An embrace that cracked a noble heart


April 20, 2007

The father of the atom bomb was never fully a member of two camps he straddled, finds Graham Farmelo

Robert Oppenheimer was, apart from Einstein, the most charismatic scientist of the past century. Even when Oppenheimer was a graduate student in Gottingen, his eloquence, assertiveness and polymathic learning intimidated his supervisor, the supremely confident Max Born. But it was only later, after he had successfully led the scientists who built the first nuclear weapons, that the Oppenheimer legend began to take shape.

After his 1953 Reith Lectures, a listener praised one broadcast as if he had just seen John Gielgud perform Hamlet: "Your voice, so full of the effect of wisdom and consciousness of the Infinite, was a delight past defining in words."

Charles Thorpe's biography of Oppenheimer pays special attention to his charisma, to his vocation as a socially responsible scientist in public life and to other themes considered important by Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology. Thorpe notes in his introduction that he did not begin his study in a Weberian frame of mind, but many of his favourite "concepts and themes seemed to quite naturally emerge from and fit seamlessly with the historical material".

Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect is not a conventional, cradle-to-grave biography like Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's American Prometheus , winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Rather, Thorpe concentrates mainly on Oppenheimer's transition from academia to his post as scientific director of the Manhattan Project, and subsequently his security hearing and the period in Oppenheimer's life - as Thorpe puts it - after he was "excommunicated from the inner circle of the nuclear state".

This is an outstandingly well-researched book, a pleasure to read and distinguished by the high quality of its observations and judgments. It will be of special interest to scholars of modern history, but non-specialist readers will enjoy the clarity that Thorpe brings to common misunderstandings about his subject.

For example, Oppenheimer is often quoted as saying that "physicists have known sin" to illustrate the allegedly bad conscience of the Manhattan scientists after the dropping of the first nuclear weapons, yet Oppenheimer meant no such thing. As he made clear in an interview on the 20th anniversary of Hiroshima, "I meant that we had known the sin of pride. We had the pride of thinking we knew what was good for man. This is not the natural business of a scientist."

Likewise, Thorpe is unsparing in shining a bright light on Oppenheimer after the Second World War when he rode the two horses of national government and the scientific community like a faltering rodeo artist.

According to Thorpe's interpretation of events, Oppenheimer was too trusting of the Government when he presented its line to his fellow scientists. The consequences were unfortunate. "By binding the scientific community to the state," Thorpe opines, "(Oppenheimer) helped to undercut the scientists' capacity to engage with the public."

Thorpe's account of Oppenheimer's security hearing is not as subtle and comprehensive as Priscilla McMillan's in her brilliant and woefully underpublicised The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer , nor is Thorpe's placing of Oppenheimer's character in the context of modern American history quite as masterly as David Cassidy's in Oppenheimer and the American Century . But this account has plenty of other virtues, and Thorpe has provided a rich new perspective on Oppenheimer's relationship with the state, whose embrace he found irresistible, and which broke his heart when it rejected him.

My only reservations are that Thorpe pays too little attention to Oppenheimer's relationship with his alcoholic wife and their children and, more importantly, to his contribution to fundamental physics. I doubt whether a fully rounded view of this proud man is possible without a full treatment of his science, especially of his feelings about playing in the premier league of theoretical physics while knowing that he was never near the top.

Yet I doubt whether the richness of Oppenheimer's character can be portrayed even in a biography that does full justice to his science. In order to give a sense of his complex relationships with society, I believe it would need not a book but a play of a depth and complexity equal to its subject matter. But that would require a dramatist of the sweep and subtlety of Shakespeare.

Graham Farmelo is senior research fellow at the Science Museum, London.

Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect

Publisher - Charles Thorpe University of Chicago Press
Pages - 413
Price - £24.00
ISBN - 978 0 226 79845 5

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