This empathetic life of the ‘father of the A-bomb’ traces the fatal collision of science and politics
Inside the Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer
by Ray Monk
Jonathan Cape, 820pp, £30
For more than a decade, I counted amongst my closest friends the man who gave the secret of the A-bomb to the Russians. His name was Ted Hall and, though many now consider him a traitor to his country, I remember this thoughtful and gentle man as one of the half-dozen truly principled human beings that I have ever met. At the time, of course, I knew nothing about what he had done. I was aware that, having gained a reputation as a brilliant young physicist at Harvard, (where had quickly become a member of the John Reed Society and, like his future boss, made no secret of his political leanings), he had continued on to Los Alamos but, on the couple of occasions when I enquired about his duties there, he had described himself as a junior researcher who played no significant role in The Bomb’s design.
It was only much later, in 1997, that I discovered the truth: after a series of disagreements in which I was entirely at fault, we had become estranged and I had not seen Ted for several years; then, as I leafed through a magazine in the lobby of an airport hotel in New York, I came across his photograph, next to a review of Bombshell: The Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy, by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, and learned, not only that he had made a critical contribution to the making of the bombs that were later dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but that he had also passed his work, and that of others, to a representative of the Soviet Union.
That I return to this memory of an old friend who, through 50 years of marriage and devoted fatherhood, lived constantly in fear of the knock at the door that would take him away from everything he loved, is not so much because he appears briefly in Ray Monk’s extraordinarily detailed and searching new biography of J Robert Oppenheimer, as because of the manner in which he embodies a problem we all have when thinking about those who designed The Bomb – a piece of technology that, for the rest of the 20th century, defined our deepest fears, both public and private. For, as Inside the Centre shows, many of the scientists who worked on The Manhattan Project started out as idealistic, essentially humanitarian individuals with left-leaning sympathies and a general sense that the research they were conducting could only further our awareness and improve the conditions in which we live. Indeed, Oppenheimer’s early education (most importantly, through Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Society, the spiritual, social and educational organisation to which a significant portion of the second wave of German Jewish immigrants, including Oppenheimer’s parents and closest relatives, belonged) stressed the importance of using one’s intellectual gifts only for the greater good. Anyone “who prostitutes his knowledge of Nature’s forces for the destruction of his fellow men” Adler declared, will come to “be considered and will consider himself a disgrace to the human race”.
It was a warning that may well have come back to haunt Oppenheimer in later years, especially on 9 August 1945, when the “Fat Man” bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. As Shirley Barnett, a secretary at Los Alamos put it, “The reasons for using the first bomb were valid. I didn’t have any doubts about it. But I did feel bad about Nagasaki. The biggest sadness of my life, and that of many others, was the dropping of the second bomb.”
Given his long and distinguished career, it may seem harsh to dwell on Oppenheimer’s part in the design and construction of The Bomb – and especially ironic when one considers that, for a long time, he was considered too much of a security risk even to be involved in The Manhattan Project, never mind to act as its director. Indeed, the Los Alamos years occupy less than 200 of this careful and scrupulous biography’s 800-plus pages. Yet the simple fact is that, had he not become ‘the father of the A-bomb’, J Robert Oppenheimer might well have been consigned to the footnotes of history – a fact both tragic and ironic, not only because he, (along with so many of the world’s great minds) felt obliged, as a good American, to turn his knowledge of Nature’s forces towards destruction, but also because, had he lived in a different time, or a better place, he might have won the Nobel Prize for work not normally associated with his talents. In 1939, while patriotically engaged in creating an American school of theoretical physics to rival the great European centres of Cambridge, Göttingen and Leiden, Oppenheimer co-authored a trio of papers on cosmology which foreshadowed the discovery of black holes, the third of which has been described as “one of the great papers in twentieth century physics”.
Still, even though Inside the Centre paints a detailed portrait of a difficult and complex man in a difficult and treacherous age, it is the story of the bomb that is most absorbing here, and not just for historical reasons. What is perhaps most fascinating, and certainly poignant, about that story is the naiveté displayed by so many highly intelligent people who managed to avoid realising that a government supplied with such a “weapon of mass destruction” would not only use it, but develop it further. Even more poignant is the image of Oppenheimer at the end his career, reiterating the forlorn hope that science in the 1960s would “begin to re-knit human culture … for the intellectual life, the spiritual life of man”. It sounds like empty, ghostwritten rhetoric, but it was probably deeply felt, in spite of all he had undergone – and what this compassionate biography reveals, both here and throughout, is the danger, both individual and societal, of getting the science right in a world where the politics is so very obviously wrong.
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