Field of Science


Jeremy Bernstein obviously admires J. Robert Oppenheimer. This is not surprising. Almost everyone who came in contact with his sparkling intellect idolised him. In the 1930s, as a Professor at Berkeley, his students were so awestruck by him, that they could frequently be seen imitating his mannerisms. There were a few who loathed him for his high brow attitude and sharp tongue. In fact, people who met him could roughly be divided into the above two categories. However, the latter formed an exception. The result is that he is generally considered by everyone who had known him, whether it was the janitor at Los Alamos, or Nobel Laureates, as an exceptionally brilliant intellect, and one who also had acute insight into human nature and the consequences of the atomic age.
Now in this new biography, Bernstein brings his well known skills at chronicling famous scientists to bear upon this remarkable man. There have been a few biographies of him so far. Probably the one by Peter Michelmore is most compelling. (The Swift Years: The Robert Oppenheimer Story)The closest that one can get to knowing him well is through his touching and insightful collection of letters, chronicled by Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner.(Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections) But almost forty years after his death in 1967, what made him tick still seems a mystery. Was it his innate charisma and the blue, innocent, harrowing glare of his eyes, or his lightning fast mind? Was it his incredible knowledge about all things intellectual, from physics to Dante to the Bhagavad Gita? Was it his mesmerising command over the English language, a mixture of spell binding and obscure words, that drew hundreds to his lectures? Or was it his role as the Hamlet and conscience of the atomic age? Certainly all these factors contributed, but Robert Oppenheimer is still not completely unraveled.
However, Bernstein makes a sincere and moving attempt to do this. He is very well qualified for the task. Over the years, he has written extremely informative and entertaining biographies of physicists. He is also a well trained physicist himself and has worked at some of the better known centres of physics in the world-Harvard, Los Alamos and the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Most importantly, he worked at this famous institute at a time when Oppenheimer was its director and some of the most acclaimed scientists were flocking there to work at the frontiers of knowledge. Bernstein does not intend this book to be a biography of Oppenheimer. Instead, he says that this is 'The biographical column for the New Yorker which he never wrote.' Bernstein focuses on the main events in Oppenheimer's life which gives the reader much insight into his human nature. He begins every chapter with a curious and affectionate anecdote about his life. Like the time when the absent minded professor went on a car ride on a moonlit night with one of his female students, and then got out for a stroll and walked all the way back to his home, completely forgetting about her. Or warm recollections about the great man from some of the people who knew him the best- fellow Nobel Prize winning physicist and friend Isidor Rabi for example. The most interesting part of the book probably is the one that sheds light on Oppenheimer's tenure as director of the Institute for Advanced Study, one of the most acclaimed intellectual ivory towers in the world, where Bernstein had an opportunity to observe Oppenheimer almost daily. The stories of the odd men and women who worked there during the 1950's make entertaining reading. For example, here's a hilarious exchange between an aggressive young American mathematician (AM) and an elderly French mathematician (FM) which Bernstein overhears:

AM: Prof. Leray, do you watch any movies?
FM: Silence
AM: What about gangster movies, Prof. Leray? BANG BANG?
FM: Silence
AM: Do you have gangsters in France, Prof. Leray?
FM: Yes, but they constitute the Government.

There were many similar small anectodes in this book which I did not know. The main focus in all of this is the towering intellect at the head of the institute. Bernstein discusses the warmth behind many of the small favours that Oppenheimer did for others, and the formal notes which he sometimes used to post on the notice board ('Members are kindly requested to play touch football out of earshot of the library'). Bernstein also discusses Oppenheimer's security clearance hearing, a painful event for him and his family, and a shameful act on the part of certain members of the Government. All through the book, the author brings an honest, personal perspective to the life of this great man, one who did commit follies in his life, but which I think should be excused in light of the great positive influence he had on people around him and on science in America. In that era of distrust and bitterness, Robert Oppenheimer was a guiding light to everyone and a champion of freedom, full of insight, compassion and understanding. It is important that he be remembered in the same spirit that Einstein and Russell are remembered. Bernstein's book helps tells us why.

“There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as [we] are free to ask what [we] must, free to say what [we] think, free to think what [we] will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer

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