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Book review

‘Robert Oppenheimer’ by Ray Monk

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“There aren’t any secrets about the world of nature,” Robert Oppenheimer told journalist Edward R. Murrow in 1954. It had been nine years since the bombs he’d helped develop as leader of the Manhattan Project’s secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ended World War II, and by now Oppenheimer was almost as well known for the fact that the US government had withdrawn his security clearance (because of suspected Communist sympathies) as for his achievements in physics.

Secrecy had become a major aspect of Oppenheimer’s public persona — and he had strong opinions on the subject. “The trouble with secrecy isn’t that it doesn’t give the public a sense of participation,” he told Murrow. “The trouble with secrecy is that it denies to the government itself the wisdom and resources of the whole community. . . . There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men. Sometimes they are secret because a man doesn’t like to know what he’s up to if he can avoid it.” That last comment reveals something profound about Robert Oppenheimer: How well did he understand himself — or want to?

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Ray Monk, a British philosophy professor and biographer, faces this problem repeatedly in his massive and detailed new biography, “Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center.’’ Oppenheimer sought meaning in the universe not only through the practice of science but through spiritual study, poetry, and the contemplation of nature. His Los Alamos colleague Hans Bethe believed that Oppenheimer “worked at physics mainly because he found physics the best way to do philosophy.” Surely he was the only scientist at Los Alamos who counted Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal’’ as his favorite book. In his early 20s, Oppenheimer confessed: “The kind of person that I admire most would be one who becomes extraordinarily good at doing a lot of things but maintains a tear-stained countenance” — a pretty close description of the man Oppenheimer became.

Monk portrays Oppenheimer as an outsider who was constantly striving to reach “the center,” whether in his scientific work, which explored neutron stars and black holes in which the centers of massive stars collapse and fold into themselves; as a Jew at Harvard and Berkeley (both were wary of admitting “too many” Jews); as a political leftist with (as Albert Einstein remarked) an “unrequited love for the US government”; and as a scientific researcher whose appreciation for the value of collaborative work inevitably put him at odds with the security restrictions of the US military.

Born in 1904, great things were always expected of Julius Robert Oppenheimer (named after his father, he dropped his first name early on). He was raised in spectacular isolation in the luxurious New York City apartment of his wealthy parents. A boyhood interest in chemistry ultimately led him to the University of Göttingen in 1926 where his adviser Max Born became a lasting and profound influence. He was an outsider in Europe, but Oppenheimer’s work in quantum chemistry nevertheless managed to impress his colleagues.

After establishing the University of California, Berkeley as a center for theoretical physics, Oppenheimer was chosen to lead the secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos in 1943, a job requiring all of his varied skills, a job at which he excelled and one that gave him great pride. Yet as soon as the atomic weapons he’d helped develop at Los Alamos were deployed, Oppenheimer began to lobby for ways to mitigate their danger — primarily by sharing information with other countries to achieve international arms control. The Los Alamos scientists argued that the so-called “secret” to the atomic bomb would soon be unlocked by other developed countries. Yet most in the US government, to “whom the physics of fission was an utter mystery,” Monk reminds us, “regarded [this argument] as a treasonous plot.”

“Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands,” Oppenheimer told Harry Truman when they met shortly after the end of the war. Truman recoiled. “I told him the blood was on my hands,” Truman said later, “let me worry about that.” After Oppenheimer left, Truman told Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.” It was the beginning of the end for Oppenheimer as an American hero.

Although he continued to work on behalf of the United States in the Atomic Energy Commission, he was accused in 1949 of having Communist ties, and his security clearance was revoked. The American scientific community was outraged. Drawing on many independent studies and testimonies, Monk demonstrates that Oppenheimer was never a security threat.

Oppenheimer died of cancer at the age of 62. He had been under surveillance by the FBI for the previous nine years. The diplomat George F. Kennan spoke at Oppenheimer’s funeral. “The truth is that the US Government never had a servant more devoted at heart than this one,” said Kennan. The “secret” of Oppenheimer, Monk reveals, was not Soviet sympathy but rather, as his friend and fellow physicist Isidor Rabi observed, a “spiritual quality . . . He always left a feeling that there were depths of sensibility and insight not yet revealed.”

Contact Buzzy Jackson at AskBuzzy@gmail.com.
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