Oppenheimer

I’ve just read a recentish biography of Robert Oppenheimer, about whom I didn’t know much before (the authors are K. Bird and M.J. Sherwin). It was quite interesting, but not entirely what I expected: the emphasis was fairly strongly on the “political” sides of the story, in particular the problems Oppenheimer had with the government after the war and his rather unpleasant security-clearance hearings in 1953–54 (which I knew essentially nothing about).

Reading from a scientific point of view, I was surprised how I couldn’t quite get a good mental picture of Oppenheimer’s true level as a physicist in his youth. The book mentions that, of course, he did not get a Nobel prize (and relates that this was apparently thought to be a problem when it came to put him in charge of the Manhattan project, since a number of Nobel winners would maybe resent having to take orders from him…), and seems to suggest that his strongest work might have been a fairly obscure paper which was a precursor of the study of Black Holes. I’m curious to learn more about him (and his contemporaries) as a scientist, so if some kind readers can suggest further books, please do so…

Of course, any time one reads a biography involving complicated political issues and possibly hidden agendas, a basic question is how far one should trust the authors. They are clearly rather sympathetic towards Oppenheimer (though they do not avoid discussing less flattering information). I would typically have expected to use as an indicator of reliability the quality of the more scientific information, but since there was not much of that, this was not really doable. One seed of doubt lies in their discussion of Oppenheimer’s period as director of the Institute for Advanced Study, from 1947 to 1966. Apparently, he didn’t get along at all with the mathematics faculty. Now the discussion of this (page 385 of the paperback edition of the book) left me a bit dubious: the authors claim that the problem (having to do with academic affairs and appointments outside mathematics in particular) was due to the fact that the mathematicians were mostly past their creative peaks and thus didn’t have much better to do than devoting themselves to “other affairs” (whereas historians and social scientists, at the same middle age, had “little interest or time for such academic intrigues”). Thinking that this period encompasses Selberg’s work on the trace formula, the birth of the Langlands program in which Weil participated, and quite a few other mathematical achievements in which IAS mathematicians were actively involved, this doesn’t seem quite correct.

A token mathematician is given the occasion (through a quote from another book) to give his side of the story: it is Weil, who is identified as a “great French mathematician”, but then is said to be “typical of the bloated egos Oppenheimer encountered at the Institute”, and to have been “arrogant, acerbic and demanding”. (Of course, Weil was actually appointed in 1958, in the middle of Oppenheimer’s directorship; and it is quite amusing to think that Weil was certainly one of the few members of the Institute with whom Oppenheimer could have spoken Sanskrit and discussed the Bhagavad Gita, which they had both studied…).

There was another bizarre story about Oppenheimer that I didn’t know, and which echoes disturbingly Turing’s death by poisoned apple: at some point in the 1920’s, during an unhappy postdoc in Cambridge, Oppenheimer apparently left a poisoned apple (how deadly is not clear…) on his mentor’s desk…

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Kowalski

I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

8 thoughts on “Oppenheimer”

  1. Dear Emmanuel,

    I found Richard Rhodes “Making of the atomic bomb” to be a very good account, at a detailed popular level, of the personalities and science related to nuclear physics in the first half of the 20th century. I don’t have any serious independent verification of its accuracy, but I didn’t notice any serious blunders when I was reading it.
    I wasn’t left with the impression that Oppenheimer was a major player in the development of the physics.

    The sequel, “Dark Sun”, is both about the making of the hydrogen bomb, and also about the Soviet atomic program, and is also fascinating. It discusses Oppenheimer’s later difficulties in detail, although I don’t remember that it has that many details about his difficulties as director of the IAS.

    There are a couple of other books about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan project that I’ve read and liked, including “The ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer” (about his political troubles in the 50’s) and “109 East Palace”, which gives some insight into the daily life of the Manhattan project. I don’t recommend either one nearly as strongly as Rhodes’ books, though.

    Regards,

    Matthew

  2. There is some discussion of Oppenheimer’s life in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, _Outliers_. The poisoning incident plays an especially prominent role. It’s nothing close to a definitive analysis of the man, but I found it entertaining and insightful.

  3. Chapter 1 in Volume I of Weinberg’s Quantum Theory of Fields is a historical introduction that describes many of Oppenheimer’s research contributions, and it has many references to original literature at the end. It is somewhat more technical than, e.g., the Wikipedia article, so some familiarity with basic quantum mechanics and physical phenomenology would definitely help you enjoy it.

    I found Gladwell’s discussion of Oppenheimer rather annoying. I got the impression that telling an honest story was a much less important goal than fitting Oppenheimer’s life into his theoretical framework.

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