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Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect

Review: Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect
(April Review, 2007)

Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect
by Charles Thorpe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006)

Review by Robyn Rodriguez

I am become death, the shatterer of worlds. J. Robert Oppenheimer thought as he witnessed the first atomic bomb, his creation, explode at the Trinity test site. An atomic age was dawning and Oppenheimer was leading the way. The potential of science and reason to offer a solution to violence, a core idea of the Enlightenment, would forever be upset by the onset of the nuclear age. The twentieth century marked a new age in science during which it no longer sought to end violence but rather would come to be used by the state to exponentially increase destruction. This began in the First World War—a chemist's war—and the transformation culminated in the Second World War with the race to the atom bomb—largely a project of physicists but also the collective work of science and technology.

This book is a sociological biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer that grew out of Charles Thorpe's dissertation. Thorpe earned his Ph.D. from the Department of Sociology and interdisciplinary Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego and is currently a lecturer in science and technology studies at University College London. Thorpe has studied twentieth-century intellectuals and the changing relationship between science and the state. He is particularly interested in the changing role of scientists as their relation between science, politics and culture became increasingly fluid in the twentieth century. Oppenheimer is a classic example, as he became the nodal point for the intersections of the power of science, state and military.

This study of Oppenheimer weaves together history and biography from the perspective of a sociologist. Thorpe's main aim is to situate Oppenheimer's life in a broader social context. The author considers not only the way in which Oppenheimer fashioned his own identity, but also how the social processes surrounding him shaped his character. Max Weber's ideas on vocation, charisma, responsibility, and cultivation create a natural, if unintended, framework for the examination of Oppenheimer. Thorpe uses the writings of Oppenheimer as well as the impressions, reactions, and interpretations of those who surrounded the scientist throughout his life to place Oppenheimer within a larger social framework and demonstrate that Oppenheimer's persona, leadership, and charisma as a public figure were collectively shaped. These sources shed light on how Oppenheimer's character shaped those around him and was in turn shaped by them. The author sees identity as not only being fashioned by the individual but also by society.

Thorpe begins his study of Oppenheimer by examining his family background—German Jewish bourgeoisie in New York City—and education. Oppenheimer, however, strained to establish an identity that was secular and found an avenue through the Ethical Culture School, where there was a philosophy of self-cultivation through learning.  Oppenheimer's path to the theoretical physics that would make him famous was not preordained. He struggled through Harvard and Cambridge, where his studies were largely misdirected and his identity uncertain. While at Cambridge, Oppenheimer escaped the laboratory of experimental physics and discovered the world of theoretical physics. Oppenheimer continued his studies in Europe before taking a position at UC Berkeley and helped bring the advances of physics in European institutions to America.  At Berkeley he built a physics program of his own.

Thorpe portrays Oppenheimer as a bridge throughout the book. He bridged the ocean between European and American learning as well as the gap between experimental and theoretical physics. His education, both in the humanities and the sciences, also bridged the growing divide between narrow specialization in the sciences and the cultivated scholar. Oppenheimer went on to serve as a bridge between science and the military in the Manhattan Project.

The hothouse atmosphere of the Los Alamos laboratory helped to forge Oppenheimer into the leader that he ultimately became. An unlikely candidate to lead the scientists working on the atomic bomb project, Oppenheimer quickly rose to the challenge. He negotiated between the military personnel and the civilian scientists—both of whom came from different cultural backgrounds and worked in different ways. Lesley Groves, the senior military commander in charge of the Manhattan Project, and Oppenheimer served complementary roles in their leadership positions. Groves represented the interests of the military and state. He forced the compartmentalization of the project for security reasons and pushed for regulated, disciplined work on the project so that it could meet timetable standards along the way to completion. Oppenheimer came to represent the needs and interests of the scientists, who wanted a more open exchange of information and were accustomed to the less regulated university setting. While Oppenheimer was not necessarily at odds with Groves, he did come to earn the faith and respect of the scientists who he represented and he learned to negotiate the pathways between science and the military. Oppenheimer's leadership was a collective accomplishment of the civilian and military personnel of the Los Alamos Laboratory.

While the success of the atomic bomb may have been the pivotal moment in Oppenheimer's life, Thorpe's book revolves around the creation of Oppenheimer as a leader. Molded at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer took a leading role after the war in negotiating between policy and science in the nuclear age as well as conveying the cultural and political meanings of the bomb to the larger public. From the end of World War II until the security hearings in 1954, Oppenheimer personified the new power of scientists. Oppenheimer, unlike any other individual scientist was able to understand, articulate, and embrace the scientific community's fall from grace. He understood that with the onset of the atomic age, new responsibilities would fall on the scientist. Only Oppenheimer could add the necessary humanist and moral dimension to the new role of scientists in the state. The 1954 security hearings relegated Oppenheimer to a position outside the state and while he lost his power, he fashioned himself as a martyr of the cultivated scientist that would continue to influence the nation and the scientific community.

This book is not a typical biography. It is not a mere recounting of the deeds and misdeeds of Oppenheimer, but rather the shaping and transformation of his identity and the role of the individual and community in the creation of character. This work, like other recent biographies of Oppenheimer, fits the scientist within the broader changing political and social context of the times. Readers with an interest in sociology, identity formation, and history of science and the atomic age in America will find this an intriguing read. It is just as much about the culture of science in World War II and early Cold War America as it is about the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

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  • Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect

    Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006)

  • Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect

    Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves at the Trinity site. In the foreground are the remains of the tower on which the atomic bomb was mounted.

    Source: Oppenheimer, plate 8

  • Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect

    The security hearings took a physical toll on Oppenheimer, exaggerating his already thin and angular features. As one commentator put it, the hearings left him 'a thin, gray, shrunken ghost.'

    Source: Oppenheimer, plate 16

  • Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect

    Oppenheimer in front of his inherited van Gogh painting

    Source: Oppenheimer, plate 17