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Creators of the Bomb

In the preface to In the Shadow of the Bomb, the physicist and historian of science Sylvan S. Schweber tells us that ten years ago Hans Bethe asked him to write Bethe’s “intellectual biography.” This turned out to be a monumental task since Bethe, who is now in his early nineties and still very active, has in the last seven decades made profound contributions to almost all branches of physics. Schweber realized that it would take several volumes to describe Bethe’s work and that in the end it might not have much interest for nonspecialist readers.

Hence he decided to condense his account to a more manageable size. In fact, the present relatively short book—186 pages of text and some 70 pages of notes and bibliography—began as a chapter before Schweber decided to make it a book in its own right. In effect he has written a dual biography of Bethe and J. Robert Oppenheimer, concentrating on the time when they both worked on the atom bomb and tried to deal with its consequences. There is much in it to be admired, but much that I found disappointing.

He describes part of the difficulty when he writes, “…I know so much more about Bethe’s life than about Oppenheimer’s, and Bethe’s story continues to unfold.” This works against his project in two ways. The obvious one is that his portrait of Oppenheimer lacks sufficient detail and does not bring us close to Oppenheimer’s complex personality. The less obvious one is that the presence of the living Bethe, whom, and with good reason, Schweber admires enormously, inhibits a frank account of his life. For example, Schweber tells us that in the 1970s, Bethe’s activities in pure science—as opposed to government and industrial consulting—were not “outstanding.” He notes that part of the reason had to do with “crises within the home.”

We are given no clue to what this refers to. If a writer does not want to explain such matters, then why mention them at all? Furthermore, the accounts of both Bethe and Oppenheimer are encumbered with material which only gets in the way of the story. These digressions might be overlooked in a long book, but in a short one they crowd out material that is genuinely important.

Oppenheimer, who was born in New York in 1904, came from a well-to-do German-Jewish family and was educated at the Ethical Culture School in New York. This leads Schweber to devote several pages to a somewhat tedious digression into the ideas of Felix Adler, who founded the school. What any of this had to do with Oppenheimer is not entirely clear. What is clear is that Oppenheimer had considerable difficulty in dealing with the fact that he was Jewish, and rather pointedly avoided involvement with Jewish culture and traditions. Schweber does not say enough about this or its possible sources in his early years, or about the anti-Semitism Oppenheimer encountered in the 1920s.

Schweber, for example, quotes from a letter of recommendation that Oppenheimer’s great teacher at Harvard, Percy Bridgman, had written in 1925 to Ernest Rutherford, suggesting that Oppenheimer come to work with him in Cambridge. However, the part of the letter that he does not quote is the most interesting. In it Bridgman writes, “As appears from his name, Oppenheimer is a Jew, but entirely without the usual qualifications of his race. He is a tall, well set-up young man, with a rather engaging diffidence of manner, and I think you need have no hesitation whatever for any reason of this sort in considering his application.”1

Bridgman was in no way an anti-Semite. He was simply trying to help Oppenheimer. Jews with a strong emotional center of gravity were able to deal with such condescension, sometimes by finding strength in their heritage. One of Oppenheimer’s oldest friends, the physicist I.I. Rabi, told me that Oppenheimer reminded him of a man he knew who could not decide if he wanted to be a member of the B’nai B’rith or the Knights of Columbus. He joked that if Oppenheimer had learned Yiddish rather than Sanskrit he might have become one of the best physicists who ever lived.

I have often wondered if some deep sense of insecurity contributed to the indiscretion that Oppenheimer sometimes showed in conversation and that I witnessed firsthand. In the fall of 1957 I had just driven across the country to Princeton to take up a postdoctoral appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study, of which Oppenheimer was the director. I was told that Oppenheimer wanted to see me. Disheveled as I was, I went to his office to find him impeccably dressed, as usual, in one of his suits from Langrocks, the local tailor to the fashionable. He studied me with his remarkable blue eyes and asked, “What is new and firm in physics?” The “and firm” impressed me.

Before I could try to answer, the phone rang. I got up to leave, assuming he would want to speak in private. He motioned to me to remain seated and had a brief, apparently intimate, conversation. When he hung up he said to me, “It was Kitty,” referring to his wife, whom I had never met. “She has been drinking again.” That he would say this to a perfect stranger left an impression I have never gotten over. As thoughtless as it was, it was not likely to have any repercussions. But some of Oppenheimer’s indiscretions did have repercussions, and here Professor Schweber provides a telling example from Oppenheimer’s relations with the physicist Bernard Peters.

Peters, who had been born in what was then the German city of Posen in 1910, had moved to Munich to study electrical engineering in 1932. When Hitler came to power, Peters, who was never a Communist, took part, along with some Communists, in anti-Hitler demonstrations. He was arrested and sent to Dachau, from which he miraculously escaped. He managed to bicycle by night to Italy to join the woman whom he later married. After further travels they ended up in the San Francisco Bay area, where she obtained a research position in the Stanford Medical School, while he worked as a longshoreman. He met Oppenheimer at the house of friends and somehow Oppenheimer recognized his abilities and suggested that he come to Berkeley to study physics. After Peters took one undergraduate course, Oppenheimer decided that he was so gifted that he should be admitted to the graduate program. He was later invited to come to Los Alamos but decided to remain in Berkeley at the Radiation Laboratory.

The scene now shifts to 1944 when Oppenheimer was the director of Los Alamos. For reasons not entirely clear, Peer De Silva, who was in charge of security, brought up with Oppenheimer the names of four of his former students, among them Peters. He asked which of them was most likely to be the most “dangerous.” In a moment of monumental indiscretion, Oppenheimer named Peters, who by then was teaching at the University of Rochester. In a report that De Silva later filed with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was leaked in 1949 to the Rochester Times-Union, Oppenheimer was alleged to have said that Peters’s background “was filled with incidents which indicated his tendency towards directaction”—such as taking part in an anti-Fascist demonstration in Germany—and that he was “quite red.” In those days such descriptions could ruin someone’s life.

When Oppenheimer’s colleagues, among them Bethe, read the newspaper account, they were, Schweber tells us, outraged not only that it had been leaked but that Oppenheimer could have made such statements, especially when on several occasions he had spoken highly of Peters. When Peters finally had a chance to confront him, Oppenheimer could not deny that he had made the statements, and insisted that they had been a “dreadful mistake.” He called the university and received assurances that Peters’s position there was not in jeopardy. He even wrote a letter to the newspaper, which did more harm than good.

Although Peters did not lose his job, the US government restricted his travel abroad. In 1951, he took a position in India, then in Copenhagen. When he died in 1993, he was recognized as one of the most significant contributors to his field—cosmic rays. I could not help wondering if the same impulse that led Oppenheimer to tell me that his wife was an alcoholic was somehow involved when he told De Silva that Peters was the most dangerous student he’d had. In both cases, Oppenheimer seemed both insecure and self-wounding in saying damaging things about others.

No one could call Hans Bethe “insecure.” He sometimes reminds me of a large, unstoppable ocean liner. This is quite remarkable considering the forces that were at work that could have fragmented Bethe’s psyche. Bethe was born in Strasbourg in 1906. His mother was Jewish by birth but had become a Lutheran before she married his Protestant father. They were divorced when Bethe was young and he grew up in a strained family atmosphere.

The turmoil of the post-World War I period in Germany also affected him. I don’t think that Schweber—who has much to say about the murky influence of German metaphysics on Bethe—does justice to this concrete experience. During the nearly two years I spent interviewing Bethe for a New Yorker profile I was struck again and again by the echoes of the postwar period in Bethe’s life. Bethe’s recollections of the post-World War I monetary inflation were as vivid as if it had happened yesterday. He described being sent early in the morning to buy food before the currency devalued to the point where, later in the day, it became nearly worthless. He was persuaded that this could happen in the United States and he told me he was protecting himself by investing in rare postage stamps and other things that he hoped would retain their value.

As if all of this was not enough, in 1933 Bethe was summarily dismissed from his university post because of his Jewish grandparents. He was struck by the fact that he had no sympathy from his German colleagues.

It is clear that from the beginning Bethe knew how good he was at what he wanted to do—theoretical physics. He would, I think, have found some of Oppenheimer’s diversions, such as writing poetry—he published a poem in Hound and Horn—rather remote from the main task of doing physics during a revolutionary period in the history of science. 2 Bethe is able to take almost any problem in physics and turn it into a sensible subject for research.3 Since many physicists lose themselves in abstract problems for a lifetime with limited success, Bethe’s ability to solve problems was recognized early in his career. He was able to quickly find a post in England, but no permanent job was available there and he accepted an offer from Cornell, where he has been ever since, despite numerous attempts by other universities to lure him away.

  1. 1

    Robert Oppenheimer, Letters and Recollections, edited by Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner (Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 77.

  2. 2

    Einstein wrote a good deal of semi-comic doggerel.

  3. 3

    Bethe is, incidentally, very good at mental arithmetic, which most theoretical physicists are not. He is able to make very rapid and accurate estimates of answers to very complicated problems.

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