Field of Science

The aesthete

I had a great time visiting Santa Fe and Los Alamos over the weekend. At Los Alamos there is a nice little museum in Fuller Lodge, where the Manhattan Project scientists used to socialize on weekends. One of the amusing artifacts there is a set of two letters sent by Oppenheimer's secretary asking for a nail to be driven into the wall so that he could hang his hat. There is the first letter...and then there is the follow up.

It's remarkable that this intellectual aesthete did not have the practical drive to hammer a nail into the wall. One could not have imagined someone like Fermi or Feynman leaving the problem unattended for so long. In light of this it seems even more astonishing that a dyed-in-the-wool hands-off theoretician like Oppenheimer could not only direct a world-class group of Nobel Prize winning scientists and engineers to achieve the impossible in record time, but also keep the most practical details of an unimaginably vast project in his head. He even knew who was the best person in the country to manage the organic chemistry stockroom.

Physicist Victor Weisskopf of MIT said it well:
"He did not direct from the head office. He was intellectually and even physically present at each decisive step. He was present in the laboratory or in the seminar rooms, when a new effect was measured, when a new idea was conceived. It was not that he contributed so many ideas or suggestions; he did so sometimes, but his main influence came from something else. It was his continuous and intense presence, which produced a sense of direct participation in all of us; it created that unique atmosphere of enthusiasm and challenge that pervaded the place throughout its time"

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