Ray Monk

A puzzle without a solution

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Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma

Jeremy Bernstein

Duckworth, pp. 223, £

Jeremy Bernstein is extraordinarily, perhaps uniquely, well qualified to write a biography of Robert Oppenheimer that is both authoritative and extremely readable. In the first place, he is himself an eminent physicist, a professor for nearly 40 years and the author of some 50 technical papers. In the second place, he is an exceptionally gifted writer, the author of several popular books (some on physics, some on physicists and some, believe it or not, on mountain climbing) and a regular contributor to the New Yorker. Finally, he has the advantage of having known Oppenheimer personally and of counting among his friends some of the people who knew and understood Oppenheimer best. If anyone can shed light on the enigma that is Robert Oppenheimer it is Jeremy Bernstein.

This book, however, is not the authoritative biography that Bernstein no doubt could have written if he had chosen to. It is much shorter than a standard biography and altogether less formal and more personal. Bernstein himself describes it as the New Yorker profile he had intended to write in the 1960s but somehow never got round to doing. Judged as such, it is a superb piece of work.

Anyone who has read, for example, Bernstein’s editorial comments in Hitler’s Uranium Club (the published transcripts of secretly recorded conversations between Werner Heisenberg and his colleagues on the Nazi bomb project) will know what a brilliant expositor of difficult physics he is. For my liking, there is too little of such exposition in this book, but what there is leaves one wanting much more. Especially interesting is Bernstein’s extended discussion of the papers in astrophysics that Oppenheimer published at the end of the 1930s, papers which postulate, on purely theoretical grounds, the existence of ‘black holes’, empirical confirmation of which came shortly after Oppenheimer’s death. Bernstein is obviously fascinated by these papers and gives the clearest explanation I have ever seen, both of the ideas contained in them and of their importance for later developments. Bernstein also does a great job of describing the atmosphere of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton during Oppenheimer’s directorship in the 1950s and 1960s, an atmosphere he experienced at first hand and which he brings to life with great skill, explaining the pioneering physics that was done at the Institute during those years and Oppenheimer’s role as a kind of midwife to the creative talents of exceptionally gifted younger men.

Physics, however, occupies a surprisingly short part of this book, the bulk of which is taken up with accounts of Oppenheimer’s leadership of the Los Alamos laboratory that built the world’s first atomic bomb and of the ‘trial’ (strictly speaking, it was merely a hearing) of 1954 in which Oppenheimer was officially branded a security risk and stripped of his security clearance. Without providing any startling new revelations, Bernstein writes about these key moments in Oppenheimer’s life with great sensitivity towards both the characters of the people involved and the political climate of the times. He makes no pretence of impartiality and does nothing to disguise, for example, his dislike and disapproval of Edward Teller (whose testimony against Oppenheimer was pivotal), nor his moral outrage at the grotesque unfairness with which Oppenheimer was treated.

Neither does he disguise his own dismay in the face of some of the more puzzling and dismaying episodes in Oppenheimer’s life, such as his betrayal of his communist friend, Haakon Chevalier, and of his student, Bernard Peters. As Bernstein admits, he can do nothing but throw up his hands in despair at the perverse, duplicitous and morally weak ways in which Oppenheimer compromised himself and his friends in the face of political pressure. Quite why Oppenheimer behaved as he did is never resolved; Oppenheimer remains as enigmatic to the reader as he obviously is to Bernstein — and to everyone else who has reflected on his thought, his actions and his personality.

As a piece of journalism rather than a work of scholarship, Bernstein’s book wears its erudition very lightly. He has conducted interviews with many of the people closest to Oppenheimer, he has read Oppenheimer’s own work very carefully and he knows the relevant scientific, historical and biographical literature inside out, but all this knowledge stays where it belongs — in the background. What is brought to the fore is Bernstein’s own personal feelings as he attempts to wrestle with the puzzles that Oppenheimer’s life and personality present. This makes for a gripping read. The book could, and probably should, be read in one sitting, after which one comes to realise that it was wrong to expect Bernstein to unravel the Oppenheimer enigma; rather what Bernstein is in a pre-eminent position to understand is what an endlessly, maddeningly and intriguingly baffling man Oppenheimer was. For anyone with the slightest interest in exploring this enigma, Bernstein’s book is essential reading.