August 28, 2006KR Blog

Life and Times of Oppenheimer

I recently finished American Prometheus and while it was an entertaining read, I must admit I was disappointed. As far as a “life and times” of Robert Oppenheimer goes, it is second to none. It is meticulously researched (a little too meticulously in places, but I am getting ahead of myself) and thoughtfully put together. But at no point does it ever occur to the book’s authors that I might be interested in Oppenehimer’s actual work. I have been spoiled, of course. Ray Monk’s The Duty of Genius elucidated so clearly the roots of Wittgenstein’s writing and engaged so thoroughly with his philosophy that perhaps I came to American Prometheus expecting too much. Still, it’s infuriating that while Oppenheimer’s possible communism is examined in excrutiating detail, while his paper predicting black holes, for which he would likely be famous even if he had not run the Manhattan Project, merits a paragraph. Of course, it was his communist connections (along with his enemy Lewis Strauss) that were his downfall, but to spend so much time with them is really to impugn Oppenheimer a second time. Bird and Sherwin spend so long protesting that no one will ever know but Oppenheimer whether or not he was a dyed-in-the-wool red, a parlor pink, a misguided young man or a fellow traveler that to my ear, it began to sound as though the lady doth protest too much.

And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether Oppenheimer was a communist or not. This was perhaps what irked me most about the long speculation on his possible membership with the party. That he associated with communists and did donate money to the cause for the Spanish Civil War–that was all I needed to know. Bird and Sherwin fall into the same trap that the security council did: assuming that Oppenheimer’s political associations matter more than his science. Dredging up in detail the speculation that surrounded Oppenheimer’s possible communism was unnecessary and uninteresting. I rather would have read about black holes, or quantum mechanics, or about any of a number of subjects with which Oppenheimer engaged.

Oppenheimer’s education is rendered lovingly, and his early mental health problems are addressed gently. The authors draw out the connections between his early life and his later life with aplomb. One cannot help but feel sympathy for the strange, awkward child Oppenheimer had been. The loneliness articulated at the beginning of the biography stays with the reader through the end–even though Oppenheimer often found himself surrounded by friends and admirers, one gets the sense that he was still a tremendously lonely man.

The best bit of the book–the part I recommend without any hesitation–is Bird’s and Sherwin’s account of Los Alamos. It is there that the book comes alive. The reader can feel Oppeheimer’s charm, his frustration, and the general sense of Los Alamos–the chaos, the fear, the glory, the damnation. In fact, this portrait of Los Alamos could probably stand on its own–it is thorough and painstaking without revealing itself to the reader as such, like a gymnast who performs a particularly difficult trick on the balance beam and dismounts gracefully, sticking the landing. Though Feynman’s antics are best told by himself (Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! is a snappy read, with a tone best described as Mark Twain crossed with Benjamin Franklin), Bird and Sherwin fill in the rest of the time at Los Alamos, including the aftermath of many of Feynman’s practical jokes. The frustration and cabin fever, the elation at a new discovery and frustration at a dead end, and (of course) the security nightmares are all elegantly reanimated. As I read, I found myself rooting for the physicists to make the discoveries necessary to create the bomb–and then horrified to discover what I was pulling for. A skillful bit of writing indeed, evoking the emotional rollercoaster Oppenheimer himself felt regarding his pet project.

The security trial itself is a horrorshow, and Bird and Sherwin are a little too eager to show it in all its detail. Their wish to exonerate Oppenheimer is too obvious, and their demonization of Lewis Strauss is over-the-top. This is Oppenheimer painted as a martyr–which is too bad, since Oppenheimer painted realistically (without excuses for his infidelities and his wife’s alcoholism) would have served more forcefully. The silver lining in this section of the book is their treatment of Kitty, Oppenheimer’s wife, as she took the stand. Wisely, the authors allow her to speak for herself.

Again, I find myself comparing this work to The Duty of Genius, a work about another brilliant, lonely man–and it falls quite short. Not only does American Prometheus fail to address Oppenheimer’s work in a deep way–which is understandable, since it doesn’t bill itself as an intellectual biography–it falls for the subject’s mythos. Monk resists the mythology surrounding Wittgenstein, but Bird and Sherwin want only to reinforce Oppenheimer’s. Too bad. I am sure that Oppenheimer would have preferred being remembered as a great physicist to being remembered as a political martyr.