How Achilles of physicists was brought to heel at last

Oppenheimer
August 5, 2005

Robert Oppenheimer would have been the perfect subject for a Greek tragedy. This profoundly troubled man apparently had everything going for him - his polymathic talent, his great achievements as a scientist, teacher and leader, his charisma, his global fame - yet he died depressed and unfulfilled. Such a figure would seem to be a gift for biographers, although until recently there have been few authoritative accounts of his life.

Jeremy Bernstein's short biography seeks not to be the definitive account for scholars but to summarise Oppenheimer's life for the lay reader. Bernstein is singularly well qualified to do this: he is a former physicist and young colleague of Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and was a staff writer on The New Yorker . He often considered writing a portrait for the magazine, but in the end wrote only his obituary.

The book begins with a description of Oppenheimer's privileged upbringing in New York at the turn of the 20th century. Oppenheimer was inordinately talented in many fields, not just in science, and it was hard for him to bring even one of his abilities to a satisfying fruition. He was in Cambridge when quantum mechanics was just beginning and, though he made powerful contributions to the subject, he never earned his place on the pantheon of its most influential pioneers. The caustic Wolfgang Pauli, like most physicists at that time, admired Oppenheimer's talent but suspected that physics was not his primary calling. Pauli described Oppenheimer as "a psychiatrist by vocation, a physicist by avocation", one of the many unfamiliar quotes that Bernstein expertly deploys.

During his prime in California, from 1929 to the early 1940s, Oppenheimer became a peerless teacher and did some of his finest research, including the prediction of black holes. He set up one of the finest graduate schools in the history of US education and was in large measure responsible for its later pre-eminence in theoretical physics. One of Oppenheimer's students threatened to go on hunger strike when he denied her request to take one of his courses for the fourth time. He relented.

As might be expected, the best part of the biography concerns the final chapters of Oppenheimer's life, when Bernstein knew him. The account of the trial that led the US Government to withdraw Oppenheimer's security clearance is superbly judged - brief, fair and not slow to criticise the defendant for his evasions and for his casual cruelty to former colleagues and students.

Although Oppenheimer's Princeton colleagues supported him after the humiliation of the trial, he was a broken man, though still an effective leader at the Institute for Advanced Study. His wonderfully generous-spirited motto was: "What we don't know, we explain to each other." Bernstein treats us to an entertaining and nuanced description of Oppenheimer in his final years. Still lusting to know, to understand and to experience more, his early arrogance remained on display, though mitigated by his practised charm. Bernstein's portrait of the declining Oppenheimer characteristically contains an eye-catching brushstroke that lesser writers would not think to include: in Oppenheimer's home, he proudly displayed a 1889 Van Gogh. His wife sold it after his death from throat cancer in 1967, and it was resold 20 years ago at Sotheby's to a private collector for $9 million.

Only an Aeschylus could do full justice to Oppenheimer's life. But, for those who want only its gist, I recommend this profile. In the neglected art form of the short scientific biography, this is a minor classic.

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

Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma

Author - Jeremy Bernstein
Publisher - Duckworth
Pages - 223
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 7156 3330 9

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