On American Prometheus

I just recently finished reading American Pometheus – The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer – by Kai  Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. This Pulitzer Prize winner tells  the many dimensions of The Man and The Project which are unknown to most of us.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Oppenheimer’s approach to learning physics was eclectic, even haphazard. He focused on the most interesting, abstract problems in the field, bypassing the dreary basics. Years later, he confessed to feeling insecure about the gaps in his knowledge. “To this day,” he told an interviewer in 1963, “I get panicky when I think about a smoke ring or elastic vibrations. There’s nothing there—just a little skin over a hole. In the same way my mathematical formation was, even for those days, very primitive.,, I took a course from [J. E.] Littlewood on number theory—well, that was nice, but that wasn’t really how to go about learning mathematics for the professional pursuit of physics.”

However weirdly unintelligible—today as much as then—to the average citizen, quantum physics nevertheless explains our physical world. As the physicist Richard Feynman once observed, “[Quantum mechanics] describes nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it fully agrees with experiment. So I hope you can accept nature as She is— absurd.” Quantum mechanics seems to study that which doesn’t exist—but nevertheless proves true. It works. In the decades to come, quantum physics would open the door to a host of practical inventions that now define the digital age, including the modem personal computer, nuclear power. genetic engineering, and laser technology (from which we get such consumer products as the CD player and the bar-code reader commonly used in supermarkets). If the youthful Oppenheimer loved quantum mechanics for the sheer beauty of its abstractions, it was nevertheless a theory that would soon spawn a revolution in how human beings relate to the world.

In the late 1930s, Robert Oppenheimer found himself in the center of things. And that’s where he wanted to be. “Everything that happened,” said Kamen, “you’d go to Oppenheimer, and tell him what it was and he would think about it and come up with an explanation. He was the official explainer.” And then, beginning in 1941, Oppenheimer had some reason to think that he was being kept out of the loop. “All of a sudden,” Kamen said, “nobody’s talking to him. He’s out of it. There’s something big going on over there, but he doesn’t know what it is. And so he was getting more and more frustrated and Lawrence is very worried because he feels that, after all, Oppenheimer can certainly figure out what’s going on, so the security is nonsense to keep him out of it. Better to have him in. And I imagine that’s what finally happened; they said it’s easier to monitor him if he’s inside the project than outside.’

But if Rabi was already thinking about the moral consequences of an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer, in the midst of this war, for once had no patience for the metaphysical. He now brushed aside his friend’s objection. “I think if I believed with you that this project was ‘the culmination of three centuries of physics,’ ” he wrote Rabi, “I should take a different stand. To me it is primarily the development in time of war of a military weapon of some consequence. I do not think that the Nazis allow us the option of [not] carrying out that development.” Only one thing mattered now to Oppenheimer: building the weapon before the Nazis did.

Late in the summer of 1943, Oppenheimer explained his views on security to a Manhattan Project security officer: “My view about the whole damn thing, of course, is that the [basic] information we are working on is probably known to all the governments that care to find out. The information about what we’re doing is probably of no use because it is so damn complicated.” The danger, he said, was not that technical information about the bomb might leak to another country. The real secret was “the intensity of our effort” and the scale of the “international investment involved.” If other governments understood the resources America was throwing into the bomb effort, they might attempt to duplicate the bomb project. Oppenheimer didn’t think even this knowledge would “have any effect on Russia,” but “it might have a very big effect on Germany, and I am as convinced about that… as everyone else is.”

For Bohr, it was the communitarian culture of scientific inquiry that produced progress, rationality and even peace. “Knowledge is itself the basis of civilization,” he wrote. “[but] any widening of the borders of our knowledge imposes an increased responsibility on individuals and nations through the possibilities it gives for shaping the conditions of human life.” It followed that in the postwar world each nation had to feel confident that no potential enemy was stockpiling atomic weapons. That would only be possible in an “open world” where international inspectors had full access to any military and industrial complexes and full information about new scientific discoveries.

Bomb-building was more engineering than theoretical physics. But Oppenheimer was as singularly adept at marshaling his scientists to overcome technical and engineering obstacles as he had been at stimulating his Students to new insights at Berkeley. “Los Alamos might have succeeded without him,” Hans Bethe later said, “but certainly only with much greater strain, less enthusiasm, and less speed. As it was, it was an unforgettable experience for all the members of the laboratory.

Speaking in a low, quiet voice, he expressed his hope that in the years ahead everyone associated with the lab’s work would be able to look back on their achievements with pride. But on a sober note, he warned, ”Today that pride must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.”

No one left the auditorium that night unmoved. Oppie had spoken to them on intimate terms, articulating many of their doubts, fears and hopes. For decades afterwards, his words would resonate. The world he had described was as subtle and complicated as the quantum world of the atom itself. He had begun humbly, and yet, like the best of politicians, he had spoken a simple truth that cut to the core of the issue. The world had changed; Americans would behave unilaterally at their peril.

For nearly five years, Oppenheimer had tried to use his prestige and Status as a celebrity scientist to influence Washington’s growing national security establishment from the inside. His old friends on the left, men like Phil Morrison, Bob Serber and even his own brother had warned him that this was a futile gamble. He had failed in 1946, when the Acheson Lilienthal plan for international control over atomic bombs was sabotaged by President Truman’s appointment of Bernard Baruch. And now, once again, he had failed to persuade the president and members of his Administration to turn their back on what Conant had described to Acheson as “the whole rotten business.” The Administration now supported a program to build a bomb 1,000 times as lethal as the Hiroshima weapon. Still, Oppenheimer would not “upset the applecart.” He would remain an insider— albeit one who was increasingly outspoken and increasingly suspect.

For a few years after World War II, scientists had been regarded as a new class of intellectuals, members of a public-policy priesthood who might legitimately offer expertise not only as scientists but as public philosophers. With Oppenheimer’s defrocking, scientists knew that in the future they could serve the state only as experts on narrow scientific issues. As the sociologist Daniel Bell later observed, Oppenheimer’s ordeal signified that the postwar “messianic role of the scientists” was now at an end. Scientists working within the system could not dissent from government policy, as Oppenheimer had done by writing his 1953 Foreign Affairs essay. and still expect to serve on government advisory boards. The trial thus represented a watershed in the relations of the scientist to the government. The narrowest vision of how American scientists should serve their country had triumphed.

After the memorial service in Princeton on February 25, 1967, Oppenheimer was memorialized once again in the spring at a special session of the American Physical Society in Washington. Isidor Rabi, Bob Serber, Victor Weisskopf and several others spoke. Rabi later wrote an introduction for the speeches, which were subsequently collected and published in book form. ‘In Oppenheimer,” he wrote, “the element of earthiness was feeble. Yet it was essentially this spiritual quality, this refinement as expressed in speech and manner, that was the basis of his charisma. He never expressed himself completely. He always left a feeling that there were depths of sensibility and insight not yet revealed.”

A highly recommended book in the areas of physics, politics and foreign relations.


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