Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect

Charles Thorpe, University of Chicago 2006

For decades, there was a dearth of comprehensive Oppenheimer biographies. As Thomas Powers noted in the New York Review of Books, biographies of other major Manhattan Project figures came out long before adequate Oppenheimer biographies: "Oppenheimer, the truly central figure, seemed to resist the attempt to write his life on the grand scale." That is no longer the case, and a shelf of very good biographies makes it difficult to know where to start reading.

So why do we need another one? If you have read any of the recent books (see my bibliography below), why pick up Charles Thorpe's?

This book isn't a retread of old ground, and reading a more comprehensive narrative of Oppenheimer's life is a pre-requisite for this book if you are interested in gaining the most from it. Thorpe describes his book as a "sociological biography, which looks at the collaborative and interactional shaping of the individual in a web of relationships."

Well, that may tend to raise even more red flags for a general reader who is already familiar with Oppenheimer's story. There are two worries: 'sociological' could be a code word for baseless speculation, and a indicator that the reader is about to encounter dense, jargon-filled academic prose. But Thorpe's book suffers fro neither of these flaws. It is because the historical details of Oppenheimer's life have been so well researched that Thorpe can do what he does, write a sociological biography in the very best sense of the term, using the extensive documentary case to make a convincing analysis of the role community in Oppenheimer's development. Furthermore, the book is not boring. As befits something published by a university press that started out as a doctoral dissertation, it is more dense than other recent biographies. But that shouldn't chase you away. The books has a strong narrative flow, and more academic writers should learn to write about their scholarship like Thorpe.

Thorpe's book can be partitioned into three major subjects: Oppenheimer's effort to narrow down his catholic interests in search of a vocation he could excel at, which ended with his founding of America's first important school of theoretical physics; Oppenheimer's transformation from an eccentric academic to a leader of a major military project and a Washington insider; and finally, Oppenheimer's attempt to live his ideal of the scientist as humanist intellectual.

Building the Bomb

I found the most interesting part of the book to be Thorpe's discussion of Oppenheimer's transformation into the charismatic leader of a wartime project. Oppenheimer was a classic leftist academic: he worked hard but odd hours, never teaching an early class; he hosted benefits at his home to raise money for the ant-fascist rebels of the Spanish Civil War; he loved to read Sanskrit and talk art; he worked for various causes associated with the Communist movement, although exhaustive investigations have never turned up any evidence that he was an actual party member, and there are good reasons to believe he purposely stayed out. Oppenheimer was notoriously distracted - he once took one of female graduate students out to dinner, and on the way back pulled the car over to the side of the road, telling his student that he was going for a short walk. Several hours later a police officer found the student dosing in the car, and Oppenheimer was found at home, asleep, having apparently forgotten that he had left his date and his car waiting.

This type of thing was why almost none of his scientific colleagues thought Oppenheimer would be a successful leader of a secret and highly complex project to build the world's first atomic bomb. Yet by the end of the project, everyone said that it wouldn't have happened without Oppeneheimer. Oppenheimer was now noted for his charisma and his ability to lead scientists whose scientific reputation was much greater than his. How did that transformation take place?

When tapped for the position by General Leslie Groves, Oppenheimer realized that this was his big chance. Perhaps he realized that, at 38, he hadn't accomplished as much as the other geniuses his age who led the physics community at the time. He did get his foot in the door by his excellent theoretical work in nuclear physics, and then somehow managed to impress General Groves so much that Groves never seriously considered anyone else. Oppenheimer knew that Groves understood that his choice was viewed as a huge risk, and thus Oppenheimer was determined not to disappoint. In fact, Oppenheimer's desire to please his military superiors was rightly recognized as an effective way to keep a firm hand on the new director of the Los Alamos Laboratory.

Oppenheimer thus was determined to use his formidable talents to be successful. Among other things this meant shedding his many of eccentricities and his Leftist connections. He was tutored intensively by his friends, including the physicist Isodor Rabi, who had already worked on a major military project at MIT. But Oppenheimer wasn't just an Army lapdog, and he would not have been successful if he were. Thorpe shows us how Oppenheimer grew into his role by staking out a unique place between the regimented military culture of the Army ultimately in charge of the project, and the autonomous academic scientists who were not inclined to just roll over do what they were told.

Los Alamos was primed for a leader like Oppenheimer. The lab pulled together hundreds of urban academic physicists and isolated them on a desolate New Mexico mesa. The residents of Los Alamos were placed under severe restrictions on travel and communication. It was natural that these conditions fostered a tight-knit community, one that was receptive to a leader like Oppenheimer. Within this military context, Oppenheimer helped maintain at least the illusion of the academic ideals the scientists at Los Alamos valued. By fostering openness within the compartmentalized military structure, he kept the scientists dedicated to the laboratory's mission. Against the military's inclination, he pushed for open discussion of problems in Colloquia accessible to all scientists, emphasizing that ideas are justified by merit and not authority. He encouraged the scientists to own their research problems just the way they would in academia.

Oppenheimer himself set the example with his amazing ability to know everything that was going on in each of the lab's technical areas. Los Alamos alumni ascribed to him a magical ability to quickly grasp the essence of any discussion and summarize the different points of view and issues at hand so lucidly that the resolution became clear. He was seen as understanding all of the science in each corner of the lab.

It was Oppenheimer's ability to generate support on both sides - the military leadership and the lab's scientists - that made him successful. The military knew that Oppenheimer was committed to the mission, and thus they let him work his magic with the scientists. Oppenheimer played good cop to General Groves' bad cop. Groves was widely hated by the scientists (somewhat unfairly, I think), while Oppie was loved. Groves, who was a managerial genius and a phenomenal leader in his own way, used this to his advantage - his job was not to make people like him, it was to make an atomic bomb in time to be used in the war.

And the scientists knew that Oppenheimer was one of them, and that he understood their concerns about living under military conditions. They responded to Oppenheimer's call to dedicate themselves to the lab's mission, because they knew he shared their academic values (although later some came to question how much those values were really shared).

The Scientist as Intellectual

Nine years after the success of the bomb came Oppenheimer's spectacular fall from Washington. Thorpe explores how Oppenheimer's postwar actions were shaped again by pressure from various communities that Oppenheimer values: pressure from the scientific community, which saw him as their leader in Washington, as well as pressure from the government, which saw Oppenheimer has someone they could use to shape the opinion of the scientific community and the public. Oppenheimer struggled to represent what he thought were the values of the scientific community. As Thorpe writes,

To many among the scientific community and the educated public, Oppenheimer seemed capable of bringing a civilized liberal humanism to bear on the unprecedented problems of nuclear weaponry...

In practice, this mediation between truth and power was a fragile political accomplishment, and one that he ultimately failed to maintain. (p. 162)

Oppenheimer enjoyed his status as the government's permier science advisor, and that meant never being too oppositionist. He was the scientist as insider; to keep his position as insider often meant going along with the direction the winds were blowing, even if that meant throwing some of his former student's under the bus of anti-Communism.

It was ultimately to no avail - he made enemies, and they took him down. But in a big sense, Oppenheimer's security trial and expulsion as a government insider freed him from certain intesne social pressures, and he was free to again to try to live the ideal of scientist as humanist-intellectual. Contradictions remained, however:

For many liberals, Oppenheimer's appeal was as a living model of the "gentleman of culture"- combining scientific with humanistic elements of Western Culture and successfully uniting liberal culture with power in the Cold War State. The 1954 security hearings helped to shatter this unity...

The legend of Oppenheimer's guilt and atonement gave dramatic expression to the central tension in Western liberal culture between science and humanistic values. His personal struggles indicated how science and technology simultaneously promised to realize and threatened to undermine postwar liberal dreams. (p. 288-289)

An Oppenheimer Bibliography

It's hard to run out of good books dealing with Oppenheimer:

Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect, Charles Thorpe, 2006.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, 2005. It's very hard for me to pick a favorite, but if forced to choose, I would pick this book. It's both very readable and extremely meaty, a comprehensive biography with some new primary source material obtained by the authors' interviews of some major participants in the events described.

Oppenheimer and the American Century, David C. Cassidy, 2005. If you're trying to decide between reading this one and American Prometheus, just read them both. This is also a comprehensive, modern biography, well written. Among comprehensive biographies, it gets more deeply into Oppenheimer's style as a scientist - what problems he chose to tackle and which he didn't, and how his scientific style founded the most important American school of theoretical physics in the 1930's.

Oppenheimer, Jeremy Bernstein, 2004. A great short biography, this book benefits from Bernstein's close access to Oppenheimer's colleagues, and Oppenheimer himself. Bernstein spent some time at the Institute for Advanced Study. If you're not interested in tackling a big biography but still want more on Oppenheimer, this book will fit the bill. It also has a great discussion of Oppenheimer as a practicing scientist.

The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Priscilla J. McMillan, 2005. The most up-to-date work on the Oppenheimer security hearing. A great book about the lessons of Cold War jingoism - unnecessary secrecy corrodes, and stifling dissent harms our security and our national character. Also a detailed case study of Washington insider fighting, explaining how character assassination is done in an age of mass media.

Einstein and Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius, Silvan S. Schweber, 2008. This book is a set of case studies illustrating the character differences between Einstein and Oppenheimer. I didn't think it ended up being about genius. It was about how these two scientists dealt with non-science issues in the larger world, including their Jewish roots. Schweber is always willing to probe interesting psychological issues, which makes his books stand out.

In The Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist, Silvan S. Schweber, 2000. This book is more effective than Schweber's Einstein and Oppenheimer book. Oppenheimer and Bethe make very good contrasting case studies about how scientists responded to their role in making atomic weapons. The discussion is of course relevant to science, government, and war today.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun, Richard Rhodes, 1986 and 1995. The first book swept the top book prizes - the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and the National Book Critics' Circle Award. The accolades are deserved. This book is first rank 1) science writing, 2) history, and 3) prose writing. Rhodes writes movingly about the awfulness of war, the difficult decisions faced by scientists building a weapon of mass destruction when faced by an existential threat, the corrosive effects of secrecy on Democracy. It's a complex book - not a moral condemnation of the bomb, but neither is it celebratory. It's about the reality of complex moral decisions. The section on the development of nuclear fission is the best science history writing I have ever read. Dark Sun is just as good, and continues the story with the hydrogen bomb. It benefits from the release of classified documents after the end of the Cold War.

Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller, Gregg Herken, 2002. A great study of the three big personalities that had a huge influence on the nuclear arms race. The three men's relationship went back well before WWII, and the changing dynamic of that relationship had a big impact on nuclear decisions.

Have you read this book or any other Oppenheimer books? Let's hear your thoughts.

And join me for next month's Sunday Science Book Club on December 14th. We'll be reading Spencer Wells' The Journey of Man, a genetic retracing of human history.