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Book review

‘Robert Oppenheimer’ by Ray Monk

“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and ended World War II, and by now Oppenheimer was almost as well known for the fact that the US government had withdrawn his security clearance (because of suspected Communist sympathies) as for his achievements in physics.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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