The man who wasn't there

Ray Monk's biography of Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, is a heroic failure, says Will Self
December 12, 2012

Oppenheimer with General Groves at the Trinity test site in 1945 (photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Inside the Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer by Ray Monk (Jonathan Cape, £30)

On 6th August 1945, the Enola Gay, a B29 Superfortress—christened, some might feel a little grotesquely, after its pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets’s mother—dropped the world’s first offensive atomic bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” from an altitude of 32,000 feet on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This single act of aggression resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Japanese. Concentrated into the 120 by 28 inches of the bomb were not simply 16 kilotons of explosive yield, but what stands as the most concerted effort of human industrial muscle and technical innovation the world has ever seen.

The $2bn (equivalent to $25.8bn today) Manhattan Project, which resulted in the production of the Hiroshima bomb—and of “Fat Man” which was dropped on Nagasaki three days later—was calculated by its most thoroughgoing historian, Richard Rhodes, to have been an undertaking equivalent to building the entire US car industry, as it then was, in a mere two years. The overall organisational supremo was an unimpeachable US Army Corps of Engineers brass neck, Major General Leslie Groves. But the man who orchestrated the significant advances in the theoretical knowledge of physics, and their application to the technology of mass destruction, was a thin, nervous, chain-smoking aesthete with pronounced communist sympathies. The rise and fall of Robert Oppenheimer stands as emblematic of the loss of American innocence itself, for, as Ray Monk is at great and exhaustive pains to point out in his lengthy—and frankly exhausting—biography of Oppenheimer, the architect of the Manhattan Project was first and foremost an American patriot.

Oppenheimer, the son of wealthy German-Jewish immigrants, had a pampered upbringing on the upper west side of Manhattan; he was a physics wunderkind—but also a polymath—who went on to study at Harvard, then Cambridge, and Gottingen under Max Born. By his early 20s he had entered the orbit of the giants of theoretical physics—Born, Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg et al—whose momentous discoveries in the 1920s and 30s had resulted in the new field of quantum mechanics. Great things were expected of Oppenheimer as well, but while he made some contributions to the field, he is remembered as “the father of the atomic bomb”; a charismatic organiser of others’ genius, and an ambitious—arrogant, even—political operator, who, as he laboured to win the war for his beloved homeland, was under systematic surveillance by the security apparatus of his own project. He had also been wiretapped by the FBI in the late 1930s, and it was his activities during this period—when he was a hugely influential and popular professor at Berkeley—that eventually proved to be his undoing. He was stripped of his government security clearance in 1954, at the height of McCarthyism, after a humiliating and protracted tribunal.

There have been several biographies of Oppenheimer, as well as collections of his writings. In his rather defensive introduction Ray Monk makes the case for his being more germane, because his aim is to “understand Oppenheimer”; furthermore, if one wishes to do this, “one must attempt to understand his contributions to science.” Labouring as Monk was under the oppressive weight of Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedyof J Robert Oppenheimer, which appeared in 2005—perhaps halfway through the writing of Inside the Centre—he attempts to distance himself from their “exhaustive detail” when it comes to Oppenheimer’s personal life and political activities. “One would never know,” Monk says, “from reading Bird and Sherwin’s book how much of Oppenheimer’s time and intellectual energy was taken up with thinking about mesons… The word ‘meson’ is not even in the index.”

This is indeed true—but perhaps more pertinent is that the solution to the problem of mesons was not a function of all the time and intellectual energy that Oppenheimer spent thinking about them. Indeed, the solution—when it came in 1957—didn’t even originate with any of Oppenheimer’s pre-war crop of Berkeley and Caltech graduate students, but from Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, Chinese-born physicists who studied, respectively, under Enrico Fermi and Oppenheimer’s nemesis, Edward Teller (the bullish, Hungarian-born “father to the H bomb”). It’s true that Oppenheimer had a Pandarus-like role—bringing them together in his capacity as a director of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study—but no one, including Monk, tries to pretend that his own theoretical work was substantive.

The one area in which Oppenheimer, as theoretician, can claim to have had a lasting impact on our conception of the physical world is in his 1939 paper “On Continued Gravitational Contraction,” co-authored with his student Harland Snyder. In this they hypothesised the existence of what, decades later, came to be known as “black holes.” For want of empirical testability, the paper languished, seen as a mathematical curiosity—but Oppenheimer also showed no real interest in pursuing the physics of impacting stars, preferring to play his part in making artificial suns. As far as Bird and Sherwin’s book goes, it does have a perfectly reasonable, albeit brief, description of this work—and frankly this is sufficient, because the problem of Inside the Centre is not that Monk isn’t a good and clear expositor of the intricacies of theoretical and experimental physics—he is—but that Oppenheimer’s own highly impressive thinking about physics, while it may have allowed him to become the great impresario of the bomb, was not the stuff of which full-blown theoretical rigour is made.

So what can Monk make of the psychology of his subject, given his misconstrued scientific focus? In the summer of 1963, entering the final lustrum of his life, Oppenheimer helped organise what Monk describes as “an odd little conference” at Mount Kisco in New York state. This was one of those talking shops in which Oppenheimer shone—at the outset of his career the coruscation had been focused on physics, and physics alone, in graduate seminars and theoretical powwows such as the momentous Solvay conferences—but now he favoured an interdisciplinary murkiness and a certain high-cultural cliquey-ness. So it was that in the course of addressing the 14 other invitees to this intimate colloquium—among them the poet Robert Lowell and the philosopher Stuart Hampshire—Oppenheimer expounded once more on his view that Niels Bohr’s conception of “complementarity” (put simply, the notion that the measurements of phenomena are affected by the instrumentation employed) could be applied not only at the subatomic level but to the human persona as well. As Monk puts it: “This leads him into an intimate, almost confessional passage, of a kind very rarely to be found in any of his other recorded utterances.” In fact, Oppenheimer’s remarks seem surpassing bland: an acknowledgement of “a very great sense of revulsion or wrong” in all that he said, or did, throughout his long and privileged childhood, leading up to an epiphany: “I had to realise that my own worries about what I did were valid and were important, but they were not the whole story, that there must be a complementary way of looking at them, because other people did not see them as I did. And I needed what they saw, needed them.”

Having waded through the minutiae of Oppenheimer’s life, as related by Monk, we already know when this epiphany occurred—in Corsica, in the summer of 1926, when Oppenheimer was on a walking holiday with two friends—and we already know what provoked it—the reading of a passage in À la recherche du temps perdu—and we already know what interpretation he placed upon it, because Monk has already quoted the relevant passage at length from the 1963 talk 545 pages earlier. This recursive figure could, I suppose, be forgiven, if it wasn’t about as insightful—into Oppenheimer, and into the generality of humankind—as the pop lyric “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” And that’s the strange thing about Inside the Centre: it’s a biography in which one’s sense of the very subjectivity of its subject, instead of becoming richer and more complex as the narrative unfolds, on the contrary becomes progressively more attenuated, until, when Oppenheimer dies of throat cancer in February 1967 (at the comparatively young age of 62), we have the sense of a human being reduced to the habiliment of his fame, then leaving that notoriety—and with it, his corporeal and psychic being—behind, as he evaporates into the delusory state of posterity.

What is to blame for this? I pondered the matter long and hard as I read Monk’s book. I have often said that his two earlier biographies—one of Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, and the other of Bertrand Russell, The Spirit of Solitude—are between them perhaps the best introduction to 20th-century philosophy for the non-specialist; seamlessly fusing as they do the theoretical, the personal and the historic. It seems to me that while the rigours of Russellian logic, or the gnomic utterances of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations may be taxing, they are not inconceivable in the way that the physical processes underlying quantum mechanics are for those of us who cannot “speak maths,” or otherwise visualise the properties embodied in Planck’s constant.

Oppenheimer himself (on a post-war trip to Japan, as it happens), was publicly scathing about CP Snow’s “two cultures” conception of the widening gulf between the scientifically and the culturally literate; and understandably so, given that he was a polymath who famously learnt Sanskrit in order to enjoy the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita in the original—so giving rise to the apocryphal story that on witnessing the successful Trinity Test in July 1945—the first human-engineered nuclear explosion—he uttered its minatory line, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” But, as Monk points out, in a later lecture, “Physics and Man’s Understanding,” Oppenheimer argued that the reason why the great scientific discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton had such a momentous cultural impact, whereas that of Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg’s had been comparatively small, was that in the first case the new theories corrected generalised misconceptions about the physical world, whereas in the latter they only corrected the misconceptions of physicists. It may have been true up until 6th August 1945 that the equivalence of energy and matter was not generally conceived, but thereafter this comprehension was seared into the world’s consciousness with the light of ten thousand suns.

Of course, it’s all too easy to look at Oppenheimer’s life in retrospect as a tragedy, displaying the classic Grecian narrative parabola defined by hubris and its inevitable downfall. But sometimes the facile simply is correct: a cosseted rich boy brought up according to the dictates of Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Society (a humanistic version of Judaeo-Christian moral and social thinking), Oppenheimer’s personality was a heady cocktail of neurosis, charm and vanity from the very start. His exposure to the American southwest via his non-Jewish friend, the future writer Francis Fergusson, undoubtedly became talismanic for him: this was a realm where men were men, and those men came with a horse. It is ironic that it was Oppenheimer’s own happy horse-riding on the Los Alamos tableland that led to his establishment of the Manhattan Project laboratories there in 1943.

For Monk there are only two heuristic keys necessary to unlock all of Oppenheimer’s subsequent behaviour: his ambivalence towards his own Jewishness, and the intense patriotism he cultivated—as if aiming a pre-emptive strike against all the accusations of disloyalty that were to follow. If this seems rather simplistic it’s because it is; surely the truth is that Oppenheimer’s “people need people” epiphany of 1926 found its most fruitful expression in the wide range of socialist, communist and trade union causes he supported during the Depression era. That Oppenheimer was a “fellow traveller” is not in dispute, but what Monk—with his swerving away from the personal and the political, while cleaving to the purely physical—cannot adequately convey is the extent to which Oppenheimer was typical of the liberal American intellectuals of his generation.

Shorn of the vast weight of circumstantial detail—about social mores, friendships, cultural milieu—that Bird and Sherwin provide, Monk’s Oppenheimer free-floats, like a particle in a vacuum, subject only to the strong attraction of Uncle Sam, and the weaker one of Moscow. Monk’s writing about the Manhattan Project itself is spare and scrupulous but the drama of the events is so compelling, even the most lackadaisical of narratives could not fail to be driven forward by them.

If his period as an active leftist was what allowed Oppenheimer to experience his version of Bohr’s “complementarity,” then his betrayal of his friend Haakon Chevalier to the FBI was surely the point at which he abandoned interdependence in pursuit of outright, egoistic ambition. For what other complexion can we place upon Oppenheimer’s desperation to get stuck into the management of the astonishing concurrent theoretical and practical work that resulted in the atomic bomb? In later life, after the stripping of his security clearance, Oppenheimer would never express any regret about the pivotal role he played in the deaths of so many people, repeating the mantra that under the circumstances it seemed the lesser of the available evils. But reading between the lines of Monk’s biography—and right on them in Bird and Sherwin’s—we find all the evidence required of a man in full and conflicted flight from the awful act he had perpetrated, and the dreadful new political reality that his actions had helped to usher in.

It’s true that there’s a certain kind of biographical writing—often, but by no means always, by Americans—that depends for its effects on a spuriously contemporaneous and proximate viewpoint. Bird and Sherwin employ this style, writing as if they were the direct witnesses of events, rather than their secondary recorders. In contrast, Monk is never anything but forensically punctilious; as befits a philosophy professor, that whereof he cannot know, thereof he remains silent. The result is that the creeping perception the reader has of Oppenheimer as an emotionally moribund man, winnowed out by the guilt he was unable to acknowledge, is only confirmed after his death, when Monk explains how little evidence there was in all the archives his subject left, of any real, intimate human contact. There’s this, and there’s the circumstantial evidence: a marriage to an alcoholic that would be described nowadays as “co-dependent,” and children who in their chosen ways—one through suicide, one through pained denial—sought to distance themselves from their emotionally remote father.

But as I say, the reader of Inside the Centre has to piece this together for himself, and delicately separate this evidence from the voluminous and at times bewildering catalogue of Oppenheimer’s professional connections. I longed for the American style of introducing each character with a thumbnail physical description, so I could keep a handle on this cast of thousands of physicists. I retain the greatest respect for the integrity of Monk’s project, and this biography is exemplary in its precision, however it ultimately displays a scientific exactitude where I’m afraid an artistic approach is probably called for.