The Olympian and His Thunderbolt
Robert Oppenheimer, far from being a one-dimensional Dr Atomic, was a tragic character of huge erudition
For many people the name Robert Oppenheimer probably conjures up two things: the man in charge of the Manhattan Project for creating the nuclear bomb, and the head of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. It also recalls the victim of a nasty investigative process designed to undercut his authority and remove his security clearance. Wicked nonsense it was, motivated by hatred and paranoia, and though he was later offered his security clearance back, his response was, “Not on your life!”
In Ray Monk’s superb new biography Inside the Centre (Doubleday, £24.99), J. Robert Oppenheimer comes over as an extraordinary, if flawed, intellectual. The investigation he suffered, carried out under the direction of one Lewis Strauss (pronounced Straws), was a travesty of justice. Conversations with his lawyers were bugged and the transcripts handed to the prosecution, who had full access to his FBI file while the defence did not. The prosecution even leaked secret testimony by Oppenheimer deliberately to damage his reputation with other scientists. Monk tells this story with verve and riveting detail.
During the entire process he remained head of the Institute for Advanced Study, leading it for nearly 20 years until shortly before his death at the age of 62. This long tenure only started after the Manhattan Project was over; a project that might very well have failed without his direction. That in itself was a remarkable achievement, much maligned by those who would rather see a one-dimensional picture of Oppenheimer as Dr Atomic. The Manhatten Project was conceived in terror of the Nazis getting there first, but by the time it was clear they wouldn’t, the concern was: how many more US lives were to be lost in battling the Japanese?
Oppenheimer never doubted the urgency of the matter, but was horrified by its eventual effect. When he pressed for international co-operation and control over nuclear weapons, President Truman referred to him as a “cry-baby”. “Do you know how long it will be before the Russians can make a nuclear bomb?” Truman asked Oppenheimer, who declined to estimate. “Never,” said Truman.
Oppenheimer then tried to avert the development of the hydrogen bomb but Truman broadcast to the world that the Americans were working on it. The day he made this announcement, Lewis Strauss held a party, and “walked over to Oppenheimer to introduce his son and his son’s new wife. To Strauss’s mortification, Oppenheimer did not even bother to turn round. He simply extended a hand over his shoulder.” At the same party celebrating Strauss’s birthday and the hydrogen bomb announcement, a New York Times journalist spotted Oppenheimer standing alone.
“You don’t look jubilant,” the reporter said, to which, after a long pause, Oppenheimer replied, “This is the curse of Thebes.”
Such Delphic utterances were often misinterpreted. Monk tells us that one physicist thought he was referring to the slaughter of a legion of Theban soldiers for refusing to
fight Christians. But surely he was alluding to the plague that descends on Thebes for Oedipus’s crime.
From this vignette two threads emerge: Oppenheimer was often misunderstood— people wrote books and plays about him that simply got it wrong—but he may also have regarded himself, like Oedipus, as a tragic character. His Jewish antecedents he tended to ignore, steeping himself in Sanskrit or French literature and the classical world. He even said that the initial J. of his name stood for nothing, like the S. of Harry Truman—in fact, it stood for Julius. Yet unlike Oedipus, Oppenheimer was a reflective man of huge insight, knowledge and erudition. When asked by a magazine to “jot down—almost on impulse” up to ten books
“that most shaped your attitudes in your vocation and philosophy of life”, here is what he came up with:
Les Fleurs du Mal
Riemann’s Gesammelte mathematische Werke
Bhartrhari’s three hundred poems The Waste Land
Apart from Riemann, the Sanskrit author Bhartrhari and Faraday he omitted names of authors. They were to be understood, and the six different languages involved did not exhaust Oppenheimer’s repertoire. Before one trip he left a junior colleague to substitute for him in teaching a course, assuring him there was a book available. It was in Dutch. “But it’s very easy Dutch,” he said.
After a spell as a graduate student at Cambridge, he went to Germany in the 1920s when quantum theory was taking shape. He always wanted to be in the centre of things, hence the title of this book, and Monk does a superb job of explaining what exactly was happening in particle physics.
Cambridge turned out to be a not entirely happy time for Oppenheimer: once, when depressed, he left a poisoned apple for a physicist who inspired his intense jealousy. Yet this passed, and at Göttingen he worked under Max Born. On one occasion when Born went away he asked Oppenheimer to check the mathematics in a paper he had written. On his return, Oppenheimer told him it was correct and asked if he’d done it all himself. Born’s admiration knew no bounds, but he was also a little scared of the young genius. “I felt as if he were an inhabitant of Olympus who had strayed among humans and did his best to appear human.”
This Olympian, who inspired emotions from admiration to hatred, was, despite the doubts of those who promoted the security investigations, a great American patriot. But as Einstein said, “The trouble . . . is that he loves a woman who doesn’t love him—the United States Government.” As for love, he was married with two children, but never really connected with them; his daughter committed suicide after two failed marriages. Oppenheimer’s tragic flaw, brought out in the last paragraph of Monk’s great study, involves an “enigmatic elusiveness” and “inability to make ordinary close contact with the people around him”, but as Monk says, this “was what . . . enabled Oppenheimer to become the great man he showed himself to be”.