dazzling portrait of a celebrity intellectual, doer, and political martyr,
This review is from: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Paperback)
It is rare to read a biography that is so rich in detail, so clear in ideas, and so beautifully written that it can be counted as literature. For the past week, I have been deliciously absorbed in this book, feeling an alternation of awe and disgust. Oppenheimer is a unique figure in American history: starting as an academic, he became a master administrator for one of the most important technological breakthroughs in the history of mankind - harnessing the atom - and then a "wise man" insider in politics, only to be cast down and ruined in the McCarthy era because his views diverged from those of the powerful. It is an amazing journey.
Oppenheimer came from privilege: not only was he gifted with an absolutely first rate mind and great wealth, but he was in the right place at the right time, during a revolution in science and then in technology. He started out as a sheltered prodigy, a polymath in science and in literature, who wound up studying theoretical physics at the moment that quantum mechanics was in its final phase of development. His mentors were the discoverers themselves, and he studied alongside Heisenberg and virtually all of the greats in that field. He then went on to a professorship at Cal Tech and Berkeley, where he built the best department of physics in the US while in his 20s. Without exaggeration, I believe that this period will be regarded as profoundly influential as the Renaissance or Enlightenment.
However, as the authors relate, his ascent was not at all easy. Oppenheimer suffered from some form of mental illness, either a depression or worse. Given his loving childhood background, it is hard to know what really went wrong for him, but he contemplated suicide and even poisoned an apple that he left from one of his adversaries, which almost led to his dismissal from Cambridge. Perhaps what explains part of it was that Oppenheimer was of the types whose ambitions are so monstrously huge (and completely unfathomable) that he needed to operate at the highest pinnacle to feel whole within himself, that there was not much more to him than the kind of narcissism to seek perfection. In addition to his personal charm and intellectual charisma, he had many character flaws, which engendered great resentments and even bitter hatreds throughout his career.
In spite of the admiration of the authors, they are highly critical of Oppenheimer. He was too impatient to develop his ideas systematically - by means of the mathematical proofs required for a Nobel Prize in theoretical physics - so he merely contributed to the discoveries of others. In this way, he was not truly original as a scientist, but a "synthesizer". His attention was also overly divided as he learned languages, apparently including Sanskrit so that he could read the Bhagavagita in the original as he did Dante's Inferno in Italian and Les Fleurs du Mal in French, and during the Depression widened his concerns to politics, getting involved with communism as a possible remedy to the social ills he saw, the Spanish Revolution, and opposition to Nazism.
Because of his scientific breadth, he was chosen to head the Manhattan Project. Though many predicted his abrasive behavior and arrogance would doom his leadership effort, he astounded even his critics by becoming a master administrator, getting the right person for each job, inspiring them, and keeping everything - all the myriad issues that required resolution - in his head and moving forward just at the needed time. It was perhaps here, as an administrator, that his true genius flowered. When the bomb was finally exploded, he was barely 40 years old and, after Einstein, the most famous scientist in the world. Afterwards, he took over the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, transforming it into a focal point of intellectual endeavor in the US.
In the meantime, his enemies bided their time, compiling information about him via years of FBI surveillance and illegal wiretaps, waiting for the right moment to strike at him. Many of them bore him petty personal grudges, such as Lewis Strauss of the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission). They looked at his past communist associations, some bad judgment calls, and certain self destructive behaviors such as occasional lies as well as his marital infidelities and personality quirks. The case they built occupies an inordinate portion of the book, though it culminated in a Security Committee hearing of the AEC that stripped him of his security clearance, shutting him out of the upper circles of government and the establishment that he had come to love. The hearing was not a "trial" with due process or even constitutional guarantees, brought out nothing new that hadn't been known when he was first given the clearance by the Army in 1943, and he was not convicted of any crime - even his loyalty to the US went unchallenged, but he was instead branded a "security risk" in a kangaroo court. Beyond his personal enemies, his real offense was his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb that the politicians wanted. There were lots of "bad guys" here, including even Harry Truman and J. Edgar Hoover, which made the narrative a bit too black and white for my taste, however much I agree with their portrayal.
Oppenheimer emerged from this ordeal a broken man at 50, forever unable to operate at the level to which he was accustomed. The reader really gets a feel for the man, who was full of contradictions. He was a serious drinker though not as alcoholic as his troubled wife, Kitty, and was not a very good father, yet admired by millions for his wisdom and public charm. He had a knack for making powerful enemies in addition to lifelong friends and was arrogant beyond belief - I know the type from graduate school! You feel simultaneous sympathy and revulsion for him, or at least I did. It is an unusually nuanced and balanced portrait.
I do have criticisms of the book. The science is not well explained, so for anyone unfamiliar with it will find it hard going - I would have liked more nutshell explanations, but instead the authors just mention theories (e.g. "quantum electrodynamics") in passing. The management of the Manhattan Project is also glossed over, so the reader will have to go elsewhere for that. There is also far too much in the way of supporting quotes, particularly when it comes to their making a case that Oppenheimer was unfairly treated by the AEC committee but also for trivial details.
This is a great bio that all atom bomb buffs, history students, and those curious about the 20C should read. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.