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The bomb maker who self-destructed

American Prometheus The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin Alfred A. Knopf: 722 pp., $35

April 10, 2005|Gerald Holton | Gerald Holton is Mallinckrodt research professor of physics and research professor of the history of science at Harvard University and the author of several books, including "Einstein, History, and Other Passions" and "Victory and Vexation in Science."

Three days into the Atomic Energy Commission's 1954 hearings on physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance, the AEC prosecutor, Roger Robb, read from the transcript of a secretly recorded interrogation of Oppenheimer 11 years earlier and asked whether Oppenheimer had accurately represented a particular incident. "I think I said little more than that [chemical engineer George] Eltenton was somebody to worry about ... ," Oppenheimer responded. "Then I invented a cock-and-bull story...."

Robb: "You lied to him?"

Oppenheimer: "Yes.... "

Robb: "Why did you do that, Doctor?"

Oppenheimer: "Because I was an idiot."

Shortly afterward, Robb told a reporter how Oppenheimer had appeared to him at that moment: "hunched over, wringing his hands, white as a sheet ... I've just seen a man destroy himself." Indeed, after that three-week-long Orwellian travesty, resulting in the denial of Oppenheimer's clearance and the ending of his policy influence, his colleague I.I. Rabi summed it up: "They achieved their goal. They killed him."

Kai Bird ("The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms") and Martin J. Sherwin ("A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies") have written a masterful account of Oppenheimer's rise and fall, set in the context of the turbulent decades of America's own transformation. It is a tour de force, 25 years in the making. The authors had access to seemingly every archive and private letter, as well as to classified documents and phone taps, and conducted more than 100 interviews. "American Prometheus" offers full accounts of conspiracies, disputes at the atomic installation at Los Alamos, N.M., and President Truman's hasty and uninformed postwar decision to escalate vastly the arms race. It concludes with some 90 pages of meticulous documentation.

Most interesting to this reviewer is the authors' skillful revelation of Oppenheimer's fragmented soul. His vulnerability and theatrical brilliance are apparent in his second year at Harvard. In 1923, the 19-year-old writes to a former schoolteacher, "I labor, and write innumerable theses, notes, poems, stories and junk; I go to math lib[rary] and read and to the Phil[osophy] lib.... I make stenches in three different labs ... read Greek, commit faux pas, search my desk for letters, and wish I were dead. Voila." -- giving us a glimpse of the turmoil of competing elements in his persona, the bundle of roles, the unresolved conflicts between them. As August Strindberg once said of himself, Oppenheimer was afflicted by "this strange blending of the deepest melancholy and the most astonishing lightheartedness."

To those of us who knew Oppie (as most referred to him) in his later years, he would be brilliant, mesmerizing, eloquent and tender, but a few moments later naive, bewildered, self-demeaning or cruel. His frail body was nevertheless strong, his eyes extraordinarily blue, his speech florid, his interests universal.He was intellectually omnivorous (competent, for example, in Latin, Greek, French, German, Dutch, Italian and some Chinese and Sanskrit). But in crucial ways he came up short. From youth on, as when he sailed into worsening weather, he had an irresistible urge, bordering on the suicidal, to flirt with danger. Another bent that proved treacherous was that despite his aptitude as a theoretician, he (like most American physicists in the 1920s) decided early to become an experimentalist, though he proved clumsy in his college physics labs. Continuing experimental research at Cambridge University, he became increasingly susceptible to deep depressions and anxieties. Soon, worse symptoms appeared -- episodes of physical collapse and loss of emotional control. In autumn 1925, he left a poisoned apple on the desk of his head tutor, or at least said he had. The college authorities demanded he see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed dementia praecox and dismissed him as a hopeless case. His Cambridge friends, including Francis Fergusson, who had been with him in high school and Harvard, thought he would be able to handle himself, but out of the blue Oppie tried to strangle Fergusson.

When I heard of these episodes some years ago, I asked a Harvard colleague, the psychiatrist Erik Erikson, about the dementia praecox diagnosis. The same symptoms might more charitably have been called borderline schizophrenia, he said, noting that young people suffering from "chronic malignant disturbance" were in an identity crisis that could explode in arbitrary destructiveness. Oppenheimer himself later told Fergusson his troubles were caused by a collision between his experimental inabilities and "the awful fact of excellence."

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