5. Oppie

Lawrence was a confident man, but he knew himself to be far stronger as an experimentalist than a theoretician. Having suffered, in 1932, the embarrassment of being scoffed at professionally by the likes of James Chadwick and Werner Heisenberg, Lawrence had retrenched intellectually, and had brought into his circle his Berkeley colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer. The initial stood for Julius, his father’s name, but no one called him that. His family called him Robert; fellow graduate students in Europe dubbed him ‘Oppie’. Oppenheimer grew up in privileged circumstances in Manhattan and on Long Island. His father, a German Jewish immigrant, found success in the New York City clothing trade. His mother, the daughter of immigrants, was a painter with a well-tuned aesthetic sense: Robert and his younger brother Frank lived in apartments and houses wherein hung paintings by Van Gogh and Renoir. Emotionally protected by his mother, and physically cosseted—he held up the start of his second-floor classes in school because he refused to climb stairs and would only take a balky elevator—Robert blossomed intellectually, showing an early interest in language, poetry, chemistry, and physics. Young for his class, he took a year off between high school and college, spending the summer of 1922 with friends in New Mexico, where he learned to ride a horse and where he first climbed the Jemez Mountains and saw the Los Alamos Ranch School, which was in the business of teaching and toughening overprivileged boys. Robert started at Harvard the following year. His appetite for work, or at least exposure to a variety of subjects, was prodigious, and he indulged himself by taking five courses and auditing five more each semester. ‘He retreated’, write his two most recent biographers, ‘into the security his powerful intellect assured.’ He chose, eventually, to focus on physics, training with the theoreticians Edwin C. Kemble and Percy Bridgman, the latter the realist who believed that science should be kept separate from politics. Robert had decided on a career path, he said, of the ‘purely useless’.21

He went off to Cambridge, the English one, hoping to work with Ernest Rutherford. Bridgman’s letter supporting him was qualified: Robert was a highly promising theorist, but weak ‘on the experimental side’. ‘It appears to me’, Bridgman concluded, ‘that it is a bit of a gamble as to whether Oppenheimer will ever make any real contributions of an important character, but if he does make good at all, I believe that he will be a very unusual success, and if you are in a position to take a small gamble without too much trouble, I think you will seldom find a more interesting betting proposition.’ Like Einstein and God, Rutherford did not throw dice. Robert ended up in the lab of J. J. Thomson, and only with the stipulation that he enroll in a course in laboratory technique; Robert admitted to an ‘inability to solder two copper wires together’. He was lonely in Cambridge, thought the lectures ‘vile’, and, while hiking along the cliffs of Brittany, he considered suicide. Things improved as he met other, younger physicists, and Cambridge also entertained Niels Bohr (who had appeared at Harvard when Oppenheimer was there) and Max Born. The latter thought Oppenheimer showed promise in quantum physics and invited him to Gottingen for the next academic year. Oppenheimer accepted. There, despite annoying Born by interrupting him during seminars and irritating some of his fellow students with what appeared to them as cultural and intellectual snobbery, Oppie found himself as a theoretical physicist. In 1927 he published with Born a paper on the quantum mechanics of molecules, and he finished his doctorate. He returned to the United States that fall with a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Research Council, teaching at Harvard for one semester then the California Institute of Technology in the spring. Ultimately he settled on a dual appointment at Caltech and Berkeley—then a ‘desert’ in physics and attractive to Oppenheimer as a place ‘to try to start something’.22

Lawrence had got to Cal first, and had begun to start something with his cyclotrons. He and Oppenheimer had personal lives ‘more complementary than similar’, as Herken puts it. Lawrence was a Lutheran from South Dakota who avoided profanity. Oppenheimer, an assimilated, or ambivalent, New York Jew, was a touchy, chainsmoking polymath who quoted (and wrote) poetry, took Sanskrit in his spare time, hosted at his hillside residences spirited parties lubricated by strong martinis, and cooked for his friends, with a zest Lawrence thought perverse, a Malay noodle dish called nasi goring (which Lawrence called ‘nasty gory’). They did not always get along. ‘Robert could make people feel they were fools,’ said Hans Bethe, the Cornell physicist who would play a key role at Los Alamos. ‘He made me, but I didn’t mind.’ (A dubious claim.) ‘Lawrence did... I think Robert would give Lawrence a feeling that he didn’t know physics, and since that is what cyclotrons are for, Lawrence didn’t like it.’ Lawrence resented the intrusion of Oppenheimer’s increasingly left-wing politics into the physics lab, as when Oppenheimer scribbled on the lab’s blackboard word of a benefit for the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. In general, though, the two men recognized their complementary strengths and worked together harmoniously. Lawrence would run his experiments, commanding apparatus with an expertise that Oppenheimer could not hope to match. Oppenheimer would interpret the results of these tests with recourse to a theoretical way of thinking that was alien to Lawrence. Oppenheimer wrote to his brother that he considered Lawrence ‘a marvelous physicist’; when Lawrence recommended Oppenheimer for promotion to full professor, he called him a ‘valued partner’ in the lab. The two men drove together to Death Valley during winter breaks. Lawrence sent roses to Oppenheimer’s dying mother in 1931, while the Lawrence children called Oppenheimer ‘Uncle Robert’ and looked forward to his visits.

No one questioned Oppenheimer’s brilliance. There was less conviction about the soundness of his physics. While many of his scientific colleagues, evidently less gifted, won Nobels or are remembered for insights of special profundity, few in the field recall today any professional paper written by Oppenheimer. (Perhaps his most notable contribution, David Cassidy concludes, was his prediction of collapsing stars that would be identified over three decades later as black holes.) His friend and colleague I. I. Rabi conjectured that Oppenheimer’s physics suffered from his knowledge of subjects outside his field, Hinduism in particular, which ‘surrounded him like a fog’ and so mystified his physics as to rob him of the confidence he needed to follow his scientific instincts and publish. He was better when he stood at a bigger canvas, synthesizing and interpreting the solid experimental work of others, seeing connections and organizing meetings of scientists whose work Oppenheimer, often alone, understood as intersecting. The broadly educated theoretician was also something of a scientific impresario, whose insight and good manners might override his arrogance.

As John Adams and Peter Sellars have recognized, there is an operatic quality to Oppenheimer’s life: its trajectory rose as the pampered boy genius got established in the international community of physicists, and then became the mastermind of the world’s first atomic bomb—after which it plummeted, as Oppenheimer’s own agonized doubts about his achievement, coupled with Cold War-inspired suspicions of his past political involvements, gave his enemies the chance to humiliate him, strip him of his fame, and leave him, like Sophocles’ Oedipus, to ‘live with every bitter thing’ until his death in 1967. This version of Oppenheimer’s life is, of course, too pat. Yet it is hard to miss the tragic quality of Oppenheimer’s story. Oppenheimer looked like a man who had known tragedy, inspiring comparisons to tormented religious figures; with his arrestingly blue eyes, his ‘halo’ of dark hair, and his thin, in times of stress nearly emaciated body, he looked, thought a friend, like one of the apostles in a Renaissance painting. Given at times to philosophical musing and self-doubt, Oppenheimer clearly felt guilty about his role in building the bomb, telling President Harry S. Truman, on 25 October 1945, that he (or, in some accounts, ‘we’) had blood on his (or ‘their’) hands. ‘Never mind,’ Truman later claimed he replied sarcastically. ‘It’ll all come out in the wash’; or the President may have given Oppenheimer a handkerchief to wipe the blood off. He had passed security clearances during the war and again in 1947. Using the same evidence unearthed then, but with the Cold War in full swing, the Atomic Energy Commission, in 1954, cast doubt on Oppenheimer’s loyalty and revoked his security clearance. Thereafter he lived in a sort of professional limbo, an uncomfortable symbol, for Americans and perhaps others, of scientific and technological success and moral ambivalence about the bomb.25

Much has been written about Oppenheimer’s politics and their role in the atomic and then the hydrogen bomb projects, and the subject is of limited relevance here. But there is perhaps one point to be made before moving on. Like many Americans, Robert Oppenheimer was associated during the 1930s with the Communist Party, and with individual Communists and causes that would later be stigmatized as Communist or Communist-affiliated. Robert’s brother Frank and Frank’s wife joined the Communist Party in 1937, and Robert’s serious girlfriend, Jean Tatlock, whom he met in 1936 and continued to see during the war, was in and out of the Party. Robert became, as noted, a supporter of the Spanish Loyalist cause, and he contributed money to several organizations that were said to have Communist sympathies, including the Consumers Union. Robert’s wife, Kitty, had been married to Joe Dallet, a Communist who died fighting in Spain, and Kitty herself had once been a Party member. And Robert was friendly with Haakon Chevalier, a member of Berkeley’s English department and a Party member, and acquainted with Steve Nelson, Dallet’s commander in Spain who turned up in 1941 as boss of the local branch of the Party. When questioned later about these associations, Oppenheimer was inconsistent and had difficulty remembering potentially incriminating meetings and conversations.26

Having digested much of the abundant recent biographical literature on Oppenheimer, Thomas Powers concludes that ‘Oppenheimer’s politics were ... —like his physics—mainly theoretical’. Oppenheimer had a streak of righteousness and a willingness to support groups that seemed to him to promote good causes, even while he naively blocked out other, less savory features of these groups. Communists supported social justice and the right side in Spain; that the ones running the Soviet Union murdered millions of their fellow citizens and signed on with Hitler in 1939 either did not register or did not signify. David Cassidy argues that Oppenheimer probably added ‘the cachet of communism to his portfolio as an intellectual bohemian’, and, though the metaphors mix awkwardly, the sentiment seems right. The Party’s ethos established a sense of community attractive to Americans left rootless by the experience of discrimination or religious assimilation, and this may have been its appeal for Oppenheimer. Many of his friends were Communists, and Oppenheimer’s ‘associations with Communists were a natural and socially seamless outgrowth of his sympathies and his station in life’, write Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Cassidy doubts that Oppenheimer actually joined the Communist Party. It was the folly and the tragedy of the Cold War to divide the world into strict categories of guilt (card-carrying Communists and fellow travelers) and innocence (patriotic Americans) and finally to sort Oppenheimer into the first. It is tempting to compare Oppenheimer’s politics to his sexuality: in his youth, he wrote wistfully erotic-sounding letters to his friend Francis Fergusson, and in Pasadena he evidently developed a crush on the chemist Linus Pauling. Yet he had girlfriends, married, and fathered children. As he defied simple sexual categorization, so he was intimate with Communists and liked some of what they were about. He did not, however, so far as one can tell, betray to the Soviets any secrets, or any information at all, concerning the bomb.27

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!