November 16, 2012 7:51 pm

The Oppenheimer enigma

Misunderstood in his lifetime, the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ still baffles biographers

Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Ray Monk, Jonathan Cape RRP£30, 832 pages

J Robert Oppenheimer in New Jersey, 1947©Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

J Robert Oppenheimer in New Jersey, 1947

Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist and “father of the atomic bomb”, continues to be hailed as one of the towering figures in 20th-century science. Friend and colleague of the great names in theoretical physics, and charismatic leader of outstanding teams of researchers at Caltech, Berkeley and finally Princeton, he was a man whose huge intellectual curiosity and energy also embraced literature, poetry and philosophy. Thousands of pages of biography have been devoted to this complicated and controversial figure since his early death from throat cancer in 1967.

Yet Oppenheimer remains an enigma, “an endlessly, maddeningly and intriguingly baffling man”, as Ray Monk wrote in 2004, reviewing Jeremy Bernstein’s perceptive memoir Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma. Now, in Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the much-lauded biographer Monk has himself taken on the task of trying to make sense of him.

Born in 1904 in New York to wealthy German-Jewish parents, Oppenheimer was recognised at a young age for his exceptional scientific ability. By his early twenties he had risen to the top of academic physics, working in the company of such luminaries as Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac and Enrico Fermi.

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But it was the second world war that brought him to lasting international prominence. Appointed in 1942 to head the Manhattan Project’s secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, where he worked under conditions of the utmost secrecy to develop the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer was in 1946 awarded President Harry Truman’s medal of merit – the US’s highest civilian decoration – as the man whose scientific and organisational brilliance had brought the war to an end.

Misgivings over the use of the bomb against Japan, however, grew in the postwar years. By the early 1950s, in the toxic climate of suspicion and accusation fostered by McCarthyism and the cold war, Oppenheimer’s reputation had been tarnished by accusations of communist associations, un-American activities and even active spying for the Soviet Union during and after the period of the atomic bomb’s development. Political and public dismay at Moscow’s detonation of its first atomic bomb in 1949, and the uncovering of Klaus Fuchs as the Los Alamos physicist spy who had passed the bomb’s secrets to the Soviets, fuelled the allegations against Oppenheimer. In 1954, after three months of humiliating hearings, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance, bringing to an end his career in atomic energy.

Monk’s book is a tour de force – at more than 800 pages, I doubt that there is another shard of evidence to be gleaned to shed light on Oppenheimer’s life. This will, I am sure, establish itself as the definitive biography. So for me what is striking is that in spite of his desire to reach the inner Oppenheimer, Monk gets no closer to giving us a convincing account of what drove this extraordinary man than those who have tried to do so before him. For all the striving after the telling detail, the inner life of Oppenheimer eludes him.

In part this is a problem common to all biographies of famous scientists and theoreticians. The more technical detail is packed into the narrative – and Monk makes a fine job of explicating Oppenheimer’s scientific achievements both before and after Los Alamos – the more evident is the apparently inevitable fissure between the man and the work.

In Oppenheimer’s case there is an additional problem of a kind of personality flicker-effect. Those who have left vivid accounts of his behaviour and pronouncements include both those who found him a difficult and uncongenial colleague – and were ready to believe him to be a traitor – and those who admired him to the point of hero-worship, and remained convinced of his unique intellectual abilities and loyalty to his country. And because Oppenheimer’s behaviour was often odd and erratic, attempts at its interpretation tend to be coloured by the particular informant’s attitude towards him.

Monk’s solution for resolving the contradictory versions of Oppenheimer that the conflicted testimony produces is to propose a psychological explanation rooted in his background and circumstances. Oppenheimer, he suggests, was a reluctant Jew. In spite of his entirely secular upbringing, he found himself the object of suspicion at a number of key points in his career, starting with his admission to Harvard. The upshot was a kind of self-loathing that coloured his entire outlook. “It seems to me”, Monk writes, “that Oppenheimer cannot be understood without taking into account the importance of his deeply felt desire to overcome the sense of being an outsider that he inherited from his German-Jewish background and his desire to get inside the centre of American political and social life.”

Monk is not the first to have made this suggestion – it is a strand in Bernstein’s Portrait of an Enigma. Yet one might as plausibly make the contrary case: that the biographer’s assessment of Oppenheimer is hampered by the background noise of barely suppressed anti-Semitism throughout the period of his work and influence that colours contemporary assessment of his public interventions, but which he himself declined to recognise. As Monk tells us, during his years at Harvard, when the university’s president was publicly arguing for a restriction on the number of Jewish students admitted, Oppenheimer “never once mentions, or even so much as alludes to, the controversy”.

Oppenheimer perhaps did not even consider these discussions relevant to him. His choice of Lloyd Garrison – not an adversarial trial lawyer but a civilised advocate from a distinguished family – for the 1954 hearing that resulted in the revoking of his security clearance, seems intended to underline his own membership of an all-American intellectual elite.

My personal view is that the problems biographers face in extricating Oppenheimer from the web of suspicion, innuendo and accusation that dogged his career may derive from an intense but unexpressed need in the period to shift the blame for the atom bomb on to those left-leaning, communist-sympathising Jews of foreign extraction who had driven the nuclear agenda forward.

Monk’s expressed goal is to write “an internal rather than an external biography – one that aims, first and foremost, to understand Oppenheimer himself”. The problem is that Oppenheimer was, as his friend Isidor Rabi wrote, “a man who was put together of many bright shining splinters”. Excavating the “real” Oppenheimer from his many carefully calculated personae, and the often inconsistent versions of him in the testimony of both friends and enemies, was never going to be an easy undertaking. In the end, I think, Monk admits defeat.

The closing chapter of this magisterial biography is entitled “An Open Book?”. It is a gripping evocation of Oppenheimer and his celebrity in the final years of his life, yet it avoids any attempt to sum up or capture that essential, inner Oppenheimer. As the chapter’s title seems to suggest, Monk’s subject remains for him “an endlessly, maddeningly and intriguingly baffling man”.

Lisa Jardine is professor of Renaissance studies and director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Humanities at UCL. She is currently writing a memoir about her father, the scientist Jacob Bronowski

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