Oppenheimer: The Shape of Genius

Robert Oppenheimer lecturing Edward R. Murrow on physics, Princeton, 1954

Why another book about Robert Oppenheimer? Many books have been written and widely read, ranging from the impressionistic Lawrence and Oppenheimer of Nuel Pharr Davis to the scholarly American Prometheus of Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Ray Monk says he wrote his book because the others gave too much weight to Oppenheimer’s politics and too little weight to his science. Monk restores the balance by describing in detail the activities that occupied most of Oppenheimer’s life: learning and exploring and teaching science.

The subtitle, “A Life Inside the Center,” calls attention to a rarer skill in which Oppenheimer excelled. He had a unique ability to put himself at the places and times at which important things were happening. Four times in his life, he was at the center of important events. In 1926 he was at Göttingen, where his teacher Max Born was one of the leaders of the quantum revolution that transformed our view of the subatomic world. In 1929 he was at Berkeley, where his friend Ernest Lawrence was building the first cyclotron, and with Lawrence he created in Berkeley an American school of sub-atomic physics that took the leadership away from Europe. In 1943 he was at Los Alamos building the first nuclear weapons. In 1947 he was in Washington as chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, giving advice to political and military leaders at the highest levels of government. He was driven by an irresistible ambition to play a leading part in historic events. In each case, when he was present at the center of action, he rose to the occasion and took charge of the situation with unexpected competence.

It is often helpful to have several books covering the same territory. Since different writers have different viewpoints, each book will do better in some areas and worse in others. The most valuable contribution of Monk’s book is to give a detailed picture of two groups of people who played an important role in Oppenheimer’s life: the tightly knit society of wealthy German New York Jews to which his parents belonged, and the small army of security officers who monitored his social and political activities when he was engaged in secret work in Berkeley and Los Alamos.

Monk brings these two groups vividly to life. He puts the German Jews into their historical setting. Many of them were liberal idealists who failed to achieve their dreams of social reform in Germany and came to America with an intense commitment to the American dream of a free society. He begins his account by quoting a line, “America, thou hast it better,” from a poem by Goethe extolling America as the land of liberation from the knights, robbers, and ghosts of old Europe. This poetic German vision of America…

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