Einstein and Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius

May 22, 2008

The history of science is often recounted as if it consisted of a series of heroic contributions made by geniuses. Scientists tend to be fond of recycling these myths, while historians of science take equal pleasure in debunking them.

Silvan Schweber believes that the story of science can be understood properly by focusing not on outstanding individuals but on the scientific communities to which they belonged. In his latest book, he focuses on Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, seeking "to banish the term genius when referring to (them)". Schweber tries to do this by understanding the two men's contributions in terms of how they used the resources of their communities and how they interacted with their friends and colleagues. To call Einstein "a genius" is misleading, Schweber contends, because the label diminishes the importance of the background against which his work was done.

Leaving aside the moot point of whether Oppenheimer is in the same league of achievement as Einstein, Schweber is right to invite us to reflect on what we really mean by scientific geniuses. He is well qualified to do this, having been a first-rate theoretical physicist who retrained to become an historian, with a reputation for learning, fair-mindedness and generosity of spirit.

The book consists of six essays that can be read independently. Two are about Einstein (his role in the early nuclear weapons programmes and the founding of Brandeis University), two concern Oppenheimer (particularly his role in the Manhattan Project and after the war) and two are about both men. Over the past few years many leading scholars have published a wealth of material on these great figures, so Schweber has set himself quite a task in seeking to add to our understanding. By my reckoning he has succeeded, not so much by uncovering significant new material as by reflecting wisely and eloquently on Einstein's and Oppenheimer's politics, their relationships with their colleagues and their contributions to science.

As Schweber concedes, his book's subtitle, "the meaning of genius", does not accurately describe the main question addressed in his essays. Rather, he is most concerned here with how the protagonists tried to remain relevant after they had made their main contributions to science (and, in Oppenheimer's case, nuclear engineering). This explains why the book's highlights are Schweber's acutely observed discussions of the relationship between the two men after they became colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The two men were friendly but never close, the loner Einstein unwilling to oblige Oppenheimer in his quest to make the institute's members more collegiate.

As Schweber points out, both men were great communicators but in different ways; Einstein's style was concise and intensely personal, whereas Oppenheimer was an exhibitionist and "could only speak of the contributions of other individuals and of accomplishments of the community as a whole".

One disappointment is that most of Schweber's reflections on genius are at the beginning and end of the book, rather diffusing their impact. I fear that he has not made the most of the opportunity to encourage scientists to look beyond the myths that litter their version of history. But perhaps these myths express a truth that the scientific community understands better than historians: as in any field of human endeavour, there occasionally emerges someone so outstandingly productive that awestruck colleagues can only stand back and uncomprehendingly pronounce him or her "a genius".

As Schweber rightly emphasises, the worst mistake is to put such people on pedestals and assume that they could have done their work entirely alone. To paraphrase John Donne, even geniuses are not islands.

Einstein and Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius

By Silvan S. Schweber
Harvard University Press
432pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780674028289
Published 1 April 2008

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