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…

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