New Statesman, 09 December 2012
Inside the Centre:
The Life of J.Robert Oppenheimer
by Ray Monk
Jonathan Cape, £30.00 Pp 818
Behind the mushroom cloud there’s a face. Wide-browed and skinny with staring eyes, it is handsome but in a disturbing way. It is a face that exudes great intelligence but also denies you access and that, in a nutshell, is Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant, opaque creator of the atom bomb.
High intelligence combined with opacity is the first way in which Oppenheimer resembles Ludwig Wittgenstein, the subject of an earlier Ray Monk biography. The second resemblance is that both were products of very rich Jewish families and the third is that neither could quite handle the ordinary human world. Wittgenstein’s entire career can be seen as an attempt to understand the ordinary; Oppenheimer’s as a failure to grasp the way his inner world would be seen by the outside.
But both, in their way, succeeded. Wittgenstein transformed western philosophy and Oppenheimer led perhaps the most astounding industrial venture in history, the Manhattan Project, which reached its climax at 5.30 am on 16th July 1945 when the first atom bomb exploded in the New Mexico desert with a force of 20,000 tons of TNT. The enormity of that moment inspired religious imagery. The test was called Trinity and Oppenheimer later said he was reminded of a line from the Bhagavad Gita – “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He was also later to say that, in the development of nuclear weapons, “the physicists have known sin”.
Somewhere in that last remark lies, perhaps, the source of the opacity. He was, from the beginning, awkward. In the very first sentence of this book Monk quotes Oppenheimer’s friend Isidor Rabi – he was “a man who was put together out of many bright shining splinters” and who “never got to be an integrated personality.” Torn between the easy liberality of American and his European Jewish ancestry, he chose neither but struggled instead towards a form of patriotism which, to some, looked like treachery.
He never seems to have been a member of the communist party but he certainly had communist friends and sympathies in the thirties. He later tried to dismember these links but, as ever, awkwardly. As a result, he was, for decades, treated with intense and angry suspicion by certain key figures in the FBI. It is something of a miracle – and, indeed, a comment on the comical oddities hidden behind the word ‘security’ – that he was appointed to lead the Manhattan Project at all. After the war, he made matters worse for himself by opposing the building of the ‘Super’ – the hydrogen bomb – and by responding with tortured answers and even easily exposed lies to, among other institutions, the dreaded House Unamercian Activities Committee.
He was awkward because, like Wittgenstein, he could not build a bridge between his own mighty mind and the minds of others. In youth this almost destroyed him. He seems to have tried to kill a tutor at Cambridge with a poisoned apple, a crime covered up with talk of psychiatric problems and the fact that his rich and powerful parents were in town at the time. Back in the States, they also cleared up a tricky problem when he crashed a car while trying to impress a girlfriend – they gave her a Cezanne drawing and a small painting by Vlaminck.
It is something of a miracle – and, indeed, a comment on the comical oddities hidden behind the word ‘security’ – that he was appointed to lead the Manhattan Project at all
In physics he found succour. Here was a way into the invisible depths of the world and away from its impossibly complex surface. But even here he made life difficult for himself. He could not make up his mind whether he was a theorist or experimenter and he also tended to back the wrong horses, notably failing to see the full significance of Richard Feynman\s quantum electrodynamics. The awkward truth is that, in any other age, he may have been the leading physicist in the world, but in the century of Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, Feynman and too many others, he was second rank.
Yet, for the subject itself, he pulled off a mighty coup born of his patriotism. He overthrew Germany to make America the home of the most advanced physics, a title the Large Hadron Collider has recently stolen back for Europe. At Berkeley and, later, at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton he imported or nurtured the best on the world. In the latter case this seemed to include not only Einstein and friends but also, strangely, T.S.Eliot, perhaps the one man alive capable of overawing the assembled geniuses.
For all his awkwardness and his apparent disconnection from the world, Oppenheimer’s true destiny was leadership. Like many leaders – Churchill is the most obvious example – he was destined to do just one thing. The Manhattan Project was a staggering achievement involving the deployment of tens of thousands of workers, almost all of whom had no idea of the purpose of the mysterious work they were doing, and the balancing of the egos of the physicists and the demands of the military, not to mention the poison being poured into the whole system by the FBI agents who, without any hard evidence, had convinced themselves Oppenheimer was a traitor. On top of all of which was the sin that became burnt flesh at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and may well do again.
This is to scratch the surface of this mighty book which feels suspiciously like the best biography I have ever read. Its primary quality is restraint. Monk accepts his subject’s opacity and does not pretend to penetrate it with easy psychology. He generously leaves the best insight to others. As I said, he begins with that moving quote of Rabi’s, but he ends with one even more moving, one that fully captures the pain and difficulty of being J. Robert Oppenheimer.
“The arrogance,” said diplomat and historian George Kennan, “which to many appeared to be a part of his personality masked in reality an overpowering desire to bestow and receive affection. Neither circumstances nor at times the asperities of his own temperament permitted the gratification of this need in a measure remotely approaching its intensity.”
Weep for Hiroshima but spare one tear for Oppie.