Wednesday, February 09, 2005


J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, two guiding lights of science and morality of the twentieth century. This photo was taken at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, where Oppenheimer was Director, and Einstein a member. Einstein had permanently come to the United States in 1933 to escape Hitler's anti-semitism.

I am starting to fear that I have an obsession with J. Robert Oppenheimer. I first read about the man back in college, and was immediately struck. Since then, I can say without hesitation that I have read ALL of his biographies ( some 7-8, at least as signified by and many other authoritative books; would be glad if you could point one out to me that I have missed) multiple number of times. Yet, I cannot seem to have enough, and keep on checking them out of the library again and again, and ordering and reordering them from other libraries via Interlibrary Loan (ILL). (See my review of Jeremy Bernstein's book, 'Oppenheimer: Portrait of an enigma')
What is it about the man that so attracts me, just like it attracted his students and a host of other people back in sunny California in the 1920s and 30s? Extreme intelligence? Austere sublime nature? Knowledge of things wide and diverse? I don't know.

All I know is that this slavish admiration that I have for him would be merely another reason to pounce on his new biography that has very recently been published in honour of his hundredth birth anniversary. In 'J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century', acclaimed biographer and writer David C. Cassidy spins a riveting and extremely interesting tale which puts this great man in context, in the middle of a century that witnessed great upheavals. In these, he was the observer as well as the participant. The most striking general scientific paradigm of the century, apart from the revolutions that were breathing new life into the fabric of the cosmos and of life, was the beginning of 'big science'. It was also the beginning of the 'American century' as we know it, spurred on by the advent of science and technology, and the fortuitous happenstances that the unfortunate act of war brought upon this country. People like Oppenheimer were right in the middle of this prophetic change. Although this particular subject with specific reference to Oppenheimer has been tackled in a disconnected way in many of his other biographies and books, Cassidy is probably the first one to weave the man and his times together into a coherent and insightful whole. In many ways, Oppenheimer defines the scientific and moral personality at the heart of those times. In a way, 'Science' and 'Morality', both in a general way provide a good description of the time that was the twentieth century.

Growing up in New York, Robert attended the Ethical Culture School, a school whose strikingly moral looking philosophy believed in the inherent importance of ethics and the noble constraints of morality aimed at the betterment of mankind, independent of creed and religion. However, this institution was torn between the dictums of morality and the callings of practicality when war broke out in Europe. It had to reconcile itself with the Wilsonian Ideal of 'the morality of the victors'. Cassidy lucidly depicts this institution, and the changes which forced it to revisit its professed philosophy, something which has been rarely seen in detail elsewhere. Young Robert was also affected by this philosophy, and later on, coupled with the austere messages from the Bhagavad Gita which he read, it turned his personality into a strange and at many times, tortous, conglomerate of right and wrong.

In the 1920s, Oppenheimer was most fortunate, and well poised to participate in perhaps the greatest revolution that science had seen, the twin package of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. In those days, the focus of scientific excellence was in Europe, with Copenhagen, Cambridge and Gottingen being the greatest centers of learning in the world. There, people like Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, Arnold Sommerfeld and Max Born were training an entire generation of outstanding physicists and chemists, and Oppenheimer was fortunate to be one of them. However, war leaves its deep and far reaching scars, and as the shadow of totalitarianism extended across this magnificent continent, the reins of science became free to be harnessed by men and women who were causing ripples in the scientific world. The practical mindedness and 'can-do' spirit of the American psyche first became apparent in those times. A country that was struggling with depression slowly but surely rose to the cause. The foresight and action that has always characterised American science and business first emerged during those times. Foundations like the Rockefeller foundation started sending promising young men to Europe to quarry in the exquisite knowledge that was being created there. These men and women came back to their country, with a determination to make it second to none in science. Universities forged alliances with industry, unheard of amounts of money started to be donated by wealthy philanthropists for scientific research. The University became the archetypal epitome of discovery and scientific freedom. Men like Oppenheimer and his colleague, Ernest Lawrence, were among the initiators of this wave of technological excellence that can be seen today. Everything suddenly became big; 'big science', 'big machines', like Lawrence's magnificent cyclotron, 'big money', and big America. Cassidy profiles this period of unprecedented progress very well.

Then came war. First and foremost, it brought the United States a windfall of the most brilliant scientists of the time; Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, John Von Neumann, Edward Teller, and the biggest fish of them all, the austere sage Albert Einstein. As someone said, 'The Pope of Physics has moved'. His home became the new Vatican of physics. All of these great men and women came to their adopted country to escape the ravages of racial discrimination and fanatic nationalism initiated by Hitler and Mussolini. Europe, as they knew it, was on the wane. Their beloved continent was never to be what it was before. On the other hand, they had arrived in the new land of opportunity. American science would start booming, and American leaders of science would be ecstatic. A whole group of 'scientific managers' (another creed that would be the legacy of big science) took the administrative responsibility of steering their country's scientific resources, in their hands. Among these were Robert Millikan and Arthur Compton, both Nobel Laureates, Vannevar Bush, a close confidant of Roosevelt, and James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard. They made sure that research was well-funded and scholarships were doled out to bright young people without reservations. Promising American men and women of science would no longer have to leave their nation in order to become scientific apprentices at the meccas of learning. They could now rely on their own leaders, extraordinary men who were poised for breakthroughs in science and technology. Undoubtedly leading this remarkable generation, at least in physics, was Robert Oppenheimer. Under his tutelage and guidance at the University of California, Berkeley, America's best physicists now had a home of their own, and a father figure whom they idolized. Almost every theoretical physicist of the time who later went on to high deeds, sometime trained under Oppenheimer.

Then came war, and ironically, it brought the United States good tidings, at least in the beginning. More brilliant emigres. And more money to fuel the great machine of technological progress. War production suddenly galvanized into action all that work force that had laid dormant during Depression times. The United States had become the most resource rich and advanced nation in the world. All that 'big science' that had begun could now be put to good use. As if being called to such a cause, an event came to the notice of scientists, one that would change America and the world forever. Fission, and then Pearl Harbour gave an impulsive and unforseen impetus to the nation's scientific and political establishment. The rest is history. Oppenheimer became the head of the world's most top secret laboratory. The war amassed the American work force and capital power as never before. The most expensive project in history produced the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen, obliterating entire generations in a heartbeat. Although it ended the war, it stirred up many more problems and questions than it had solved or answered. Politics had finally become inextricably enmeshed with science, another legacy of the American century. America was a superpower now, although the threat of communism would always be a thorn, in no measure small, in her side. The state of the times was also driven home when Oppenheimer had his security clearance taken away by men from the Government having a perverse sense of patriotism, another instance of the unfortunate but permanent amalgamation of politics and science.

Cassidy's book portrays this century well. It WAS an American century, there is no doubt about that. It changed many things forever. Scientific research would no longer be the same, requiring and engendering intense competition between giant institutions for unheard of funds, a trend that is all too obvious today. It also produced technology that we have yet to psychologically come to terms with, and maybe never will. And it raised eternal and tortous questions of morality that continue to be harrowing. Robert Oppenheimer, in a way, epitomized all of this, many times as an initiator. He and his avuncular predecessor Niels Bohr, both struggled to cope with the paradoxical nature of the most destructive weapon that would possibly end all wars. It did not turn out to be that simple, though, as the years showed, and we permanently became mortals walking a devious precipice. Oppenheimer's brilliance, versatility, and moral persona put him in a position where he could influence the world around him, and he did. But he raised many many questions that he would grapple with till the end, regarding the complex and deep repurcussions which his science had produced in the form of a terrible weapon. Because of his unusual intelligence and foresight, he was in a unique position to be a part and a questioner of those important times. The American century, inspiring as it is, is also sobering. Oppenheimer's life is a telling representative of the problems that we have solved in our quest for scientific as well as moral truth, and the many more new problems that we have created. Most importantly, Cassidy's book and Oppenheimer's life both tell us that whatever else happens, we must never cease to explore.

I greatly enjoyed the book.


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