The Triumph and Tragedy of
J. Robert Oppenheimer
Martin J. Sherwin
(Blackstone Audio)J. Robert Oppenheimer brought Edward Teller into the Los Alamos project in 1943. It was Teller's testimony against him that helped deprive him of his security clearance a decade later. Oppenheimer also was instrumental in setting up the Atomic Energy Commission. It was the same AEC that, in 1954, denied him his clearance.
Oppie chose Lloyd Garrison as lawyer for the hearing. During its course, FBI files were used, but not made available to the defense. Garrison did not protest --- he was a civil lawyer, not familiar with criminal procedures. It may have made all the difference.And if that weren't enough in the self-defeat department, Oppenheimer chain-smoked cigarettes for forty years. When he wasn't smoking cigarettes, he was puffing on a pipe. He died of throat cancer, in 1967, at the age of sixty-two, after extensive, painful operations (and chemotherapy).
These and several other self-inflicted wounds could convince one that Oppie did everything possible to create problems for himself. People like Edwin Strauss and J. Edgar Hoover merely took advantage of his penchant and created the morass that set up this "martyr to science" ... or, if you wish, a "modern-day Galileo."
§ § §If you ever for a moment dreamed that the government and its agents were out to get you --- stay away from American Prometheus. Every paranoid nightmare you have ever had came true for Oppenheimer. His politics and loyalty to the country he served so well was impugned. Microphones were placed in his office (and in his lawyers' offices), agents staked out his home and office (and those of his friends), and he was constantly tailed.
During the hearing, his personal life was held up for all to inspect, transcripts of his private telephone calls were made public, and details of trysts with his mistress in San Francisco were intimately described. After 1954, Oppie was barred from official contact with scientists working for the government in any form ... and even then, the FBI continued to follow him around, listen in on his calls. "They paid more to tap my phone than they paid me to run the Los Alamos Project," he once claimed.
This scientist, one who had rendered such a distinguished service to his homeland, was considered to be a communist --- if not an actual card-carrying communist, then, in the lingo of the day, a "fellow-traveler."
Oppenheimer was sardonic, witty, brilliant, an excellent teacher and public speaker, omnivorous in his curiosity, someone that you and I would probably enjoy getting to know. When he decided to learn about Marxism, he read all of Das Kapital in the original (he read and spoke German). He became curious about the great Hindu epic, the Bagavad-Gita, so he took lessons in Sanskrit so he could read it in the original. He also, it is said, made a mean martini.
After all 600 or so pages, excluding notes, the part of American Prometheus that stays with a reader is not Oppie's political flirtations of the 1930s and 1940s. Nor is it the terrible toll these took on his later life . It is certainly not the extensive quotes from FBI taps and agents reports. (At times, when it comes to an examination of his personal life, we find ourselves wishing that the veil had not been lifted so high. Gossip, after all, is gossip ... even when it comes from the files of J. Edgar Hoover.)
No, the pleasure lies in the stories of the idyllic community that Oppenheimer built at Los Alamos. He had a special affection for the New Mexico high mesa. Early on, he bought a ranch there ("Perro Caliente"), rode horseback up into the mountains near his home, Oppie cantering along in his pork-pie hat.
When he was appointed director of "S-1" --- the bomb project --- the government built Los Alamos from scratch. Ultimately it consisted of 4,000 scientists and 2,500 support staff, cost $2,000,000,000 ... in 1940s dollars. From April 1943, when Los Alamos opened its doors, to August 1945, when he left, Oppenheimer and those he found and brought in produced three bombs, two of them being of completely different design.
When not working, the scientists could ride out into the splendid surroundings, get drunk on weekends, and have babies. So many of the latter arrived during the first year at the no-cost government-sponsored hospital in Los Alamos that they dubbed it RFD --- rural free delivery.
§ § §
Merely getting through American Prometheus is a promethian task. In the Blackstone version, it takes twenty-one disks. The details of Oppie's early life, his political activities at Berkeley, and his last days can be wearying. But when the drama pushes it --- most of all, the details of the AEC hearing in 1954 --- it is hard to quit.
The reading here is competent. However, when Cummings is quoting the likes of Einstein or the Dane Niels Bohr, his voice takes on a slight (but not very convincing) Germanic accent. He also has the unfortunate habit of pronouncing Oppie's New Mexico ranch "Perro Caliente" as "Pedo Caliente." The first means "hot dog" --- as in frankfurter; the second ... you may not want to know.--- Richard Saturday
§ § §As I was listening to this (over a two week period), I communicated bits and pieces of American Prometheus. to some of my friends, one a retired biologist. He commented:
I haven't read that particular book, but (as they say) I know the story. My favorite character in the Los Alamos story is not Oppie, but Richard Feynman, another well-known and more creative physicist.
Due to the top secret nature of the work, Los Alamos was isolated. In his own words, "There wasn't anything to do there." Bored, Feynman indulged his curiosity by learning to pick the combination locks on cabinets and desks used to secure papers. Feynman played many jokes on colleagues. In one case he found the combination to a locked filing cabinet by trying the numbers a physicist would use. It proved to be 27-18-28 after the base of natural logarithms, e = 2.71828.
Feynman found that the three filing cabinets where a colleague kept a set of atomic bomb research notes all had the same combination. He left a series of notes as a prank, which initially spooked his colleague into thinking a spy or saboteur had gained access to atomic bomb secrets. (Coincidentally, Feynman once borrowed the car of physicist Klaus Fuchs who was later discovered to be a spy for the Soviets).
On occasion, Feynman would find an isolated section of the mesa to drum in the style of American natives; "and maybe I would dance and chant, a little." These antics did not go unnoticed, and rumors spread about a mysterious Indian drummer called "Injun Joe." He also became Oppie's good friend (Oppie unsuccessfully tried to court him away from his other commitments to work at the University of California after the war).Oppenheimer gave a public lecture on subatomic physics at Haverford College while I was an undergraduate. I remember being very impressed by the elegance and intelligence of his presentation. Later on, reading more about him, I was impressed again by his erudition, although I found his role in some of the politics of the atomic bomb project rather murky. For example, it was Leo Szilard who organized the petition that asked for a demonstration use of the bomb at sea, rather than against an inhabited target. Many of the physicists signed the petition. Oppenheimer, being in administration, didn't sign it, and never made his position on it quite clear.
I've always been a little puzzled by all the hand-wringing over Oppie's supposedly Christ-like sufferings. After all, his persecution consisted entirely of taking away his security clearance and position on a big-time government panel, thus condemning him to a mere lifetime professorship at the comfortable and enormously prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. One can imagine worse Calvarys. In another part of the world, many very distinguished biologists, such as Nikolai Vavilov, Georgii Karpechenko, Nikolai Koltsov, and Sergei Chetverikov, and many others, had difficulties of a different order of magnitude to cope with.
By the way, there were historical consequences that have been glaringly obvious in my field for the last 50 years. Although the USSR trained the largest number of "scientific personnel" in the world --- something endlessly touted by the Old Left --- the contribution of Soviet research to the tremendous advances in genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology during the 20th century was essentially zero. Evidently, training a generation of scientists to be either a yes-man, a faker, or at best keep your heads down, does not lead to much in the way of discovery. Surprise!