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The man without a center

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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"Inside the Center" by Ray Monk, Jonathan Cape Publishers (Image: Amazon)

Why are we drawn to tragic heroes much more then to conventional ones? Perhaps because tragic heroes, because of the flaws and ambiguity inherent in their nature, continue to intrigue us long after we have finished admiring the essentially simple and good character of conventional heroes. Hamlet catches hold of our imagination much more than Antonio, Severus Snape more than Albus Dumbledore. So it is with Robert Oppenheimer, a man who continues to beguile and fascinate us long after his death. When news came of this new biography of Oppenheimer, fans like me were naturally inclined to ask what could possibly be new about it. In the past decade or so there have been several portraits and biographies of the father of the atomic bomb, with the culmination of these efforts being Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning volume “American Prometheus”. With so many around, do we need another biography?

In this case the answer is a qualified yes. Monk who is the acclaimed biographer of Wittgenstein and Russell has produced a thoughtful and insightful portrait that covers a lot of the same ground as other books but also sheds much clearer insights into Oppenheimer’s character and a handful of key events from his life. To his credit Monk carefully acknowledges existing biographies of Oppenheimer and points out gaps which he intends to fill with his own efforts. The UK edition of the book is titled “Inside the Center”, both as a reference to Oppenheimer’s wish to be at the center of science and policy, as well as an allusion to his own lack of a unifying center. The book is very well written and presents a judicious balance of detail and broader discussion. The writing is clear and crisp, although not particularly eloquent, and delivers a solid, authoritative account of the subject matter.

Monk’s main goal is to illuminate the central dilemma of Oppenheimer’s life; that of identity. His second goal is to pay attention to those aspects of Oppenheimer’s science which have been glossed over by other biographers. Oppenheimer was a brilliant, complex individual who excelled at a variety of things, an astonishingly quick thinker and wide-ranging intellectual who was as much at home with Sanskrit and French literature as with theoretical physics. Yet he was a man who kept on searching for a core identity that would hold it all together and who throughout his life harbored self-doubt. Monk looks for the root of this crisis in Oppenheimer’s rejection of his German-Jewish background. Oppenheimer sought to distance himself from his father’s identity as a wealthy, highly successful, self-made Jewish textile importer from New York City. It’s not clear why he did this, but it’s at least partly because of a self-hatred engendered by anti-Semitism in America. Later on he turned toward Hinduism, and the Bhagavad Gita in particular, as a sort of partial replacement for his Jewish faith. While the Bhagavad Gita is a book of great beauty and wisdom, it places too much emphasis on detachment and the labors themselves rather than on the fruits of those labors. Monk believes that it was partly Oppenheimer’s fondness for this philosophy that prevented him from achieving things which men with lesser gifts achieved. A privileged and sheltered childhood combined with his extraordinary intelligence also left him with rather poorly developed social skills.

Oppenheimer’s ambiguous attitude toward achievement and his capacity for self-doubt was particularly visible during his time at Harvard University, a time which Monk is especially deft at describing. At Harvard Oppenheimer excelled academically, graduating in only three years, but made few friends. His letters from this period provide extremely valuable insights into his core qualities. In them Oppenheimer appears in turn erudite, pitiful, accomplished, insecure and pretentious. They showcase his great gifts as an actor who could project a larger-than-life image and who could mold himself to suit the task and please his audience. These qualities were responsible for both his later successes and downfall. From Harvard Oppenheimer went first to Cambridge where he initially floundered in experimental physics and evidenced serious psychological problems. It was only at the University of Gottingen where he flourished and came into his own as a physicist.

These were great times for physics. Quantum mechanics was revolutionizing our understanding of the natural world and Cambridge and Gottingen were at the center of these developments. Monk describes Oppenheimer’s early contributions to the applications of quantum theory and his friendship with many of its pioneers including Bohr, Born and Dirac. He quickly established himself as one of the most promising physicists of his generation. Other qualities which were to cause him problems later – his impatience, conceit and arrogance – emerged during his time in Europe. With his quick mind and somewhat underdeveloped social skills Oppenheimer could hurt people as well as intrigue them. But Europe was clearly where he became a confident young scientist out to transform the teaching and practice of physics.

Oppenheimer returned to America with a mandate to establish an American school of theoretical physics that was second to none, and by any measure he succeeded. Over the next decade, at Berkeley and Caltech, he mesmerized a group of students who went on to make major contributions to American physics. During the first half of the decade Oppenheimer read widely but was consumed mainly by his science. Monk is very good at explaining some of Oppenheimer’s key contributions during this period that have been neglected by other biographers, especially his research on quantum electrodynamics, cosmic rays and mesons. Ironically, his most lasting contribution to physics was the early description of what we call black holes, but somewhat characteristically he was indifferent to this accomplishment in his later years. Monk discusses why Oppenheimer never managed to do work of the highest caliber, and locates the reason partly in the diversity of his interests which kept him from focusing on one thing for too long, partly in his somewhat mysterious view of the frontiers of physics that kept him from confidently pushing ahead, and partly again in his interest in the Bhagavad Gita which emphasizes detachment and a studied indifference to the fruits of one’s labors. During the latter half of the 1930s Oppenheimer also became interested in left-wing organizations and activities. This was a common political reaction during those times when fascism seemed to be taking over the world. Oppenheimer’s interest was also engendered by a tumultuous relationship with a left-wing medical student named Jean Tatlock. But Monk also makes it evident that while contributing to a variety of left-wing causes, Oppenheimer’s heart was never really in it. While Monk has a sure understanding of Oppenheimer’s life during this period, Bird and Sherwin’s book provides a more detailed description of his political activities.

Monk’s account of Oppenheimer’s time as director of Los Alamos as well as the technical and political challenges connected with the bomb is quite readable, although this material has been covered to death in other sources, most notably in Richard Rhodes’s seminal book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”. It was astonishing how quickly Oppenheimer transformed himself from being a rarefied intellectual who had not even led a university department to one of the best directors of a vast scientific and engineering enterprise that anyone had ever seen. He was regarded as being intellectually superior to others, even in the midst of the most exalted concentration of intellect the twentieth century had seen until then. He was personally acquainted with thousands of personnel – from Nobel Laureates to janitors – and made them all feel special. He had an almost preternatural ability to masterfully summarize a complex discussion in a few sentences; in his presence other scientists felt smarter and more insightful. Even those who later became his detractors acknowledged his indispensable role in the success of the Manhattan Project. His quick grasp of every issue – from social concerns to the most hands-on engineering problems – and his charm and persuasive powers were on full display here.

The one thing that stands out from Monk’s narrative is a concise account of Oppenheimer’s fateful security problems, the clearest that I have found in any source. The basic story is now clear: Oppenheimer was approached by his friend Haakon Chevalier on behalf of a communist with a proposal to ferry atomic information to the Soviet Union. Oppenheimer refused right away, but did not report this approach to security officials. While this may have been justified (since no information had been communicated), Oppenheimer then made up a story in which Chevalier had approached three individuals and not one. He further declined to give the army Chevalier’s name until much later and confused them even more by telling at least one person that the person approached had been his brother Frank. His evasion and equivocation engendered a deep sense of suspicion in the military establishment. The account makes it clear that while Oppenheimer was a remarkably quick study, he was also incredibly naive and completely underestimated how seriously the security officials would take his story and to what lengths they would go to investigate its perceived implications. In an effort to ingratiate himself to the military establishment he dug himself deeper, and this behavior would haunt him for the rest of his life. The story also sheds light on an ugly part of Oppenheimer’s personality, his willingness to implicate his former students and colleagues to save himself.

After the war Oppenheimer was the most famous scientist in the world, a highly sought after government consultant and policy advisor. He stopped doing active work in physics, but still served as an outstanding critic and synthesizer of facts. He was always in touch with the latest research, and as a series of important post-war physics conferences demonstrated, was still considered the leader of the theoretical physics community in America who others looked up to as an incisive and wise teacher. This was especially evident in his selection as director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

However Oppenheimer got seduced by power. The same charm and persuasion that made him such an effective leader at Berkeley and Los Alamos also made him powerful enemies in the military and the government, most notably Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss. His opposition to the hydrogen bomb, which was ambiguous in any case, was construed by his enemies as evidence of disloyalty or a lapse of judgment at the very least; it did not matter that many other prominent scientists opposed the hydrogen bomb on sound principles, and it also did not matter that Oppenheimer was a proponent of tactical nuclear weapons. On one hand his enemies were simply jealous since they did not have the kind of influence that he had, but they were certainly helped by his arrogance and lack of diplomacy and compromise, not to mention the inconsistencies in the story he had told security officials at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer also refused to see what direction the winds were blowing and was too enamored of his position in Washington to consider retiring from policy matters, leading Einstein to wisely point out that “Oppenheimer’s problem is that he loves a woman who does not love him; the United States Government”.

Ultimately what Oppenheimer’s adversaries did was inexcusable, but he made it easier for them. Monk crafts a careful and clear narrative of world events and Oppenheimer’s own actions that led to his shameful security hearing in 1954. The trial was rigged against Oppenheimer from the start and the decision to oust him from power had already been made; it turned out to be the kind of show trial prevalent in the same Soviet Union which its architects so ostensibly detested. Many aspects of the hearing were blatantly unconstitutional, from illegal wiretaps on Oppenheimer’s phone to the withholding of key relevant documents used in court from him and his attorney under the guise of national security. It is painful to read through the proceedings, and the whole episode will always be a blot on the political history of this country. The most perverse irony in all this is that time after time, ever since his days as a student in Europe, through both words and actions, Oppenheimer had displayed genuine love and admiration for his country and had proven his allegiance to America. In the end it’s best to remember Edward Murrow’s statement that “disagreement should never be equated with disloyalty”.

Oppenheimer and Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Study (Image: Atomic-Annihilation, Life Magazine)

After his hearing Oppenheimer’s political influence effectively ended. However he still continued to be the director of the Institute for Advanced Study until 1967, a position that gave him access to some of the world’s greatest thinkers. In this capacity he brought together leading intellectuals from both the natural and the social sciences. He also remained a highly sought after speaker and writer, regarded as an authoritative voice on the relationship between science and society. His mastery of the English language is especially evident in his transcribed speeches. In the 1960s, as a gesture of political rehabilitation he was awarded the Atomic Energy Commission’s Enrico Fermi award, and he also lived long enough to see Teller and Strauss being shamed and ostracized by the scientific and political communities. Oppenheimer died of throat cancer in 1967, still a famous man, but still striving to be at the center of things.

Monk has written a fine biography of this complex, brilliant and flawed man, one of the most important individuals of the twentieth century. For those not familiar with Oppenheimer, it’s as good a starting point as any other. For the rest, it’s still a valuable resource that very clearly illuminates key aspects of Oppenheimer’s life and times, some better than in any other biography. Ultimately though, Robert Oppenheimer will always remain intriguing and mysterious because of his lack of a defining center. Perhaps we will have to resign ourselves to the fact that, just like his beloved electron, the location of Oppenheimer’s core identity will remain indeterminate.

Note: This is a revised version of a review of the book on Amazon.com.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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