Thursday, May 1, 2014

Fragmented genius became the conscience of 20th century physics (Books - Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray Monk)

I have finally finished Ray Monk's behemoth of a biography Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (Doubleday, 2012).  It's strength is its comprehensiveness.  There doesn't seem to be a thought Oppenheimer had, or an event surrounding him, that Monk does not cover in depth.  The man and his times (1904 - 1967) are fascinating for the advances that occurred in the field of physics, Oppenheimer's leadership of the construction of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, his subsequent leadership of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, and for the stripping of Oppenheimer's security clearance by Senator McCarthy's infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.  However, as I mentioned in my initial thoughts a few weeks back, I found Monk's biography lacking in coherence and narrative drive. It's ironic, given the book's subtitle, that it seemed to have no center.

Since physics is likely to disuade most readers from attempting a book about a famous physicist, let me begin by saying that Monk discusses the science adequately without too much jargon, however, a more basic level would have helped the average reader. fix the position of the particle more precisely one would have to use electromagnetic radiation with much shorter waves (and therefore greater frequencies), such as gamma radiation.  But these high-frequency waves carry great energy, enough to deflect, and thereby alter the momentum of the electron...
My feeling is, if you are going to bother with such an explanation, then take the time to say what wavelengths and frequencies are and how waves "carry" energy.  There isn't a great deal of space devoted to the science so lay readers can skip over these descriptions, although scientists may find it a bit sparse.

Monk starts his story with physicist Isidor Rabi's armchair psychoanalysis of his friend, Oppenheimer, whom he claimed was "a man who was put together of many bright shining splinters...who never got to be a fully integrated personality," a fact Rabi and Monk attribute to Oppenheimer's repression of his Judaism.  Oppenheimer "lived in a charade," they claim.
[This] is especially evident in his letters from Harvard, in which he seems to be trying on personalities, attitudes and manners of speech, much in the way adolescents characteristically experiment with different signatures...[they] are written in a horribly self-conscious literary style and are often painfully artificial. The tone is that of a young man trying desperately to be someone that he is not.
Much of what Monk shows us confirms this, but for a different reason.  Oppenheimer was equally drawn towards the humanities and the sciences - loving literature and langauges, but an unimaginative writer - a highly intelligent physicist, but, some say, not a great one, and a sloppy mathematician.  These twin drives seemed, if I were to do a little armchair analyzing of my own, to create a conflict, leaving Oppenheimer a man of incredible breadth but insecure of his own brilliance.  At times this led to a crisis, including a breakdown during which Oppenheimer may have tried to murder his tutor at Cambridge.  In a second episode, to which Monk rightly devotes considerable space, Oppenheimer, was hounded by a number of government employees who did not approve of his leading Los Alamos because of his youthful involvement with Communist causes in the early 1930s.  These concerns, despite Oppenheimer's being questioned, trailed, and his telephone bugged, never bore fruit.  Later, when he was involved with the Atomic Energy Commission, created during the presidency of Harry Truman, he testified in his security hearing of an encounter with a friend -  Haakon Chevalier - in 1942.  Chevalier asked Oppenheimer to cooperate with the Russians, but Oppenheimer refused. At his subsequent hearing, Oppenheimer betrayed Chevalier, not because it was the whole truth about his involvement with Communism by a long shot, but because he could safely name a name and save his own neck.  What is surprising isn't the betrayal but the fact that Oppenheimer maintained a friendship with Chevalier until 1954 when Chevalier, reading of the allegations in the news, confronted Oppenheimer, who responded by sending him the public transcripts of the hearings.
When Chevalier read the whole transcript he was struck by how unfamiliar the Oppeheimer that emerged from the hearing seemed: "This was not the Oppenheimer I knew."
The Oppenheimer I knew was brilliant, incisive, measured, resourceful, imaginative, challenging, always in command of the situation, and everything he said had the unmistakable stamp of his personality.  The Oppenheimer of the Transcript  is completely depersonalized... Not once in the course of the whole three-week hearing does he come out with a statement that reflects his inner self - his ideals, his purpose, his sense of destiny. 
Depersonalization, as Chavalier aptly puts it, seems to become Oppenheimer's response when forced to confront these unintegrated aspects of himself.  Call them arts and sciences, emotions and intellect, patriot and humanist, or idealist and pragmatist - the one Oppenheimer was playing a charade with may have been himself.  These manifestations reflect the same fragmented character conflict expressed differently throughout his life, but Monk doesn't connect these dots, or perhaps he wouldn't agree with my analysis.

There was also a positive side to Oppenheimer's twin natures.  His breadth of vision and humanitarian education made him an ideal leader, first of the Mahattan Project and later of the Institute for Advanced Study.  British scientist James Tuck described Los Alamos as possessing
a spirit of Athens, of Plato, of an ideal the grace of god the American government got the right man.  His function here was not to do penetrating original research but to inspire it.  It required a surpassing knowledge of science and of scientists to sit above warring groups and unify them.  A lesser man could not have done it.  Scientists are not necessarily cultured, especially in American.  Oppenheimer had to be.  The people who had been gathered here from so many parts of the world needed a great gentleman to serve under.  I think that's why they remember that golden time with enormous emotion.
Monk crafts his most compelling sections of narrative, in discussing the activities at Los Alomos in the context of World War II.  The questions of whether the bomb should be used against Japan, the opposition of some members of the scientific community, and whether the Russians should be informed of its development, conveys the tension of, what at the time, were life-and-death decisions. 

Oppenheimer's recollects Trinity - the successful test of the bomb - and Monk reveals how Oppenheimer's broad education cast him as the spokesperson for the conscience of 20th century science, which made possible wholesale destruction of human beings and their cities with the design of the atom bomb. 
A few people laughed, a few people cried.  Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. "  I suppose we all thought that one way or another.
Oppenheimer was tormented by his sense of responsibility and became an active opponent during the Cold War of the development of the hydrogen bomb - the next generation of war machine, estimated to be 450 times the strength of the atomic bombs which decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Following the war, Oppenheimer returned to his true passion - theoretical physics, but by leading annual conferences.  Physicist Abraham Pais remembers his brilliance in this role.
I had heard Oppenheimer speak before but had never yet seen him in action directing a group of physicists during their scientific deliberations.  At that he was simply masterful, interrupiting with leading questions (at physics gatherings interruptions are standard procedure), summarizing the main points just discussed, and suggesting how to proceed from there.
Oppenheimer also led Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study - promoting theoretical research and intellectual inquiry in the sciences and humanities.  A role for which he was ideally suited. Physicist Freeman Dyson recalled that he asked Oppenheimer his opinion of Poet T.S. Eliot, whom he invited to the Institute.
He replied that, though he loved Eliot's poetry and regarded him as a genius, he was disappointed with his stay at the institute.  "I invited Eliot here," Oppenheimer told Dyson, "in the hope that he would produce another masterpiece, and all he did here was to work on The Cocktail Party, the worst thing he ever wrote."
Would any other physicist have read enough Eliot to offer such a criticism?  Monk is frank about Oppenheimer's imperfections while admiring the unique blend of strengths which facilitated the nurturing some of the great scientific creative minds of the 20th century.  This biography would have been stronger had Monk found some organizing structure for his narrative to pull Oppenheimer's disparate qualities together.

No comments: