American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer ,
J. Robert Oppenheimer is not on the list of great physicists. Given his uncommon intellectual acuity, his absence prompts the question, “Why?” Oppenheimer was a complex individual; however, the contrast between the triumphant and the tragic Oppenheimers is so sharp it begs one to ask, “How could it be?”
Many books and articles have been written about Oppenheimer. Among them, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin is the most complete I have read, and I recommend it enthusiastically. With telling and interesting details, the authors open Oppenheimer’s fascinating and troubling life to the reader. The book is well written and almost free of serious errors. (The authors repeat, on page 57, one error that plagues the history of physics: It was Albert Einstein, not Max Planck, who proposed the light quantum.) As you read American Prometheus, the intellectual tension between the triumph and the tragedy is almost palpable. Thus reading this worthy book is a gripping experience: It stimulates the mind and stirs the emotions.
Oppenheimer began his professional life as the theory of quantum mechanics reached its completion. It was a time when, as Edward Condon said (page 63), “Great ideas were coming out so fast. …” Oppenheimer mastered quantum mechanics quickly. Yet the great idea that might have secured his place among great physicists eluded him. Or did he elude the great idea?
Oppenheimer’s brilliance allowed him to range widely over physics. Max Born, his thesis adviser, said of him (page 74), “He is doubtless very gifted but completely without mental discipline.” Oppenheimer’s practice was to jump from problem to problem, to start something and move on before he completed it, and to help other people with their problems. As mentioned on page 215 of my book, Rabi: Scientist and Citizen (Harvard U. Press, 2000), this behavior is consistent with Frank Oppenheimer’s description of his brother: “What my brother did, and was terribly interested in, is a kind of teaching and talking with other people, getting them to get their ideas straight. So that part of his scatteredness was reacting to the ideas around him.” Oppenheimer’s work habits gave him breadth rather than depth.
His eagerness to help other people with their physics made him an excellent thesis adviser, and his students worshiped him. He and they divided their time between Berkeley and Caltech during the 1930s, and together they built a school of theoretical physics that helped bring the US into the front ranks of world physics.
The 1930s changed Oppenheimer. From a well-to-do family and educated in a private school, he had never known financial need. During the 1930s, he became aware of other worlds. He “saw what the Depression was doing” to his students (page 114). He began regularly reading the news-paper, and the Spanish Civil War became an issue for him. He was friends with active members of the Communist Party and attended meetings where leftist concerns were aired. Later, those political activities would lead to his downfall.
In the early 1940s, the chameleonic Oppenheimer changed again. World War II had begun; the implications of nuclear fission were quietly being discussed by leading physicists, and Oppenheimer wanted in on the discussions. He became a patriot. With his colleague Ernest Lawrence vouching for him, he attended a meeting in October 1941, during which questions about a nuclear bomb were discussed by James Conant, Arthur Compton, Lawrence, and others. Oppenheimer’s calculations of the amount of uranium-235 needed for a useful weapon were included in the final report of the meeting and immediately demonstrated his near-instantaneous grasp of any problem. He “could often understand an entire problem after he heard a single sentence,” said Hans Bethe (page 182). In a stroke of genius, General Leslie R. Groves selected Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project.
A new age began in August 1945. Physicists spawned the nuclear age, and only they knew the secrets of the atomic nucleus. Oppenheimer was their undisputed leader. In mid-1947, he moved from California to New Jersey, where he became director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and was easily accessible to Washington, DC. Oppenheimer changed again, becoming a power player and loving it. His brilliance, as always, was impressive, but his propensity to use it to humiliate people made lasting enemies in high places.
Oppenheimer’s triumph was laudatory; his tragedy disgraceful. With his lightning-fast mind, he commanded the prima donnas at Los Alamos with such decisiveness that he earned their respect and awe. “He brought out the best in all of us,” said Bethe (page 218); Robert Wilson went further (page 218): “In his presence, I became more intelligent, more vocal, more intense, more prescient, more poetic myself.” Oppenheimer could be tough, however—almost cruel. “He could cut you cold and humiliate you right down to the ground,” said Seth Neddermeyer (page 280). Brilliant, undisputed leader, tough.
Meanwhile, Oppenheimer turned to mush in the face of the officious Lilliputians who were secretly determined to destroy him. In 1943, as his fame and glory were growing, he lost control of his senses and lied to the functionary, Boris Pash, who was interrogating him. Later in October 1945, Oppenheimer behaved so pitifully in President Harry S Truman’s office (page 332) that Truman later called him a “cry-baby scientist.” Still later, in 1954, Oppenheimer totally disintegrated as Roger Robb, with prosecutorial vengeance, questioned him. At one point (page 507), Oppenheimer stupidly responded to Robb with the words, “because I was an idiot.” Weak-minded, feeble, pitiful.
For the US, there were also triumph and tragedy. The Los Alamos physicists were given a free hand. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Groves established an environment with no bureaucratic distractions, in which physicists could single-mindedly pursue a scientific and technical goal. Later, the US revealed its ugly side. Officials at the highest levels behaved wretchedly. With passions sweeping reason aside, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Chairman Lewis Strauss of the Atomic Energy Commission, and, sadly, many others actively set out to destroy Oppenheimer. Several, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, capitulated as they watched passively. In the tragic affair, national leaders broke the law, lied routinely, and, in exercising their powers, stacked the deck so that the 1954 hearings would achieve their objective: the destruction of Oppenheimer. After the hearings, Oppenheimer lived out his days in Princeton, a shadow of his former self.
Oppenheimer deserved his triumph and his tragedy. And the US deserved its triumph and its tragedy.
John S. Rigden is an honorary professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He has written Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness (Harvard U. Press, 2005) and other books and coedited Most of the Good Stuff: Memories of Richard Feynman (American Institute of Physics, 1993) with Laurie M. Brown.