Celebrity fades — a truism that applies to scientists as much as to anyone else. Few are remembered outside their disciplines once the generations pass that knew them as famous. Judging, however, by the half-dozen biographies published about J. Robert Oppenheimer over the past eight years, his name seems more likely to endure. That rests on two pillars: his scientific leadership role in the World War II atomic-bomb project and his status as a martyr of the McCarthy era after the 1954 security hearings that stripped him of his clearance.
Ray Monk, a biographer of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, is well aware of the challenge of writing something new. He started more than 15 years ago when there was no good biography but found himself scooped by several other authors, two of whom, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, won a Pulitzer Prize for their “American Prometheus” (2005). He sets out to surpass his competitors through comprehensiveness — the text alone is nearly 700 pages — and through science.
Monk’s book provides by far the most thorough survey yet written of Oppenheimer’s physics. He notes that Bird and Sherwin never mention the word “meson,” although theoretical papers about that family of elementary particles constituted much of what Oppenheimer published in scientific journals before and after the war. Physicists now rate three papers on neutron stars and black holes that “Oppie” co-wrote in 1938-39 as the most important theoretical works he ever did. But by dying too soon (in 1967) for astronomical discoveries to make them relevant, he lost his chance for a Nobel Prize, which cannot be awarded posthumously. He would be a leading entry in the dubious race for the title of the best physicist never to win the honor.
Oppenheimer was born in 1904 to a rich German-Jewish family in Manhattan. Schooled in the secular-humanist Ethical Culture movement and growing up at a time of rapidly rising American anti-Semitism (Monk’s examination of this is valuable), Oppenheimer ended up with a fragile, fragmented identity. He spent much effort trying to run away from his Jewishness — developing a love for New Mexico ranches, French poetry, Hindu scripture in the original Sanskrit, etc. — while blooming as a scientific prodigy. His facility for arcane languages and theoretical physics made him, depending on the observer, either annoyingly pretentious or winningly charismatic.
But he teetered on the edge of mental illness when he enrolled as a graduate student in experimental physics at Cambridge University in 1925. Suddenly not doing well, he allegedly tried to harm his tutor, Patrick Blackett, with a poisoned apple. After his wealthy parents came and bailed him out, he went to Max Born in Goettingen, Germany, and plunged headlong into the unfolding quantum-mechanical revolution. Instantly he became an important contributor, if not of the first rank. He returned to the United States in the late 1920s with a reputation that allowed him to tackle his ambition: making America a leading center for theoretical physics. Having a pick of academic positions, he settled on Berkeley and Caltech.