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Sin and the Scientist

Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections

edited by Alice Kimball Smith, edited by Charles Weiner
Harvard University Press, 376 pp., $20.00

Baudelaire made a blasphemous poem out of the Biblical notion that innocence is virtue, knowledge evil. He turned his back on godly virtue and prayed for satanic knowledge. The Tree of Knowledge (l’Arbre de Science) would be a new temple, spreading its boughs over Satan’s brow, and he prayed that his soul would be there, next to Satan. At Harvard in the Twenties J. Robert Oppenheimer belonged to a little group of superior undergraduates who used Baudelaire’s refrain—“O Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère!”—as their hilarious shibboleth, a mocking response to the miseries of intense intellectual striving.

Twenty years later, when Oppenheimer had to pick a code word for the test explosion of the first nuclear bomb, he drew on John Donne’s holy sonnets—“Batter my heart, three person’d God;…break, blow, burn and make me new”—and christened the explosion Trinity. In neither case were Oppenheimer and his comrades conscious of blasphemy. Whether undergraduate superstrivers or military engineers, they were simply borrowing poetic words to express feelings, of mock heroic angst in the first case, of awful pride in the second. Poetry—art in general—was “not the exemplification of a truth, nor a commentary on the world.”1 Science expressed truth, and provided not merely commentary on the world but mastery of it.

I am not questioning Oppenheimer’s legendary soulfulness; I am trying to define it, and to discover its bearing on his career in science. It is fairly certain that he did not have Baudelaire in mind when he made the famous remark, after Hiroshima, that “the physicists have known sin,”2 or when he told Truman, “We have blood on our hands.”3 Many of his colleagues imagined a connection between such expressions of bad conscience and the longstanding evidence of his intense interest in poetry, reaching even to the Bhagavad-Gita, which he read in Sanskrit. A recent memoir repeats the legend of Oppenheimer’s “mystic” tendency, which was supposedly revealed in his revulsion against the nuclear arms race, and in the analogy he perceived between “the man of science and the man of art [who] live always at the edge of mystery,” struggling “to make partial order in total chaos.”4 Of course it is a confusion to put the label of mysticism on any sensitivity to moral or aesthetic values, which Oppenheimer had in great abundance, or on concern with metaphysical issues, which he shrugged off. But philistine confusions of that sort are fairly common among contemporary scientists, and there was reason to wonder whether, or to what extent, Oppenheimer might have shared the legend of soulful mysticism battling with scientific realism for possession of his mind.

The greatest merit of this fine collection of letters and documents is that it puts an end to such wondering. Oppenheimer’s inmost soul in process of formation is revealed in confessional letters of his youth. If mysticism is belief in an intuitive grasp of a supernatural realm, we can say with finality: he was as far from mysticism as one can be, for better or for worse. In his family—wealthy, German-Jewish, assimilated—and at Ethical Culture School in New York he absorbed the secular devotion to scientific and artistic creation as the supreme self-justification of the best people. Unfortunately, terror threatens hope in that faith. If each person proves his worth by artistic or scientific works, he may prove himself worthless.

As an undergraduate at Harvard and graduate student at Cambridge, Oppenheimer was increasingly tormented by the fear that he was not among the elect. He wrote pathetic, euphuistic letters to Herbert W. Smith, a favorite high-school teacher who became a close friend, in which elaborate efforts to laugh off his fears by self-ridicule collapse periodically into simple laments of worthlessness: “…You must see that it is very hard to remain innocent and satisfied, when science and literature and the people you admire…all proclaim the beauty and wonder and emotional and aesthetic wealth of a host of benisons which you haven’t got.” Conventional reassurance, such as high grades from admiring teachers, was unavailing. Personal worth measured on some uncalibrated scale was the central obsession in young Oppenheimer’s letters, not society’s table of ranks, and certainly not the metaphysical hierarchies of values that obsessed poets like Donne and Baudelaire. He lacked the ultimate arrogance of metaphysical passion—or is it meekness?—which turns the individual’s problem of personal merit into the universal problem of all creatures confronting the limits that god or nature has imposed on their brief lives.

It is not, I think, a confusion to read such philosophical issues into the tormented letters of a young man drifting toward insanity. Philosophical issues are no less genuine when the mind on which they press is cracking. In any case, dementia praecox (schizophrenia in today’s jargon) was the label that Oppenheimer’s psychiatrist put upon him, and the editors of the present collection have dug out friends’ recollections of truly alarming episodes. Oppenheimer tried to strangle Francis Fergusson, a friend he especially admired (and envied?) for superior literary ability. On another occasion Oppenheimer hastily abandoned a vacation party, telling his companions that he had to rush back to Cambridge and remove the poisoned apple he had left on the desk of P.M.S. Blackett, an exceptionally brilliant physicist. There were “unsatisfactory sexual ventures,” as the genteel editors cryptically remark. Periodically Oppenheimer’s parents and friends seem to have worried about suicide, especially during his year of graduate study in physics at Cambridge University, where he felt terribly inept, in part because he was expected to become an experimentalist as well as a theorist, though he could not solder two wires properly.

Whether such episodes justified the diagnosis of schizophrenia is less important than Oppenheimer’s conviction that he overcame his troubles when he broke off with psychiatrists and became his own disciplinarian. A brief, cryptic self-diagnosis, written to Fergusson following the strangling episode, centered on “the awful fact of excellence,” which was lacking in the poems and stories he had been sending to Smith and Fergusson with joking comments about their worthlessness. (Evidently the editors agree with that judgment, for they have included only two samples of young Oppenheimer’s literary efforts and the embarrassed reader does not cry out for more.) In his mid-twenties Oppenheimer gradually abandoned his “masturbatic” writing, as he characterized it. It would be more accurate to call it a literary effort so anxiously self-centered as to be self-defeating. It ended in stoical acceptance of failure and regression to “the sweet luxury of being taught,” as he described his sessions with a teacher of Sanskrit.

In his mid-twenties stoicism mastered anxiety in physics too. To be sure, in that field he was becoming the stoic as emperor rather than slave, but cultivation of inner detachment attended his success in physics no less than his defeat in literature. Intense striving continued while pathological self-doubt was subdued, not by vulgar self-congratulation, but by insistence that one’s deepest feelings must be detached from lust for recognition or fear of scorn. Perhaps stoicism is the wrong term for Oppenheimer’s mature philosophy of life. Epicureanism may be more appropriate, in the original sense of a search for largely intellectual pleasures in seclusion from the disturbing world. He did not attempt a philosophical justification for his continued devotion to intense striving while cultivating inner detachment, but neither did he attempt a philosophical justification of the new physics. A tendency to brush off philosophical inquiry was part of Oppenheimer’s disciplined detachment as it had been of his elemental self-laceration. He did not dismiss philosophy with a sneer, as so many contemporary scientists do, but he dismissed it nevertheless.

Oppenheimer’s great success in physics began with his move from Cambridge to Göttingen, where he was encouraged to become a pure theorist, and to combine “a fantastically impregnable metaphysical disingenuousness with the go-getting habits of a wallpaper manufacturer.” He coauthored an important paper with Max Born, and returned to the US academic market as a “hot property,” snapped up by Berkeley and Cal Tech (he divided his year between the two), and repeatedly bid for by Harvard and Princeton, while he and E.O. Lawrence, theorist teamed with experimentalist, built a West Coast empire of advanced research and graduate training in physics. No doubt he relished such worldly success, but one must infer the relish from indirect evidence. It is notably absent in his personal letters, which continue to be intensely confessional, though no longer self-denigrating.

The most revealing are didactic essays to his younger brother Frank, who was becoming a physicist too, in spite of Robert’s effort to steer him into biology. Robert was among those farsighted physicists who saw that biology was about to replace physics as the most exciting territory for scientific trailblazers and bounty hunters. Nevertheless he heartily approved Frank’s choice of physics, stressing “the excellences of life it brings,” most notably “that delectatio contemplationis which is the reward and reason of our way of life.” In self-perception he was a hard-working recluse, pleasantly secluded in the garden of Epicurus, while in social fact he was a go-getter, an academic empire builder, unwittingly preparing himself to be scientific director of the first nuclear bomb factory.

The most puzzling feature of Oppenheimer’s letters is their scientific thinness, their lack of interesting comment on the substance of science. His special research interests—the analysis of cosmic rays, for example—appear in a few uncharacteristically pallid letters. Occasionally he seems on the verge of vivid scientific commentary, as in a report to Frank of a 1934 visit to Princeton: “Princeton is a madhouse: its solipsistic luminaries shining in separate and helpless desolation. Einstein is completely cuckoo….” But he leaves that hanging, a decree rather than a reasoned judgment, presumably referring to Einstein’s criticism of quantum theory. Even such “sibylline declarations,” a hallmark of Oppenheimer’s scientific conversation, are quite rare in his letters. Nor is there exciting stuff in his published essays and lectures. The paper record communicates little of the galvanic effect that he had on fellow scientists in person. Recollections attribute his charisma to the emotional intensity he radiated, combined with great erudition, exceptional speed of articulate thought, and a lack of concern for slower minds that made him a grandmaster of academic oneupmanship.

The editors say that they have omitted technical letters to fellow physicists, and it may be that the omitted letters reveal more of Oppenheimer’s scientific mentality than its great technical facility. I doubt that, both because I trust the editors’ discernment, and because Oppenheimer’s didactic letters to his brother Frank are singularly lacking in scientific content. Whether recommending physics or biology or “hard languages”—an academic field that gets passing endorsement—Robert’s stress is on the “unremitting need of discipline and order,” not the particular qualities of the field in question. At one point Frank asked Robert if he did not value discipline as a good in itself, regardless of its ostensible objectives. Robert confessed that he did, and implied that he had studied many efforts to provide “a metaphysical ground for this evaluation”—from the Bhagavad-Gita to Spinoza—only to conclude that the diversity of the metaphysical arguments subverts them all. “The fact that discipline is good for the soul is more fundamental than any of the grounds given for its goodness.”

  1. 1

    Robert Oppenheimer, p. 120.

  2. 2

    J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Open Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1955) pp. 87-88.

  3. 3

    Nuel Pharr Davis, Lawrence and Oppenheimer (Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 258. For a different version—”I have blood on my hands”—see Philip M. Stern, The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial (Harper & Row, 1969), p. 90.

  4. 4

    Leona Marshall Libby, The Uranium People (Crane, Russack, 1979), p.100.

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