Review of Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray Monk

by / 1 Comment / 199 View / July 17, 2014

“If I cannot be comforted by Vishnu’s argument to Arjuna, it is because I am too much a Jew, much too much a Christian, much too much a European, far too much an American. For I believe in the meaningfulness of human history and of our role in it, and above all of our responsibility to it.” J. Robert Oppenheimer, speech in 1960.

This summer, one of the books I had the good fortune to read was a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, written by Ray Monk. I already had some rudimentary knowledge of Oppenheimer, due to his role as the Scientific Director of the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory which developed the world’s first atomic bomb, but I was eager to learn more about him—especially because the oblique references I’ve heard of him made him seem like an interesting person. I was not disappointed.

Ray Monk is the critically acclaimed biographer of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, so the quality of the biography did not surprise me. I was, however, greatly impressed by how well Monk—and therefore us as readers—got to know Oppie. Monk invests a considerable amount of space in describing the upper class, Upper West Side, New York City environment Robert grew up in, with particular emphasis to his Jewish heritage. Of course, Oppenheimer was quite precocious, but Monk pays close attention to his collection of contradictory traits: he could be arrogant, yet had confidence crises. He had underdeveloped social skills, yet many would see him as charismatic. These “splinters” of personality crystalize to create a wonderful, multi-faceted, and—most importantly—genuine gem which we can peer into and examine deeply to try to understand the motives, flaws, and brilliance of Dr. Oppenheimer.

Of the more fascinating facets of Robert’s early life other than his personality is the wide breadth of his knowledge. A true Renaissance man, Oppenheimer was well read across multiple disciples, commanded mastery of multiple foreign languages (he learned Sanskrit in his late twenties so he could read the early Hindu epics like the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads in their original language), appreciated the arts (except music), and was a brilliant physicist to boot.

One of my favorite anecdotes from the biography involves Oppenheimer’s time at college. Oppenheimer enrolled at Harvard University to study Chemistry. He was attracted to Physics during his time at Harvard and at the end of his first year, applied for admission into some graduate classes without having any previous Physics education save a single high school class. His justification for skipping straight to the graduate level was that he had read a long list of physics textbooks and manuals—a list which he included in his application—independently, making him qualified. That list included various up-to-date and high-level textbooks, and one of the Harvard professors said in response, “Obviously if he says he’s read these books, he’s a liar, but he should get a Ph.D. for knowing their titles.” He was admitted into the graduate level classes.

In 1942, Oppenheimer became the Scientific Director of the Los Alamos research laboratory, dedicated to producing a nuclear weapon before Germany. I was astonished to learn that Oppie’s role at Los Alamos was mostly administrative. Even though he is known as the “Father of the Atom Bomb,” he did not make any major scientific contributions to the research. Instead, he—quite brilliantly, especially for someone with no prior administrative experience—organized discussions, brought ideas together, and lifted the morale of the scientists. The results speak for themselves. Even more shocking to me was to learn of Robert’s role after WWII concluded. Oppenheimer was actually the lead advisor to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, helping to devise postwar atomic energy policy and attempting to limit nuclear arms proliferation and the nuclear weapons race, opposing the development of thermonuclear weapons. He remained dedicated to this cause, even as he made enemies with the U.S. military establishment and was wiretapped and spied upon by the FBI for alleged Soviet sympathies.

Monk really transformed my perception of J. Robert Oppenheimer and opened up windows of his life for my viewing pleasure. For instance, Oppenheimer’s greatest contribution to theoretical physics was a paper he wrote on black holes and neutron stars in 1939, something I had no knowledge about, because I had always thought of him mainly as the “Father of the Atom Bomb.” However, as already mentioned, his theoretical contributions to the development of the atomic bomb were quite minimal. The amount of scientific detail Monk goes into is very appropriate: more than an average layperson would be familiar with, but less detail than someone with a physics background would prefer, yet technical enough to understand what was going on—in short, perfect for me.

Monk really encourages the reader to understand Robert on an emotional and intellectual level. My only criticism is the sheer volume of people and dates involved. While I understand that these are important, Oppenheimer met so many people that it became really easy to forget who people were and lose track of the time and place involved; I sometimes felt that the page was swimming with a list of names and dates. However, I do strongly recommend this book to anyone seeking to gain a greater understanding of Oppenheimer himself, or even of the development of physics—especially nuclear physics, but even just theoretical physics as a whole—in the early to mid-1900s. His brilliant intellect, barely knit-together personality, and immense patriotism make him—to me at least—a figure of great interest about whom it is worthwhile to learn about.

  • John Doe

    great article! It is always fascinating to know how the greatest thinkers lived and thought