Book Review: Inside the Centre
Ray Monk’s biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer unravels the science, if not the human relationships, in this idiosyncratic life
Is a man better understood through his work or through his personal relationships? Do we "get" Wittgenstein through his philosophy than through his life? Can we ever understand Shakespeare through his plays alone when we know so little of his life? Does a person’s character shine through in his work more than his letters to his family? If so, is that also true of scientists?
These are the questions Ray Monk sets out to answer in Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer. There have been a glut of books in recent years about the "father of the atomic bomb," most notably Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
With competition like this, one wonders why there’s a need for yet another doorstopper-sized tome on the controversial physicist. Monk justifies his science-intensive approach in his introduction: "We cannot claim to understand Oppenheimer unless we have at least some understanding of his work." His earlier biographies about Bertrand Russell and the aforementioned Ludwig Wittgenstein took this approach, explaining lives through work, and here, the work is certainly cut out for Monk; particle physics isn’t exactly light reading.
Born in 1904, Oppenheimer grew up in the comforts of Upper West Side Manhattan. Educated at Harvard, Cambridge and Göttingen, he developed a reputation as preternaturally brilliant, if a little odd. He wrote poetry, short stories and was well-versed in French and Sanskrit. (His famous remark after the first test of an atomic bomb, "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds," was taken from the Bhagavad Gita.)
The picture of the young Oppenheimer is reminiscent of the character Sheldon Cooper in the TV show The Big Bang Theory: brilliant in physics, completely inept in social situations. In one instance, a graduate student Oppenheimer was out with phoned the police when he left her in his car at 4 a.m., having apparently disappeared. It turned out he had gone for a walk and, forgetting he had even been on a date, simply went home to bed. Another story has him volunteering to provide food for a Berkeley physics department picnic, but only cooked enough of a disgusting-tasting Indian dish for one mouthful per person; enough, he thought, for everyone to be satisfied.
But for all his eccentricities, Oppenheimer knew how to be at the right place at the right time. When he was appointed scientific director of the Manhattan Project, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, whose goal was the construction of an atomic bomb, the list of scientists under him reads like a who’s-who of mid-20th century physicists: Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, Edward Teller, Richard Feynman.
The project had a difficult task ahead. The bomb design had to be built alongside the discovery of the nuclear science used to explode it, making the whole task similar to constructing an airplane while it’s in flight. Additionally, two different bomb designs were prepared, but only one – a plutonium-fueled implosion device nicknamed "The Gadget" – had time to be tested.
The Trinity Test on 16 July, 1945 marked the beginning of the atomic age. Three weeks later, the first atomic weapon was dropped on Hiroshima, causing hundreds of thousands of casualties and unimagined suffering.
Oppenheimer’s fame from the project landed him a position as the chief advisor of the newly-created U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which was tasked with the peaceful development of nuclear power. At the time, Oppenheimer was one of the most well-known and respected scientists in the world, his pork-pie hat as characteristic as wavy white hair was to Einstein. All of which made it all the more shocking when his security clearance was revoked in 1954.
Ever since his days as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, he had been under suspicion of being a communist. His politics were left-leaning and by his own admission he "probably belonged to every communist front organisation on the West Coast." But Oppenheimer was anything but a Soviet spy. Despite 30 years of FBI surveillance, he was never proven to have been a Communist Party member. Though his devotion to the U.S. was unwavering, many wanted him to suffer the same fate as fellow Manhattan Project scientist Karl Fuchs, who was convicted of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets. In the midst of the Red Scare in the early 1950s, that was enough for AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss to initiate allegations of Oppenheimer being a risk to national security.
It also didn’t help his case that in his position at the AEC, Oppenheimer had been urging the government against the creation of the more powerful hydrogen bomb as well as being more open with the Soviet Union with nuclear technology, two politically unpopular opinions at the time. He reasoned that if each nation held on to its own scientific secrets, an arms race would be inevitable.
By the time the month-long trial was over, his security clearance had been taken away and his time at the top of the AEC was over – effectively ending his influence on public life and severely damaging his reputation. He eventually recovered, but his days of having a voice in science and politics were over.
Inside the Centre’s interpretations of science range from analogies ("If an atom were the size of a golf course, then the nucleus would be the size of just one of its holes.") to the more mind-stretching ("The penetrative particle in cosmic rays is not the carrier of a ‘strong nuclear force’ - that is another particle somewhat like it."). Still, most readers will come away with a much more comfortable grasp on particle physics.
Monk fills his book with little details that are unlikely to be found in other biographies about the physicist. One that comes to mind is Oppenheimer’s boyhood home at 155 Riverside Drive in Manhattan was also the apartment used in the NBC television sitcom Will & Grace.
For all these tidbits and science explanations, however, Inside The Centre gives only the briefest of looks at Oppenheimer’s personal life, namely his relationship with his wife and two children. The final chapter touches on these areas, but they come too late; by then we know more about how Oppenheimer felt about mesons, those nearly invisible sub-atomic particles, than his own family. But given the physicist’s lifelong distance from others, that may well have been intentional.
For Oppenheimer, in the end, people were not the main story.
See Kaffeehaus Interview with Ray Monk, p. 32
Inside the Centre:
The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer
by Ray Monk
Jonathan Cape (2012) p. 818