Field of Science

The Odyssey of J. Robert Oppenheimer: A poem

The day you were born, the world died.
Died in glitter and grist, in skeletons and slogans.

Scenic Riverside Drive which bequeathed you to us.
Sparkling New York lent us its sordid dreams
To trample underfoot, like so many lost souls.
You were born of a merchant;
Of loathsome success,
Of a hurried past,
Whose pogroms pushed him into the future.

Precious, precocious little one
You lit up your mother's eyes.
Her arm you were coy about,
Gloved as it stayed, seemingly hiding
The misfortune of your future mischief.
Never to be spoken of
In that household of labored repute.

You went to the Ethical Culture School,
Where they taught the holy gospel.
A man is known not by his creed but by his deed.
A reformed Jew would know this, they said.
But what consequences that deed had,
Free floating things, of dubious character,
They never said
Or thought respectable to do so.

A mind of formidable power and reach,
That everyone knew from the beginning.
Painfully aware, plumbing minerals and poetry.
Grandpa Ben from the old German country,
Hands you a set of stones; birefringent, languidly green and blue.
I want to be good at many things, you say,
And still see the world through a tear-stained countenance.

At twelve you read Katherine Mansfield and Plato.
Sink deeper in your chair.
Ponder what men do when they make poetry and figure out politics.
You say, "Ask me a question in Latin, and I will answer.
In Greek."
You freak.
You're an unctuous, repulsively good little boy.

A gift to Ethical you are.
Driven by a chauffeur,
Waiting for the elevator.
Can your son please not, they plead,
Hold up the class.

They had their revenge, the boys from proper households,
Who, out in a camp in the Catskills, painted your genitals green,
Locked you in an icehouse.
Silently you bore the frigid embarrassment,
Out to prove yourself a man, embarrassed of your parents who rescued you,
For not giving you a normal, healthy way
To be a bastard.

Holding a valedictory flame, you set forth.
Ethical's motto, "Fiat lux", you take to heart,
Your light will set everything aglow,
In its own private, luminous agony.

An unholy constriction of the innards,
Sends you into bouts of pale melancholy,
The cavalry comes in the disguise
Of your English teacher, Herbert Smith,
To elevate you with mountains and air.

Go west, young man, away from those "bizzness" men,
To New Mexico, where the old ones speak.
To pueblos and horses and the sunset ablaze.
Joy alternating with conscious self-hatred,
An endearing quality all your life.
Smith asks you to fold a shirt,
"The tailor's son would know, won't he".

Harvard beckons, the Harvard of Ivy and anti-Semitism.
You raid the library, swallow Eliot and Baudelaire.
Exhaust yourself with Russell and Whitehead and Kant,
Pound the streets of Cambridge
With unrequited longings for girls and gentiles.
To prove you are still alive.

You write letters and poetry,
Solid efforts at vaporous endeavors,
Undertaken with disembodied spirituality.
Science is reassuring, tangible,
A refuge, a corner of your own.

Chemistry solidifies its hold over you,
The capacity for change and renewal.
Easy, you ask, for salt and sulfur.
Why does it escape human beings?

The golden age of physics is upon the world,
Bohr and Einstein and Rutherford; names in books.
What will they say, when you show them your wares?
Chemistry becomes physics, physics becomes soma.

In Cambridge, the New Zealand lion roars.
Sets you upon a gloriously numbing task,
Something to do with thin films of a metal oxide.
Splendid, you say, while your heart weeps.

Months of lugubrious effort in the lab.
You are clumsy at women and workmanship.
Gazing into the inky blackness of the Cam,
How wonderful it would be, you ask,
To bump myself off.

Your toils fail in the wilderness of error.
With old Cambridge friends you undertake
A voyage to Corsica.
Southern comfort for the wounded soul.
You travel over mountains and rivers,
Shielded by horses in the rain, violent vistas out there.
Assaulted by pangs of hunger, you light up.
Feels good, you say. I think I will keep the habit.
Suddenly you remember, you must go back.
There is the trivial matter, of ambition and murder,
A poisoned apple you kept on your tutor's desk,
Must be disposed of, before it causes a minor inconvenience.

Feverishly they send for the New Yorkers, who rush with great concern.
You will no longer try to poison your tutor, they promise the university,
In return for silence and a shrink,
Who diagnoses you with dementia praecox.
Friday finds you walking at a furious clip,
Contemptuous of the man, what kind of psychobabble?
Does he dabble in? I understand my own troubles better.

The Great Dane visits his favorite son,
Master of Theory meeting Master of Experiment.
Casually he comes over and asks,
"Are your difficulties experimental or conceptual"?
"I don't know".
"That's bad", he says.
But his avuncular, insipid sweetness perseveres.
The clog starts clearing up.

Eagerly you go to Göttingen, to the tutelage of Max Born.
Born; of thin skin, shrinking fear and complete mastery.
With Heisenberg he invented quantum theory,
Reduced the world to waves of probability.
"The point can be made more simply thusly", you say,
Grasping the chalk from Born's hands,
While he cowers in fear of your untutored cleverness.

Göttingen unfurls the colors of your creative soul.
Mathematics and equations come tumbling out.
So do Dante and Goethe and Nietzsche.
Glowing embers of the intellect,
Surrounded by international scientists
And national socialists.

From the world over come savants and penniless wanderers,
To dive into the depths of the alien world.
They come from Rome and Cambridge, Leiden and Warsaw.
Benighted, intellectual altar boys, eyes full of wonderment.
Arguing, calculating, wandering among scenic streets and mountains.
Parked in a land nursing old wounds, creeping toward the precipice.

You befriend most; they regard you with jealousy and admiration.
The most austere one, Dirac, regards your crisscrossings with impatience.
How can you work, he asks, at both poetry and physics?
In physics we try to explain something that was not clear before.
In poetry it is the exact opposite.
You pity Dirac's exact mind; how could it fathom
The part where the humans who create science matter.

Triumphant from your glorious explorations you come home.
King of the atomic realm; a thicket of papers; the old guard calling.
Harvard and Princeton, Caltech and Berkeley, you feign considered respect.
Berkeley sounds interesting, a desert in the middle of civilization, you call it.
Your mission, should you choose it, is to bring physics to the barbarians.

You make your bed, you sleep here.
Should civilization come undone, as it seems to be,
This is where you make your last stand,
Among partial differential equations and scattering matrices.
You buy a fast steed, name it Garuda, for the Hindu god of speed,
It terrifies your friends; the speed of your own mind awes them.

The universe is your playground, physics alone never satisfied you.
Arthur Ryder, old soul with a laconic mind, infused with Eastern philosophy.
With him you read the Bhagavad Gita in the original.
Princes and duty, detachment and effort,
The fire in your heart glows brighter every day.

Gradually the world takes notice, the center of physics starts shifting.
You get a new friend with a pragmatic, earthy mind.
Aw shucks, says Ernest Lawrence; he works sixteen-hour days,
As his new cyclotron accelerates particles to the end of kingdom come.
Lawrence and you, you make a fine team, politics aside.
What does politics have to do with beauty, purity and truth anyway?

They come to you as they came to Born.
Eager schoolboys burning with intellectual thirst.
Living on cat food, from depression-ridden Oklahoma and Philadelphia.
You introduce them to an unfamiliar life.
Spicy food and martinis, Beethoven and Sanskrit.
Late night ruminations reverberating against the silent hills.
Mesmerizing sermons on truth and quantum electrodynamics.
The cigarette always lit, the mind finishing others' sentences.
Your wealthy father's trust fund allowing you to feign asceticism.

The brilliance marked by casual cruelty,
The Beastliness, you call it. An old friend.
Generously offered, seldom controlled.
You cut them down to size;
They learn at your feet.

With your students you gaze upwards into cosmic rays
And downwards into the vacuous space
Inside collapsing stars.
You Trump the Europeans at their own game,
The world beats a reluctant path to your door.
They will no longer have to make pilgrimages
To Göttingen and Cambridge.
Home is where the good stuff is.
You have put America on the map.

And yet you don't always pursue
Your soaring ideas to their logical ends.
Later others will say you hesitated;
A first rate mind which could have achieved more.
You remain enamored with detachment.
Perhaps you should have studied the Talmud after all.

The world around you collapsing,
Communism the one fond hope.
Parched minds begging to be watered,
Looking for redemption from
The wretchedness of self-interest.
You plunge in yourself,
While never making sense of Communist dogma.
But the die has been cast.

One parched mind belongs to Jean Tatlock.
Lithe, with a smoldering passion
For ideas and depressive thoughts,
John Donne living rent free inside her head.
A tumultuous relationship, simmering,
At the edge of sanity, sometimes.

Your own brother, sometimes soulmate,
The one you lectured on the virtue of discipline,
Discipline undertaken for its own sake.
Feckless Frank joins the party.
You dissuade and dissemble,
In the prison of your own uncertainty.

The unstable Jean discourages you,
You seek succor in other arms.
Kitty Harrison, twice divorced,
Cradling the lost memory of her husband,
Killed fighting Franco in Spain,
A good communist.
It all adds up, the stars aligned.
You become a family man,
You could get used to encroaching normalcy.

Events overtake the best-laid plans.
War and peace, but war always wins.
A dingy laboratory in Berlin
Steals a secret from Nature's bosom.
A squadron of grinning pilots
Carpet an island with death and blood.

When can you stop, asks Lawrence,
This political nonsense?
Truth and honesty being a small price,
To pay for fame and fortune.
We want you.
We want you to save the world.

The future calls with its crooked smile,
Will you come join our little project?
Will the King don his armor,
And fulfill the goal destiny has thrust on him?
The verdict of his grandchildren be damned.

You team up with a gruff general. Blistering efficiency.
The house of principles is a house of cards.
Sure I'll be a commissioned officer, you say,
Until cooler heads threaten to resign.
Your friends remain important to you.
For now.

A millennial weapon, as yet unshaped.
A figment of men's wild imagination.
Would it end a madman's jackbooted visions?
They ask for an isolated place.
Where a bang will sound like a whimper.
You thought it a pity physics and desert country
Could never be combined.
You were wrong.

A great city arises in the middle of the desert,
Untamed, wrung out of infant uncertainty.
Coated with the gloss of brutal aspirations.
Barbed wire, secrecy, the gnarled green of the army.
Did we leave Berlin and come here for this, ask the refugees?
Thankfully, they say in thick European accents,
Soon there may be no Berlin.

Until then, the mountains provide solace.
The desert air stirs something elemental in you.
You take over with a whirlwind of enthusiasm,
Entrust the initiation to your close associate with the lisp.

You have wrested free discussion from the general
With great effort and cloying pleas.
You are a good soldier.

"The object of this project
Is to create a practical weapon in the form of a bomb."
Leave behind your particles and fields,
Except as precision instruments of mass murder.
And spare me your talk of morality,
Says famous, friendly Fermi,
When it's all superb physics.

A constellation of egghead geniuses, diverted from their life's goals.
Fleeing from a world gone half mad to the crucible of freedom.
In which they now forge this weapon which can end freedom.
Brainstorming neutrons and diffusion,
Lenses and implosion.
The mechanics of annihilation
Never embodied such fine craftsmanship.

Dancing, devilish dervish Edward Teller,
Visions of megatons in his head.
Just let me know how big you want it,
I can make it so.
Quickly though, I have to get back to my piano,
And raise Bach from the dead.
My neighbors' sleep be damned,
The world really needs to wake up now.

Gently you soothe these rumpled egos,
Feynman and Groves and even terrible Teller;
They call you the best director they have seen.
Everything has a home in your mind;
The problems of pregnant women.
The high fertility rate.
The height of detonation.
How to turn humans to embers.

The Great Dane arrives one March,
His presence a reassurance
That you may be able to redeem yourself after all.
This could be the weapon to end all wars, says Bohr,
If mankind gets tired of killing, that is.
But whatever else transpires between
The devil and angel of fate,
Don't forget, until then,
It's all superb physics.

There is no solution without a test.
You know where it has to happen.
A desolate scrub of land at the end of time,
The Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of Death,
Which never looked so full of promise.
The name should be logical; Trinity.
In deference to the mystical Donne
And his disciple Jean Tatlock.
Poor, wretched Jean,
Who could not blind the demons in her mind,
Until they were immersed in a tub full of water.

What burdens men's hearts may bear,
Are drowned out in the din of a downpour,
Trying to desperately wash away the vulgarities,
About to be visited on this primeval landscape.

The cigarettes have started to show their power.
The chronic cough racks up your inner desires.
The Gita speaks to you; convenient balm for your sins.
You tell everyone that in the middle of javelins and arrows,
The good that men do sustains them.
Philosophy can perhaps wipe away the stain of physics.

The lever thrown, the sunglasses donned,
The future triggered irrevocably,
Set in murderous motion.
At the chosen hour the heavens rumble,
Nuclei split, the elemental light shines.
It bores and pounces,
Tracelessly drills into your conscience,
Proclaims obscenity,
In a boiling cauldron of neutrons.
Invented by the one species,
Capable of shaping its future,
Which having worshipped the sun,
Now strives to create its own.

The hand tears away from the face,
Streaked with tears.
You always wanted to be the man
Who saw the world through a tear-stained countenance.
At first, Donne.
"Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you 
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend 
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new." 

Then Krishna, inaugurating death in our times.
"I am become death, destroyer of worlds."
"I am time, destroyer of worlds."
It must feel mighty good to be Krishna.

Then silence, jubilation, indifference to the ghost in the machine.
The best compliment, from a man named Bainbridge.
"We are all sons of bitches."
You have finally found a healthy way
To be a bastard.

The war is over; the scientists are going home.
They have been good soldiers, dutiful sons.
But you have tasted power
And spat out the morsels of fame.
It feels good.
The thread constricts you tighter.

What does it matter
That a hundred thousand souls
Were burnt, beaten, and irradiated to death.
War does these things to men.
They killed ours, we killed theirs.
A simple moral calculus.
Maybe we will finally stop killing
Because of this great adventure we took part in.
What a marvelous time it was.

A great power rises to the East,
Fuelled by similar ambitions,
To enslave the dirt of humanity,
Through the precise application of science.
You plead with the leader of the free world,
Confess your guilt.
A crybaby scientist, he says.
The blood is on his hands, not yours, he says.
Get him out of here, he says.

Hostile men, enamored with power,
Resentful of your silver tongue and fame.
You are too clever for your own good.
Goading them, mocking them,
Making them aware
Of their own frailties.
They wait and watch.

An even bigger force of nature looms,
Engineered by devilish dervish Teller.
Having raised Bach from the dead,
He now raises Hell about the new danger.
He's paranoid, shaped by childhood trauma.
His scheme will make your invention
Look like a parlor trick.
Fusion instead of fission,
Coming together instead of breaking apart,
Will rent the world asunder.

The Eastern promise claims its own morbid authority.
The laws of nature are not privy only to the West.
Paranoia sweeps through the land
Like a miasma extolling urgent action.
You despair, you warn.
Answering in kind
Only breeds more hatred.
You would know.
You started it.

The paranoia claims its victims.
Mob justice ignoring reason.
Your own pupils fall prey to it.
But what are old bonds
Compared to new horizons.
And when they come for your pupils,
You betray them to save your hide,
Call them radicals,
Ignoring your own radical past.
And who will speak for you
When they come for you?

They come swiftly and surely,
Embattled, resentful, seeing treason.
Your position of privilege rattled,
Your loyalties questioned,
Your past newly scrutinized.
They say you are the Mandarin
Who with his silver tongue and powers of persuasion,
Is striking a blow against his country's monopoly,
On its exclusive capability to kill other human beings.

You decide to fight.
You are the good soldier.
An unctuous, repulsively good little boy.

On trial you go,
Warped arguments digging up past indiscretions,
Of friends betrayed, lies and equivocations.
It didn't matter before, but the world has changed.
You were the man who changed it.

Men of the law running roughshod over it, hiding evidence used against you.
No chauffeur to drive you to school this time.
You remember the character of Karna from the Mahabharata.
At the opportune moment his knowledge of weapons deserts him.
What happened to your quick mind? Its dazzling sweep?
At this time it seems more appropriate
To lie catatonic on the couch.

Your friends come to your aid,
And the devilish dervish Teller damns you.
But no friend can save you from
The moral morass you created,
Which clutches souls in its tentacles,
And averts the gaze of history
By distracting it with visions of glory.

The axe falls swiftly,
Expertly wielded by the man of the law.
"Doctor, why did you lie?", he asks.
"Because I was an idiot", you say.
You were an idiot.
You were a son of a bitch.
We are all sons of bitches.

You are done, you are spent,
You lie sprawling on the battlefield
Wrapped in the robes of self-inflicted sin,
Your role in history subverted by the unrelenting
Machinery of maniacal power.

Men and women still come to you, seeking advice and attention,
Wanting to let some of your bloodied wisdom
Sprinkle on themselves.
They want you to lick your war wounds,
To wring your hands
In their presence.
But you won't.
Not when you know
You did your duty with detachment.

They still try to string up your liver
On the hard wire of original guilt.
And you say to them;
Yes, I gave you Hiroshima,
But you gave us Guernica and Dresden,
And Hamburg and Tokyo,
Manmade death borne of the same mother,
And you call me Father of the Bomb.

Your intellect still commands
Wide attention and benign admiration,
But you cannot help but think of yourself
As a cast off piece of wood.
Once supporting a mighty house,
Now drifting silently on the waves.

Now your body is beaten.
The puff that quieted those hunger pangs
Has finally caught up with you.
The cancer spreading rapidly,
Claiming territory cell by cell.
It's all fields and particles in the end.

You wait with bated breath for the end to come.
Your body weakens, your spirit strengthens.
Eyes sunken, bones visible, frame invisible.
And as mind and body fail, you still think of Donne.
And Eliot.
And Krishna.
And Eliot and Krishna.
You think of those fragments from your life
That you have shored against your ruins.
May those fragments give you peace,
May those fragments give you Shantih.

Shantih, shantih, shantih.

My latest column for 3 Quarks Daily.

2 comments:

  1. I haven't noticed it was so long until I read it. Thanks, there is something haunting about it (in a good way though;).

    ReplyDelete

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