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Making the bomb

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer Ray Monk

Cape, pp.802, £30

Of the making of many books about J. Robert Oppenheimer there is apparently no end. There have been 23 previous lives, seven of them published since 2004. This situation, which would have delighted its subject, is now complicated by the appearance of Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Ray Monk, previously the biographer of Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. In a crisp introduction Professor Monk explains that he is joining the throng because there has been no ‘scientific biography’, and previous work has largely ignored Oppenheimer’s contribution to physics.

In fact — as Inside the Centre makes clear — JRO’s major contribution to physics would scarcely have justified one biography, let alone 24. ‘Oppie’ died in 1967 and the reason he remains a biographical obsession is because he was the first scientific director of the top secret Los Alamos Military Laboratory in New Mexico, and — following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US Air Force in August 1945 — he was publicly identified by Washington as ‘the father of the Atomic Bomb’.

Oppenheimer was regarded by very clever men as one of the cleverest men of his age — the best among them — but his greatest achievement was the erection of a monument to human stupidity, the creation of a device that could destroy our civilisation. At Los Alamos it was widely agreed that only Robert Oppenheimer could have driven the project through at the speed necessary to produce two atomic bombs ready for use before the end of the war. It was therefore his work that ushered in the age of ‘deterrence’, or mutually assured destruction. And he knew exactly what he had done.

Two months after he became world famous Oppenheimer returned to Los Alamos to say goodbye to his staff and gave a celebrated speech in which he said

If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of the warring world …then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.

He may have been thinking that mankind would also curse the name of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In fact no such curse has been imposed. Instead, Oppen-heimer is now widely regarded as a principled idealist and a martyr of postwar McCarthyism because of the disgraceful way in which the Washington defence establishment withdrew his security clearance during the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War.

Oppenheimer’s life falls into four distinct periods. There was the prewar career as a theoretical physicist, when he became heavily involved in Californian politics as a pro-Communist activist and generous financial supporter, his wartime service at Los Alamos, his postwar career as the most influential US government adviser on atomic matters that ended with his official disgrace, and the final years of eminence when he was director of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study.

Monk retells the familiar story well. The young scientist’s psychological fragility, the unhappy year spent working with Rutherford at Cambridge and then the intellectual flowering at Gottingen in 1927 when he was admitted to the illustrious company of Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac, Schrodinger, Born and Bethe, aged only 23.

In 1930, when Oppenheimer’s training was complete, top-level physics was taking place in Denmark, Germany, Holland, England and France, and to a lesser extent in Italy and Japan. Oppenheimer was an American patriot and he resented the dismissive attitude to American physics that he encountered in Europe. He returned home determined to change this situation and within ten years had created the country’s leading department of theoretical physics at Berkeley, California, taking it to world level. He attracted brilliant students from all over the United States and dazzled them with the speed of his understanding and the breadth of his interests. During this decade he published several papers on astrophysics that were to prove prophetic. Otherwise, in the judgment of his peers, he accomplished surprisingly little by way of original research.

Thanks to the charismatic reputation he gained at Berkeley he was able to recruit dozens of top physicists to Los Alamos after the outbreak of war, on the reasonable but mistaken assumption that German scientists might otherwise present Hitler with a monopoly of atomic weaponry. Following the German surrender in May 1945 the Los Alamos scientists decided that the bomb should not be dropped on a living target before the Japanese government had been warned and given a chance to surrender.

A mixture of naivety and arrogance led these brilliant men to assume that because they were the only people who could build an atomic bomb they would be consulted about its use. General Leslie Groves, the brutal military engineer who was the true father of the atomic bomb, made sure that their petitions to postpone the atomic bombing of a living target were filed in a secure wastepaper basket. The only scientist whose influence matched that of Groves was Robert Oppenheimer, but he declined to intervene.

Ray Monk has undertaken an extraordinary amount of research and certainly succeeded in giving a full account of Oppenheimer’s scientific career. He also challenges many of the accepted details of his subject’s personal life. He notes that at Berkeley, Oppie sometimes omitted to credit other people’s work — a failing not confined to scientists — and shows that he was repeatedly guilty of boosting his own self-esteem by humiliating his less robust students.

More seriously, in his rise to power, Oppenheimer attempted to defend himself from charges of Communist sympathies by denouncing several of his students to the FBI as members of the Communist Party. He later wrecked the career of one of his oldest friends, Haakon Chevalier, by a similar betrayal, and Monk recounts this ignominious episode in detail. Oppenheimer was thin, handsome and photogenic and it was during the postwar period of world fame that he succeeded Einstein as America’s ‘public image of genius’. (One of his former students was less impressed. Following a meeting with his old professor he said: ‘He thinks he’s God’.)

Even after he had made it, Oppenheimer could be vindictive and boastful. And his vanity eventually played a significant part in his downfall. He needlessly made enemies in Washington. One of them, Admiral Lewis Strauss — a former shoe salesman who became the chairman of the committee that eventually destroyed Oppenheimer’s political career — had twice been the butt of his wit.

In 1954 Oppenheimer was disgraced, accused of espionage and treason, because he opposed the development of the H-bomb, and in fighting and losing that battle he finally approached greatness. The winners were a colourful bunch with names like Truman, McCarthy, Henry Luce and Bourke B. Hickenlooper (a senator). The losers were the finest minds in America, men who saw immediately that a thermonuclear device was ‘necessarily an evil thing’ and an instrument of genocide. Monk’s account of this shameful victory is a valuable record of the destruction of an ethical civilisation and its replacement by a lethal technological oligarchy. Unfortunately Inside the Centre contains no sustained attempt to evaluate Oppenheimer’s personal moral responsibility for what he had accomplished ten years earlier at Los Alamos, although this question intermittently tormented the man himself for the rest of his life.

Monk finally buys the legend and concludes that Oppenheimer was ‘a great man’.  In stating that he begs the question. Oppenheimer was a man of such great ability that he might have changed his world, and ours, for the better. Tragically, as this biography repeatedly proves, the gap between his ability and his character was even greater.

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