on 17 March 2015
An excellent book, no detail left out, you can appreciate the work the author has put in to this book.
What I really like about this book: the author puts over in easy understandable lingo, how the bomb works; if you like physic's, this is the book for you.
12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
This 800 page biography of an outstanding scientist by the philosopher Ray Monk is extremely well researched and written with admirable clarity. Monk has already written excellent biographies of Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. However, it does not surpass in detail or scholarship the 600 page Pulitzer prize winning biography by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin published in 2006.
Oppenheimer was born in 1904 in new York to a wealthy Jewish family. His mother was an accomplished painter. Like many great men he was an enigma. Most of his relationships with colleagues were of the love-hate kind. He was bullied at school, hated sport and music. A precocious student he loved science and the Greek classics. After school he went to Harvard where he graduated early, and then entered Christ College Cambridge where he met some of the world's leading scientists, for example, Bohr and Dirac. His priestly manner was noted by his colleagues as was at times his very cold almost brutal manner.
Oppenheimer was a man who could never find enough satisfaction with his achievements, who was always forced to strive for more and better. One physicist said of him he:'couldn't run a hamburger stand'. Yet Oppenheimer became an outstanding scientist and the Director of the Manhattan Project. The latter was a massive engineering task that Oppenheimer delivered in 1000 days, an incredible achievement. We need to remember that he achieved this despite being faced with numerous neurotic, arrogant, jealous and, to put it mildly, very difficult scientists from every corner of the globe. Leadership of the highest quality was required and Oppenheimer provided it.
Oppenheimer was not just a formidable scientist. He was first and foremost a brilliant leader and teacher of, for example, quantum field theory. At the University of California he led America's great school of theoretical physics. While there he was responsible for giving several young scientists their first chance to do research.
His wife, Kitty, was an alcoholic. He was loyal to her throughout their marriage. His relationship with his two children was always troubled. Monk tells us that when daughter Toni was a baby she was put up for adoption by a friend because Oppenheimer said: 'I can't love her'. She later committed suicide. Since Oppenheimer's death in 1967 his son Peter has remained silent about his father.
After 1945 Oppenheimer became a national hero. Monk describes how he was impersonated by young men. He quickly became known, somewhat unfairly, as the:'Father of the Bomb'. He went to Princeton and became Director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study. He also became a government advisor on nuclear matters. He never hesitated to give highly critical views on contentious nuclear matters, an attitude that did not go down well with some senior military personnel. In the early 50's he was vilified for not wanting the H bomb to be built.
When the McCarthy witch hunt was in full flow, Oppenheimer's left-wing past was dredged up and he was stripped of his security clearance by a kangaroo court. His position was not helped by the fact that since 1945 he had openly stated his concerns about the existence of the nuclear weapon and the dangers it posed for world peace. Oppenheimer was devastated by his rejection. It was many years before this humiliation was reversed by another US government.
Much has been written elsewhere about Oppenheimer's mental health. Monk's book reveals little new in this respect. We do know that he sought the help of psychiatrists on a number of occasions and that his behaviour could be very erratic, indeed bizarre. He once said that his love of horse riding was a wonderful escape from the problems of the world. It is worth noting that he named his horse CRISIS.
The poem by John Dryden may shed some light on Robert Oppenheimer's mental state:
'Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And their partitions do their bounds divide'.
Read this book together with that by Kai Bird if you want to learn about a very great scientist, leader and teacher. We will always wonder what might have happened if he had not been in charge at Los Alamos when the outcome changed the world for ever. Like all of us he was a flawed individual but I for one am grateful he was in charge in that desert.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 3 December 2012
In an age when books are under threat, you would expect publishers to make their books as accessible as possible. This one is incompetent. The inside text is far too close to the spine for easy reading. The exterior text has all the space, as if that was desirable. The book is very difficult to read. One wonders whether the publisher has ever read a book this size to make such a simple mistake. It definitely takes both hands.
Many things in the book are interesting. Oppenheimer's early life, his jewishness and its effects, the story about the poisoned apple left on Blackett's table out of jealousy for a superior breed of scientist [Oppie, reared in the US in arts, never learned the nuts and bolts of the inventive Brits who were brought up to make their own equipment: he was barely tolerated as a student at Cambridge, England]. How Oppie got off with this virtual attempted murder (which he often spoke about) remains a mystery: he was allowed to continue. The work on Los Alamos is even a short course in atomic physics. Armed with the periodic table and the pre quark theory, one can understand it very well. It is interesting to come across the names of people one knew or met like Otto Frisch [who sailed (as I know) with the great man in Einstein's boat] and Robin Schlapp, a former teacher of mine. The way in which the higher physics community operates is also very clear and Oppenheimer's great achievement in providing and stimulating such an important set of intellectual experiences for so many scientists engaged in the building of the bombs.
The security aspects I found less interesting, and left a lot out, though the ways in which Oppenheimer contributed to his own downfall are well explained. As well as the decline not just in his own ability to manage and stimulate fresh discoveries in physics when director at Princeton Institute for Advanced Study but because of his moral failings in hanging out others to dry when the moves against the red menace took place.
There is a great deal in this work and it will be a valuable reference in future. But it is too comprehensive to be interesting all through, unlike some of the author's other books.