Robert Oppenheimer lives in the American imagination as a symbol of the power, the glory and the (surprisingly) humbling experience of doing Big Science. The classic instance is the making of the atomic bomb, the outcome of the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer, as the scientific director of the project, played perhaps the decisive role in delivering a working atomic weapon, which President Harry Truman ordered to be used, with devastating effects, against two Japanese cities.
Oppenheimer never objected to the use of the atomic bomb, nor did he ever regret his pre-eminent role in creating the most terrifying weapon the world had ever known. This patriotic American’s tragedy was to support a delay, if not an outright ban, on the next generation of nuclear weapons, the so-called hydrogen bomb. Immensely more destructive than an A-bomb, the H-bomb was more difficult to create and, in 1949, when Oppenheimer led a secret and successful campaign to halt development of the H-bomb, was impossible to build.
Overruled by his president, Oppenheimer then watched as his archrival, fellow physicist Edward Teller, built the weapon that by the end of the 1950s would sit at the heart of an American “doomsday machine.”
Had Oppenheimer gone quietly into the night after losing the fight over the H-bomb, Ray Monk would not have written a splendid, if at times derivative, biography of him. Oppenheimer instead chose to wage a low-intensity campaign against the deployment of the H-bomb. In this, he was spectacularly unsuccessful.
Monk, a British philosopher best known for his revelatory biography of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, insists that a new biography is needed to capture Oppenheimer’s underappreciated contributions to physics. Monk admirably describes these, which he claims should have won Oppenheimer a Nobel Prize for physics. Alas, they did not, and Monk’s biography thus depends more on his ability to capture Oppenheimer’s frustratingly contradictory personality.
An enigma to many of his contemporaries, Oppenheimer made enemies as easily as friends. Monk is at his best when teasing apart Oppenheimer’s confusing inner life, finding in his “enigmatic elusiveness” and “his inability to make ordinary close contact” with others the source of his acknowledged genius in leading the Manhattan Project.
As Monk reminds us, Albert Einstein perhaps summed up Oppenheimer’s dilemma as well as anyone. “The trouble with Oppenheimer,” Einstein once said, “is that he loves a woman who doesn’t love him — the U.S. government.”
G. Pascal Zachary reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.