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

Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Oppenheimer; drawing by David Levine

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…

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