RAY Monk, a lecturer in philosophy, has previously written admirable biographies of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. He resolved to make the father of the atom bomb, J Robert Oppenheimer, his third subject because he felt there was no full biography doing justice “both to his important role in the history and politics of the 20th century and to the singularity of his mind”.
The project took him 11 years and required him to study enough physics to understand Oppenheimer’s contribution to science. During this time, several other substantial biographies appeared, but none, Monk suggests, has successfully integrated his life and work.
That Inside The Centre does not fully succeed in doing that either for this most puzzling man is not to Monk’s discredit but rather a tribute to his tact and honesty, as a biographer who never distorts his subject’s life into a pattern of his own devising.
Indeed, he opens by quoting Oppenheimer’s friend Isidor Rabi, saying that Oppenheimer was a “man who was put together of many bright shining splinters” – a man who actually lacked identity.
Oppenheimer was born in 1904 in New York to a rich German-Jewish family who belonged to the high-minded “Ethical Culture Society”. At school, superior and gauche, he was bullied by the other boys but inspired by a chemistry teacher.
At Harvard, after abandoning his literary ambitions, Oppenheimer began taking courses in theoretical physics, winning a Rhodes scholarship to study in Europe, before returning to America to found the school of theoretical physics at Berkeley. There, in 1939, he was writing original papers on neutron stars, predicting the existence of black holes, when, in Germany, nuclear fission was discovered. Oppenheimer seems to have appreciated the explosive possibilities immediately.
Put in charge of the project to produce an atom bomb, Oppenheimer located it in Los Alamos, having long loved New Mexico.
Monk tells powerfully the story of the bomb’s development, leading to the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, and the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9.
At the Trinity test, Oppenheimer was seen to be jubilant, even strutting –“his walk was like High Noon”, one observer noted. After Hiroshima he was seen “clasping his hands together like a prize-winning boxer”. But after Nagasaki he became a nervous wreck. When he met President Truman in October 1945 he told him he felt he had blood on his hands. Truman dismissed him as a “cry-baby scientist”.
Oppenheimer’s attempts to influence nuclear policy after the war largely failed, his earlier Communist sympathies having led to his security clearance being withdrawn in the McCarthy era, despite his undeviating patriotism.
Admitting Oppenheimer’s “enigmatic elusiveness” and his inability to make “ordinary close contact with people”, Monk finally maintains that these very qualities also made him “the great man he showed himself to be”.
This fine, painstaking book makes most recent biography seem slight, even irrelevant. Oppenheimer, by the way, was a dedicated smoker. In 1967, dying young from throat cancer, he told a fellow physicist at one of the last meetings he was able to attend: “Sam, don’t smoke.”