Enigma of the father of the A-bomb


The author explores the complex life of brilliant scientist Robert Oppenheimer.

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.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">STONE MATTRESS: </span>Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.


    Past looms large in new stories from Margaret Atwood

    In Margaret Atwood’s new collection, the past looms large for aging protagonists, but sympathy and regret abound, too.

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran, which I love, love, loved. It’s a mystery set in New Orleans shortly after the storm and solved by girl detective, Claire DeWitt, who applies her special method of detection which is pretty much based on yoga and Buddhism combined with the altered mind states of drugs, drink, dreams and growing up in Brooklyn.”

 <span class="cutline_leadin">WHAT STAYS IN VEGAS:</span> The World of Personal Data — Lifeblood of Big Business C — and the End of Privacy as We Know It. Adam Tanner. PublicAffairs. 316 pages. $27.99.


    ‘What Stays in Vegas’ examines data packaging and the end of privacy

    Journalist explains how data packaging makes American companies the biggest threat to privacy.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category