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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 made Oppenheimer more passionately patriotic than most of his scientist friends. His father was a close friend of Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture Society, an institution that embodied the liberal ideals of the German Jewish community. Oppenheimer was educated at the Ethical Culture School, also founded by Felix Adler, from age seven to age seventeen. The purpose of the school was to raise children with a lifelong dedication to ethical principles, detached from any religious belief or ritual. The school seems to have been successful in molding Oppenheimer’s character.

Unlike the other books, which portray the security officers at Berkeley and Los Alamos as mindless bureaucrats or paranoid witch-hunters, Monk portrays them as real people with real problems. The four officers who had the thankless job of extracting information from Oppenheimer were Boris Pash, Peer de Silva, John Lansdale, and Lyall Johnson. They were trying conscientiously to protect the secrecy of the bomb project and to keep potential spies out of it.

We now know that their efforts were unsuccessful. They did not succeed in identifying the real spies. But they were aware that Soviet intelligence agents were actively seeking information about the project; they suspected that several of Oppenheimer’s Communist friends and students might be spying; and they were frustrated by Oppenheimer’s evasive answers to their questions. They were told by General Leslie Groves, commander-in-chief of the bomb project, that Oppenheimer’s leadership was essential to it, and yet Oppenheimer disregarded the security rules that they were trying to enforce. In their eyes, the essential question was whether the security rules that applied to everyone else on the project should also apply to Oppenheimer. Should he be exempt from the rules just because he was famous? Lansdale answered yes to this question. Pash, de Silva, and Johnson answered no.

Monk begins his book with a preface discussing the other Oppenheimer books and explaining why he finds them deficient. Unfortunately he does not mention the book that I found the most illuminating, Reappraising Oppenheimer: Centennial Studies and Reflections, edited by Cathryn Carson and David Hollinger.* This work does not appear in Monk’s bibliography. It is a volume of essays by various authors, most of them professional historians. I summarize here three of the essays that provide factual information about aspects of Oppenheimer’s life that Monk does not explore.

David Cassidy gives us a complete list of Oppenheimer’s graduate students with the titles of their dissertations. This list shows us what Oppenheimer was thinking about when he was a young professor in Berkeley, and how he was training the next generation of physicists. It reveals the modest foundation out of which his legendary reputation as a teacher grew. There were twenty-five students altogether, only six of them finishing in the ten years between 1929 and 1939. Two subjects are predominant in their dissertations: mesons and cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are the gentle rain of high-energy particles that constantly bombard the earth from outer space. Mesons are particles that were discovered among the cosmic rays and found to have weird and incomprehensible behavior, sometimes exploding into showers of secondary particles, and sometimes passing through matter without interaction.

Oppenheimer knew that the cosmic rays were his best clue to the understanding of nature in the wild, with energies vastly greater than Ernest Lawrence could reach with his particle accelerators. A majority of his students worked on cosmic rays in one way or another, trying to understand a mass of confusing observations by comparing them with a mass of equally confusing theories. This intense intellectual effort succeeded in educating gifted students who went on to become scientific leaders, but it failed to solve the mysteries of cosmic rays and mesons.

David Holloway gives us a chapter entitled “Parallel Lives? Oppenheimer and Khariton,” comparing Oppenheimer with his Russian counterpart. Yulii Khariton was remarkably similar to Oppenheimer in many ways, born in the same year into a cultured Jewish family, fluent in three languages, with a strong interest in art and literature, working as a student at the Cavendish Laboratory in England just after Oppenheimer left, and unexpectedly becoming the successful leader of a Soviet program to build bombs. His boss, Lavrenty Beria, was a notoriously harsh KGB official, but Khariton succeeded in working with Beria as harmoniously as Oppenheimer did with General Groves. Khariton never became a controversial public figure like Oppenheimer. His close friend and colleague Andrei Sakharov, who was for many years his deputy, played that part in the Soviet Union.

Karl Hufbauer contributes a chapter, “J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Path to Black Holes,” discussing what I consider the outstanding mystery of Oppenheimer’s life. In 1939 Oppenheimer published with his student Hartland Snyder a paper, “On Continued Gravitational Contraction,” only four pages long, which is in my opinion Oppenheimer’s one and only revolutionary contribution to science. In that paper, Oppenheimer and Snyder invented the concept of black holes; they proved that every star significantly more massive than the sun must end its life as a black hole, and deduced that black holes must exist as real objects in the sky around us. They showed that Einstein’s theory of general relativity compels any massive star that has exhausted its supply of nuclear fuel to enter a state of permanent free fall. Permanent free fall was a new idea, counterintuitive and profoundly important. It allows a massive star to keep falling permanently into a black hole without ever reaching the bottom.

Einstein never imagined and never accepted this consequence of his theory. Oppenheimer imagined it and accepted it. As a direct result of Oppenheimer’s work, we now know that black holes have played and are playing a decisive part in the evolution of the universe. That is the historical fact. The mystery is Oppenheimer’s failure to grasp the importance of his own discovery. He lived for twenty-seven years after the discovery, never spoke about it, and never came back to work on it. Several times, I asked him why he did not come back to it. He never answered my question, but always changed the conversation to some other subject.

It is true, as Monk demonstrates, that Oppenheimer’s ruling passion was to be a leader in pure science. He considered his excursions into bomb-making and nuclear politics to be temporary interruptions. My interactions with Oppenheimer confirm Monk’s picture of him. I worked at the Institute for Advanced Study for almost twenty years while Oppenheimer was director. He rarely talked about politics and almost never about bombs, but talked incessantly about the latest discoveries and puzzles in pure science.

Twice I had a reason to talk with him about bombs. The first occasion came in 1958, when I asked for a leave of absence from the institute to work on a project in California aimed at building a nuclear bomb–propelled spaceship. I told him how happy I was to be putting his bombs to better use than murdering people. He did not share my enthusiasm. He considered the spaceship project to be an exercise in applied science, unworthy of the attention of an institute professor. The only activity worthy of an institute professor was to think deep thoughts about pure science. He grudgingly gave me a leave of absence for one year, making it clear that if I stayed away for longer than a year I would not be coming back.

The second occasion for me to talk with Oppenheimer about bombs came a few years later, when I was chairman of the Federation of American Scientists, a political organization of scientists concerned with weapons and arms control. The federation was opposing the US deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in exposed positions in Europe and Asia. We considered these deployments to be unacceptably dangerous, because nuclear-armed troops involved in local fighting could start a nuclear war that would quickly get out of control. When we examined the history of tactical weapons, we learned that Oppenheimer himself had flown to Paris in 1951 to persuade General Eisenhower, then in command of American forces in Europe, that the United States Army needed tactical nuclear weapons to defend Western Europe against a Soviet invasion. Oppenheimer had been enthusiastically promoting the production and deployment of tactical weapons.

  1. *

    It is Volume 21 in the series “Berkeley Papers in History of Science,” published in 2005 by the University of California. 

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