Review of 'The American Prometheus: J.R. Oppenheimer' by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin

Review by William W C Scott © 5th September 2023

An intellectual (one interested in ideas) has a passion for books. A few are very important to him. Newton's Optics (1704) was my chosen school science prize, aged about 16. It was in the English of the time (unlike Principia Mathematica which was in Latin). A year later I read two volumes of The Origin of Species by Darwin and, because the evidence was so compelling and I was heading in the direction of mathematical-physics, I did not need to read the third. But, years later, I was enthralled by Never at Rest, a biography of Newton by Richard S. Westfall*. Why? Because it is so complete that you know what it felt like to be Newton.

This is why this book by Bird and Sherwin is so important to me. His friends, his schooling, his oddities, his naivety, truthfulness (when he might have defended his conduct more easily). Oppenheimer struggles with shyness yet becomes a remarkable leader of hundreds of scientists building the first atomic bomb. From the outset, his was a very rich, quickfire mind which instantly saw objections and possibilities. He inherited a spectacular gift for languages: fluent in Latin, Greek, French, German, Dutch, Italian and Sanskrit as well as English (the fluency aided by passion and obsession for the subject, which drove him to work long into the night till exhausted). Discovering Dante, he ignored the cafes for a month until he reappeared, declaiming Inferno aloud, savouring the musical Italian. Asked to give a lecture in Dutch, he learnt the language to do so in six weeks. He was a very good prolific poet as well as a physicist, fond of philosophy and art, read Baudelaire, fond of The Bhadavag Gita et al. He was also an outdoors man: riding long distances in the Sangre de Christo mountains north of Santa Fé where he had a ranch and sailing the family yacht in all weathers in Long Island Sound where they had a house, in the Hamptons, besides a fine apartment in Manhattan; his father a successful businessman.

But a few of his doings were bizarre, extraordinary. After his undergraduate degree at Harvard, he went to work for a doctorate at the Cavendish, Cambridge, where, uniquely, he spiked an apple with poison and left it to be eaten by his tutor, P.M.S. Blackett, a future nobel physics prize winner. This story has to be true, for his father and mother crossed the Atlantic to support their son and, probably because they were millionaires and could splash money in all directions, Oppie's life was saved, he was not sent down, and he was allowed to continue, after agreeing to see a succession of psychiatrists. But the experimental physics he was asked to absorb was outwith his reach: he was a theoretician, part of the reason, perhaps, for his extraordinary behaviour: he had just failed for the first time: experimental physics was beyond him. Thus he left Cambridge after two terms and went to Gottingen to do his doctorate under Professor Max Born (who later was sacked by Hitler, being a Jew, like Oppie) and was employed at Edinburgh where I myself met Quantum Mechanics and my own teacher too, in Rothesay Academy, in the generation just before me, when Born still taught there. Born won a nobel prize for physics in 1954.

Oppie recovered from his bad start at Cambridge, made some friends and his very quick mind was soon a valuable asset to Born. Several theoretical papers were written at that time with his name on them. Psychiatry was thereafter very important to Oppie, enabled him to advance and even become extremely popular, because of his intellectual breadth, his generosity and his decided efforts to be admired. One of his friends at Gottingen was Paul Dirac, an Englishman awarded the nobel in 1933, shared with Erwin Schrodinger, for work in Quantum Mechanics (like Born). Oppie was soon teaching in Berkeley and Caltech, eventually leaving to teach in Zurich for a time, before returning to teach on the American west coast.

A growing skill in Oppie was: extreme clarity and simplicity in explaining matters in physics (or anything else, his breadth was astounding). This was the reason why he was chosen by General Groves to be Director of the Los Alamos Project in the desert NW of Santa Fé, a place that Oppie selected because he had often spent holidays there, horse riding, {200 miles to Colorado Springs, on one visit) eventually buying a plot of land and building a spartan retreat; borrowing horses from a ranch nearby. Oppie was the one scientist that Groves could understand: crucial in the director of such a phenomenal undertaking: billions of dollars to be poured into Los Alamos to build a town of science in rapid time, not stopping even to think: there was no time for that. Oppie was very quick to make decisions and brilliant at being in charge because of his great breadth and depth of knowledge. He was appointed in 1942. The bomb was built in three years from scratch.

The task of leading and directing thousands of scientists, engineers, builders and their aides of every kind, many of them military, for security was strict, required a range of interpersonal skills that scientists did not usually possess. Groves could not have understood what he was up against. But he could understand Oppie, who had the imagination to see what these skills were: unbeknown to Groves who would not, as a mere military engineer, begin to understand the scale of the problems to be overcome in a year or two (probably Oppie worked out, over a period of a few months, what skills he had to master to create a town in a desert, from scratch, for a single purpose: to build a bomb to win the war; and gradually thought out what it would take by him, trying and failing, no doubt, but developing on the job) and in six months he had acquired them all to an unprecedented extent. One of them was learning how to talk to people and how to get them on his side. He gave all his attention to them, one by one. They repaid him in devotion. He went out of his way to be kind to them all. They never forgot it; some loved him. Even with Edward Teller who was almost single-handedly responsible for the withdrawal of Oppie's security clearance after the bomb was built, when the two bombs were dropped on Japan. Until then, the allies were terrified the Germans would build the bomb first, for the basic physics of it was known in 1939. (Heisenberg, the ace German scientist, nobel prize 1932, made a crucial miscalculation which led him to decide that a bomb was impossible). Neils Bohr was the chief originator in Quantum mechanics. 'Bohr was God', it was said and 'Oppie was his prophet.' Like every other physicist of note, Bohr arrived at Los Alamos to talk to Oppie during the race to build the bomb (smuggled out of Copenhagen aboard a motor launch to Stockholm, where German agents planned his assassination. He escaped in the bomb bay of a Mosquito to Scotland). Of course, that Heisenberg could make a mistake and believe a bomb was impossible, was not known until after the German defeat. So the team at Los Alamos worked in great fear that the Germans would get it first. Oppie was terrified of failure. Rightly! He had been given the task of winning the war!

How to get the bomb was clear from the paper in 1939 though nothing like it before had ever been conceived. But how powerful it would be was not understood until the Trinity test in the desert south of Los Alamos. Not even until the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the full extent of the effect clear. Nearly a quarter of a million people, mostly women and children, were killed in each case, the men being off at the war. What was also clear was that a super bomb could easily be built which was many times more powerful than the first version, the Trinity test bomb. Some scientists, like Teller, were fanatical supporters of the super bomb, which he thought should be kept in the hands of the Americans. Others, Bohr and Oppie among them, believed that the Russians should be given information to build it themselves (to prevent an arms race). At that time, the atrocities of Stalin in murdering 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia at Katyn Woods was not known, or the huge number of innocent Russians killed in the Gulags, still less even, the routine murders committed by Putin not in Russia at all but in other countries (Livinenko in London, the attempt on Scripal and his daughter in Salisbury and all the others over the years which reveal that the Russians ever since Stalin have been nothing but barbarians).

Although the important theoretical work on the bomb had been done in Denmark, Germany and Britain before it ever reached America; and then only because Einstein wrote a letter to Roosevelt, since it was built in America with American money by American military, it was 'their bomb' and they wanted to share it with no one ese. The American military, finding they had the upper hand, were desperate to keep it to themselves.

Oppie was devastated like most scientists by the power and dramatic killing effect of the bombs, even though the decision to use them was President Truman's along with a band of politicians in high places in Washington. The scientists had made the bomb but that was the end of their control of it. Many of them had mixed feelings about it. They had set out to beat the Germans to the bomb and become mass murderers. One of the non-scientists wrote to Eisenhower after the fall of Germany that he believed Oppie was a communist party member, though he had never joined or even looked like joining. It was just a mediocre man speaking out of turn and without evidence of any kind (the kind of mistake we have seen with Trump supporters millions of times recently). He would be reacting to Oppie's changed view of himself and the entire project as immoral because of its unexpected power and success. But Oppie's integrity was unaffected, or his deep love for America, his country of birth, he just felt that it might be best to share the info with the Russians to avoid an arms race, as Bohr proposed. But never at any time did he assist that move in any way. He lost his security clearance on the basis of a few men's opinion, no evidence, not even from wire taps or anything else. It was just the usual stupidity of people who did not know him or know any better.

In 1947 Oppie was appointed Director of The Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the finest college in the world where every budding genius dreamed of spending some time. Einstein was there in 1933-1955; Oppie left in 1966, having lived at Olden Manor, Princeton, since 1947. Einstein lived at 112 Mercer St until he died in 1955 with his office in room 109, Fine Hall. Freeman Dyson attended Trinity College Cambridge aged 15, BA 1945; Cornell, with no Phd 1947, Institute for Advanced Study until 1994 including two return visits to the UK. Oppie admitted that Dyson had proved him wrong. Dyson showed that Feynman's diagrams for calculating what happens in Quantum Mechanics were correct and a complete theory far better than the methods used by Dirac et al. Note: By that time, Oppie, being necessarily in Washington under attack much of the time, was no longer involved with physics. Indeed, his very excellence as a leader had been disintegrated by the attack upon his soul by those who wanted to make him seem a Marxist who would betray his country if allowed to continue to operate in physics. Above all, Oppie still saw himself as the big scientist and declined to listen to the young upstarts like Dyson who were loaded with even more genius yet easily put off by the fame and pomp of their elders.

Oppie, having contracted cancer of the throat, probably through smoking, retired to the Virgin Islands where he built a house by the shore. He did not earn a nobel prize. He wrote many papers, some of them pared to essentials, the bare bones, leaving too much, perhaps, to be worked out. He died, aged 62 in 1967.

© William W. C. Scott

* Richard Westfall was a professor at Indiana University, one of six biographers allowed to delve among Newton's books and papers (Collected mainly by J.M. Keynes, Fellow of King's Cambridge). I asked Richard whether Newton really was blessed with the ability to read to 'an accuracy of less than one-hundredth of an inch'. P217 line 16. Westfall was sure of it. 'With no apparent hesitation, he recorded one circle at 23½ hundredths in diameter and the next at 34 1/3. When a small divergence appeared in his results, he refused to ignore it but stalked it relentlessly until he found that the two faces of his lens differed in curvature. The difference corresponded to a measurement of less than one-hundredth of an inch in the diameter of the inner circle and about two-hundredths in the diameter of the sixth (sic). 'Yet many times they imposed upon mee (sic),' he added grimly to his successful elimination of the error. No one else in the seventeenth century would have paused for an error twice that size. Newton was confident enough in his technique that he used his results to correct the radius of curvature of the lens; in the Discourse of Observations of 1672 (and in the Opticks) he put it at about fifty-one feet.' [all on p127]