A LIFE AT THE FRONTIERS...
Peace and War: Reminiscences of a Life on the Frontiers of Science- By Robert Serber and Robert Crease
Columbia University Press
Robert Serber’s definitive quality is laconic understatement. Even the opening line of his book starts with the mundane “I was born in…” His style may seem to point to a manifestly boring book. It is only when one knows the importance of the ages which he lived through, that one realizes that Serber does not need to exaggerate or dramatize anything he says. The most noteworthy achievements are those which simply need to be stated, never eloquently dramatized. And Serber’s life, his times, and his achievements are all more than noteworthy.
Robert Serber is not a name known to even most enthusiasts of science and history. But consider the major events of his life; childhood spent in Philadelphia, PhD. with Nobel Laureate John Van Vleck, post doctoral studies and a lifelong friendship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, time spent at Los Alamos as one of the primary participants in the Manhattan project, work on the hydrogen bomb, teaching and research at Berkeley, Illinois, and Columbia, and a life devoted to science, teaching, and scholarship. No wonder Serber does not need to overstate things. His words and observations do the talking and dramatization. And yet there is warmth, compassion and appreciation in his words, which may be subtle, but which are nonetheless an important ingredient of his writing.
This downplaying of major events and times is a characteristic that is not just a style of writing, but an inherent part of Serber’s personality. The austere physicist from Philadelphia with a steel-trap mind liked to be a detached observer. He preferred to be a scribe who would record events for posterity. He describes some of the most important and personal events in his life, including tragic ones, with unblinking objectivity. Even though he participated in some of the earth shattering (pun intended) events in twentieth century history, his narration of those times reads like a journalistic account, with scant editorial comment. But this does not make the matter any less interesting, as his detached position gave Serber a clear mind and an attention to detail, that others would lack because of their impassioned involvement. Flowing smoothly with the narration is a dry and understated sense of humor, and unconventional observations on politics, scientists, and society.
Serber’s main achievements were building the atomic bomb, and more importantly, being part of a unique mission to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a few months after the bombs were dropped. His job was to take readings, make measurements, and in general document the general destruction the bombs had wrought.
Serber lived in a unique age and time, possibly the most important period in the history of American physics, when the American scientific establishment was burgeoning and assimilating resources that would launch it into the front rank of world science and technology. He was also lucky to be at the right place at the right time, and brilliant enough to be sought by the leading theorists of the century, many of who were Nobel laureates. After growing up in Philadelphia, he obtained his PhD. at the University of Wisconsin with John Van Vleck, a future Nobel laureate known for his pioneering studies of magnetism. After Wisconsin, Serber received a National Research Council fellowship, one among only five awarded every year during Depression times, to study physics at the institution of his choice. He planned to work with Eugene Wigner at Princeton, another future Nobel laureate. But fate intervened when Serber attended the then famous summer physics school at the University of Michigan. At Ann Arbor, Serber heard J. Robert Oppenheimer lecture; “His mind was so quick and his speech was so fluent, that he dominated almost every gathering”. Serber was so taken with ‘Oppie’, that he decided to change plans and drive west to Berkeley instead, where Oppenheimer had created the greatest school of theoretical physics in the United States. A measure of Oppenheimer’s influence can be gleaned from the fact that, among the five NRC fellows throughout the country that year, three chose to work with him.
At Berkeley, Serber quickly became Oppie’s closest associate and worked with a dozen of his students, who would go on to become important scientists themselves. Those were Depression times, and Serber describes how he and Oppie’s students were introduced to an unfamiliar way of life, wining and dining with the theorist, and acquiring his erudite tastes in literature, poetry, and art. Some of Serber’s most important papers were coauthored with Oppenheimer, and he became Oppie’s close friend and research associate. He says that his role was to act as translator for Oppie, and explain to students what the master really meant. Once in a while, Serber and his wife and Oppie the bachelor would catch a movie or dinner across the San Francisco bay, and then work late into the night with Beethoven’s string quartets playing in the background. The lover of metaphysical poetry, and the quiet, unassuming student, made a fine pair. In summers, Serber and his wife Charlotte would drive to Oppie’s ranch in the New Mexico mountains and mesas, where horse back riding was the norm for traveling. Late in the 1930s, Serber moved to the University of Illinois, where he taught for three years. Then of course, war broke out.
Oppenheimer invited Serber to join the atomic bomb project, and Serber was part of the elite group of theoreticians who Oppenheimer assembled in the summer of 1942, to work out basic bomb theory. These luminaries included Hans Bethe and Edward Teller. Serber recalls the stimulating discussions in the summer heat, involving calculations on whether the bomb would set the earth’s atmosphere on fire.
At Los Alamos, Serber’s most important initial job was to give a set of lectures that would indoctrinate the new, brilliant recruits with the basics of nuclear fission and bomb physics. Despite the impediment of a slight, lifelong lisp, the young theoretician lectured with authority to people like Enrico Fermi, irreverent Richard Feynman, and a dozen other Nobel laureates. These lectures were written up and declassified after the war, and in 1992, were published with Richard Rhodes as a co-author, as the Los Alamos primer. A PDF version is available here.
Serber’s group did important work on the implosion method for the plutonium bomb. Unlike some other participants, Serber does not leave a record of having participated in discussions about the moral implications of the bomb. He was the scribe, and he let the leaders do the talking and equivocation.
Probably the most important part of the book concerns Serber’s trip to Japan right after the bombs were dropped. His job was to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and document the damage done by this new force of nature, as well as collect samples. During that period, he wrote dozens of letters to his wife, and these letters paint an evocative picture of the period, his thoughts, and his observations. It is possibly the only time in the book, when he lets himself indulge in some emotion and awe; both of a nation almost completely destroyed by war, and of the incredible power of the new weapon which he had helped to create. He documents little amusing incidents of island life, and his descriptions give us a flavour of the life of American soldiers and civilians scattered on those little islands in the Pacific, who had been fighting for their life against a desperate and almost fanatical enemy. He also narrates the brutal destruction that had been inflicted in turn by Curtis LeMay’s incessant strategic bombing, which killed many more civilians than the atomic bombs (about 2.5 million)
After the war, Serber lived a relatively quiet life, first teaching at Berkeley, then finally moving to New York to teach at Columbia. About ten percent of his book is devoted to non-mathematical, but technical descriptions of his work in nuclear physics with Oppenheimer, and at Berkeley and Columbia. These accounts can easily be skipped by uninterested readers.
Serber’s characteristic understatement sometimes hides emotion and sentiments. It’s a little amusing, when he recounts incidents like a colleague propositioning his wife, with nothing more than a one line objective description. Apparently, after a party, the colleague led Charlotte into the nearby woods, and made a pass at her. When she refused, he asked her why (!) Charlotte, as austere as her husband, quietly pointed to the ground and replied, “Poison oak”
There is one time when you cannot help but feel that this man is trying to hide his pain and sadness under the guise of journalistic reporting. In 1967, the man who had brought Serber into the mainstream of American physics, and who had been a guiding light for physics and conscience in America, died. Serber planned to deliver a eulogy for Robert Oppenheimer’s memorial service, but characteristically, he refrained after his wife told him that he was not good at doing these things. Later in the same year, Serber’s wife committed suicide from depression. If there is one person whose name appears in Serber’s account even more than his own, it is his wife Charlotte’s. Serber does not need to say that his wife was a very important and constant presence in his life. It is quite obvious; the two had been together through every phase of his life since graduate school, and she had been a lifelong companion in every sense of the term, participating in his adventures, and having an important say in his life. Even though Serber does not devote a single sentence to describing how he felt after the incident, again, he does not need to. His wife’s unflinching support of him is evident throughout the book, and one cannot help feel somber and sad, even while reading this apparently most detached of accounts.
Later, Serber struck up a close relationship with Kitty, Oppenheimer’s widow. Tragically, she too died a few years later, while on trip to Panama. As if this were not enough, Oppenheimer’s daughter Toni also committed suicide. In a span of a few years, Serber lost people who were closest to him, who were an integral part of his life during the most important of times. He does not need to express his feelings for us to know how he must have felt.
Serber retired from the Columbia physics department, and spent the rest of his years with a woman he met on St. John’s Island, where he often vacationed. He must have found solace and pleasure in spending time with his two sons. The island had been a favourite vacation spot and sailing bay for the Oppenheimer family.
The Amazon book review for Serber’s book says that “Nonphysicists will find parts of this fascinating memoir unintelligible, but that should not be a deterrent”. I wholly agree. But I would also object to calling it ‘unintelligible’, and I hope that opinion refers only to portions describing Serber’s research.
As someone interested in the history of American science, I found Serber’s book illuminating for its accounts of American physics in its heyday, and in general remarkable for its understated style and dry humour, consistently demonstrated. But it is also an important memoir documenting a remarkable time with remarkable people in it. Serber was an important physicist in a tumultuous time, both for science and society, and for war and peace. He never says much. And he never needs to do.