note.

Barbenheimer started as a joke, as though there was no one who would ever consider seeing both, and we moviegoers proved the Hollywood executives wrong.  We proved them wrong because the filmmakers, especially Greta Gerwig, defied the expectations for each of their stories:  Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer can push the boundaries of science and indulge his lustful urges; Gerwig’s Barbie can wear pink and grapple with an existential crisis.  No life fully lived has only one narrative thread.  No story fully realized stays on one note.  If anything, the Barbenheimer phenomenon reflects that we all contain multitudes, even contradictory multitudes.  We flatten our lives because we believe we are supposed to.  We privilege some opportunities as more serious and therefore more respectable when we miss the chance to see the possibilities in every narrative.  When we move away from ingrained notions about what kinds of lives are worthy, we can open up new pathways for ourselves.

Scientists are no longer troubled that light is both a particle and a wave, and Barbenheimer reminded me I, too, finally found that long-elusive peace with my own duality.  As for my father, retirement has provided him more hours for studying and teaching physics.  Despite having been proven wrong by his daughters, he remains cheerfully undeterred in his belief that little children can understand quantum mechanics—much to the chagrin of his granddaughters.