The volatile life of the father of the bomb

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What Made Him Tick

By the time I was 300 pages into Ray Monk’s formidable biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, I couldn’t imagine why anyone in his right mind would have chosen this man as director of the secret laboratory that built the first atomic bomb. If the whole thing had failed, what a harebrained scheme it would have seemed.

True enough, Oppenheimer had established himself as a brilliant theoretical physicist, even if his mathematics, by the standards of his profession, was considered a little sloppy. While he had applied the new quantum theory to solve some important problems, his contributions paled alongside those of Paul Dirac and other wunderkinder. Far from being a team player, he was a loner and an elitist, as Monk recounts in “Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center,” expressing his ideas in the most oblique, Delphic terms.

Charming one moment, caustic the next, he still carried, at age 38, the markings of a spoiled, impetuous rich kid whose depressive behavior occasionally swung toward the erratic. There were times when he even seemed crazy. During a year abroad from Harvard to study at Cambridge University, Oppenheimer confessed to putting a poisoned apple on his tutor’s desk. The truth of the matter remains murky, but it was serious enough that Oppenheimer’s father intervened with university officials, promising his son would keep regular appointments with a London psychiatrist. When the school term ended the boy was taken away by his parents on a “recuperative holiday” to France, where, in Paris, he locked his mother in a hotel room.

This recklessness didn’t end entirely with his student days. As a young professor in California, he crashed his car while racing a train, an accident that left his girlfriend unconscious. His father made amends by giving the young woman a painting and a Cézanne drawing.

By the time Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves was seeking a director for the bomb laboratory, Oppenheimer had gained the respect of the world’s most eminent physicists, and he had attracted a coterie of admiring students. But he seemed aloof and lost in abstractions, pretentiously interjecting among his equations riffs from French literature or the Upanishads. And while hardly a threat to American security, Oppenheimer appears to have been as close as a person can get to being a supporter of the Communist Party without actually carrying a membership card.

As soon as Groves met the young scientist, none of that mattered. In a meeting at Berkeley, he impressed the general with the breadth of his knowledge and, of all things, what Groves saw as his practicality. More than any other scientist the general had talked to, Oppenheimer appeared to understand what had to be done to go from abstract theories and laboratory experiments to the making of a nuclear bomb.

This was not just a physics problem. It would be an unparalleled feat of engineering, and one that must progress while basic theoretical problems were still being solved. There was no place better to do this, Oppenheimer believed, than outside the universities — in a remote, central laboratory. He didn’t object to the idea that the operation be overseen by the military. Oppenheimer, as Monk observes, seemed to have had “an unerring sense of what Groves wished to hear.”

Groves may have also seen in Oppenheimer a man driven far less by ideology than by ambition, whose need to be an important player ensured that anything he directed would be a success.

History, of course, has vindicated the decision. The brooding introvert became a leader, harnessing the efforts of a headstrong cast of brilliant physicists for an all-but-impossible task: assembling on a barely accessible New Mexico mesa top — an unlikely spot Oppenheimer had discovered on a vacation horseback ride — not just an advanced nuclear laboratory but a whole town. While he worked, he remained under surveillance, just in case Groves had misjudged him and he turned out to be a Soviet spy.

George Johnson is the author of “Strange Beauty,” a biography of the physicist Murray Gell-Mann. His book “The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery” will be published in August.

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It is an extraordinary story, and Monk — the author of acclaimed biographies of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein — tells it well. Other major biographies have been published in recent years: David C. Cassidy’s “J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century” is especially strong on the science, and Monk acknowledges Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s groundbreaking “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” as an important source for his own research. Monk (who reviewed one of my early books) says in his preface that his aim is to produce “an internal rather than an external biography,” one that gets deeper into Oppenheimer’s psychological complexity and that ties his contributions to physics more firmly into his life.

The result is an impressive work that stands as a strong challenger to other contenders. But I’m not sure it has brought us that much closer to the man. The details of Oppenheimer’s physics, though laid out clearly, reveal little about his perplexing psyche. While his childhood is neatly drawn — the privileged son of non­observant German Jews and a product of the private Ethical Culture School in New York — we learn almost nothing about his mess of a marriage or his distant relationship with his children. Bird and Sherwin’s book is more vivid on that ground.

Whatever Oppenheimer did to so thoroughly impress Groves and to motivate the scientists at Los Alamos doesn’t really come across here or in anything else I’ve read. What made him so inspiring, so indispensable? It almost seems as if he had everyone ­hypnotized.

But when the war was over, the spell was broken. Now the enemy was the Soviet Union, and Oppenheimer’s calls for avoiding a thermonuclear showdown by sharing technology and holding back on the hydrogen bomb were used by his opponents to mark him as a Red. His past indiscretions gave them plenty of ammunition.

During his directorship he had lied to a military intelligence officer. Pressured by Groves, he named old friends who had been Communists, including his own brother, Frank. There was almost no end to what he would do to protect his position — he so loved being an insider. Yet such was his carelessness that, knowing he was under close watch, he spent a night in San Francisco with an old girlfriend and party member, Jean Tatlock.

After the war came the legendary security hearings — what a government lawyer reviewing the case later called “a punitive, personal abuse of the judicial system.” No evidence came out that he had engaged in espionage. An Atomic Energy Commission personnel board concluded he was a loyal citizen. But he was not above suspicion. That was enough for them to strip him of his security clearance.

Maybe that would have been a defensible reason back in 1942 not to choose him to lead the Los Alamos project, though it would have been a mistake. Now it was just an empty vendetta.

An authority on self-destructive behavior, Oppenheimer memorably described the United States and the Soviet Union as “two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” He was himself the casualty of scorpions fighting each other in Washington. And of the scorpions that remained corked tightly in Oppenheimer’s mind.

George Johnson is the author of “Strange Beauty,” a biography of the physicist Murray Gell-Mann. His book “The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery” will be

 

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