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.
A decade later, the airily apolitical Oppenheimer was drawn into the left-wing movement on the West Coast, driven by the Spanish Civil War and Nazi persecution of relatives and colleagues in Germany. Many of his students and his younger brother Frank, also a physicist, became Communist Party members. His wife, Kitty, had been married to a party hero killed in Spain. Monk exhaustively discusses the evidence of Oppenheimer’s participation in front organizations and in a communist professional club at Berkeley. While he probably never became a dues-paying member, he contributed much money to front groups and was very close to local communists, even during the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Monk ends up with a position closest to Gregg Herken’s in “Brotherhood of the Bomb” (2003): Oppenheimer was briefly a de facto communist but also a totally loyal American. His love of country was deep and genuine, something Monk underlines repeatedly. Although Moscow received reports that he was a fellow traveler, there is no credible evidence that he spied for the Soviet Union.
As is well known, that past came back to haunt him after the Manhattan Project began, but during the war Gen. Leslie Groves protected him against all attempts at exclusion. Most physicists snobbishly dismissed Groves, but not only was he an outstanding leader of what was fundamentally an industrial engineering project, but he was also an astute judge of the young theorist’s unexpected leadership ability: Oppenheimer could brilliantly manage the prima donnas assembled on a remote New Mexico plateau to design the uranium and plutonium bombs.
Monk has little new to add here except detail, notably about the physics done at Los Alamos, but he writes well and provides a convincing portrait of Oppie’s success and his ambivalence after the bombs were dropped on Japan. Monk gives equally detailed coverage of the postwar years of Oppenheimer’s national celebrity, followed by a gathering storm over his past and his questioning of the H-bomb. The end result was the security hearing, truly a kangaroo court, that left him a tragic figure, although he continued as head of the Institute of Advanced Study and as a scientific celebrity.
Monk’s biography is judicious, comprehensive and reliable, and bids fair to become one of the two most important lives of Oppenheimer. It certainly puts science back squarely in the middle of that life. But its exhaustiveness can be exhausting. If one wants a shorter, even more readable and more psychologically penetrating biography, I would recommend “American Prometheus.” But if one desires a life that is virtually complete, this may be the book for you.
By Ray Monk
Doubleday. 825 pp. $37.50