Sunday, August 10, 2014

Op in Oppenheimer

by Drew Martin
I just finished (slow, focused reading + skimming) American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. My father is a nuclear physicist so the subject interested me on a personal level but I also wanted to know more about the man who unleashed the atom’s potential. Specifically, I wanted to get a glimpse of the kind of person who could be so smart but cause so much destruction.

The first half of the book is about Oppenheimer’s life and education, and the development of the atomic bomb, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second half of the book is about Oppenheimer’s attempt to head off a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the witch hunt brewing for his association with the communist party, and losing his government security clearance.

Although there was much moral debate during the Manhattan Project, the scientists, military, and civilians who supported the project believed they had to build the bomb before the Nazis. Many of the scientists had come from or, like Oppenheimer, studied in Germany so the U.S. side intimately knew  what their “enemy” counterparts knew because they had studied with each other and were on a first-name basis.

Max Born, a professor from Göttingen lamented, “It is satisfying to have had such clever and efficient pupils, but I wish they had shown less cleverness and more wisdom.”

A new level of consciousness was raised when the project continued even after Germany surrendered, and Japan was just about to give up. The thinking then switched to the notion that the bomb had to be used no matter what by the end of World War II, otherwise the next war would be fought exclusively with nuclear bombs. That is a tough justification for killing so many civilians, especially for someone who attended the Ethical Culture School in New York, where the students “were infused with the notion that they were being groomed to reform the world, that they were the vanguard of a highly modern ethical gospel.” Robert was one of their star students. Ethics were taught in a Socratic-style seminar where students discussed specific social and political issues.

Oppenheimer read Plato and Homer in Greek, and Caesar, Virgil and Horace in Latin. He was so smart that he skipped several grades and was regarded as precocious. When he was nine years old he told an older cousin, “Ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek.”

Oppenheimer was also a social misfit. He was easily agitated and anxious. Once, while at school in Cambridge, he tried to poison his head tutor with a laced apple. A French psychoanalyst said he was suffering a “crise morale” associated with sexual frustration. He prescribed “une femme” and a course of aphrodisiacs.

To many people’s surprise Oppenheimer grew into a very capable and charming man. The year before his death, at Princeton’s commencement where he received an honorary degree, he was hailed as a “physicist and sailor, philosopher and horseman, linguist and cook, lover of fine wine and better poetry.”

He was, in fact, an extraordinary combination of science and humanities. His conscious was affected by his readings, which ranged from the Bhagavad-Gita to Proust. From the latter he learned “indifference to the sufferings one causes…is the terrible and permanent form of cruelty.” But Oppenheimer was not indifferent. He was aware of the suffering he had caused others but he did not buckle with guilt.

Oppenheimer died from throat cancer (he was a heavy smoker) at the age of 62. It was a helpless end. His wife confided to a friend, “His death was pitiful. He turned into a child first, then an infant. He made noises. I couldn’t go into the room; I had to go into the room, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t bear it.” 

As always I look sideways at my readings and look at what is relevant to this ongoing theme of art and media. One of my favorite lines was how Oppenheimer expressed that the best way to send information is bundled in a human being. Certainly he had firsthand experience of this from all of  the great minds he studied with and met, and from his own travels and lectures.

Concerning the arts, he had a very interesting start. He was, by all standards, pampered and privileged. His father Julius emigrated from Germany in 1888 and became a wealthy “fabrics” man in New York. He was also an art lover and he spent his free time roaming the art galleries and museums in New York. Through this interest he met the woman to become his wife and mother of Robert, Ella Friedman, a fetching young painter with a spring-loaded artificial thumb. She had studied the early Impressionist painters in Paris, and taught art at Barnard College. By the time she met Julius, she was an accomplished painter and gave private lessons in her rooftop studio in New York.

Sometime after Robert’s arrival, Julius moved his family to a spacious eleventh-floor apartment at 155 Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River at West 88th Street. The apartment, occupying an entire floor, was exquisitely decorated with fine European furniture. Over the years, the Oppenheimers also acquired a remarkable collection of French Postimpressionist and Fauvist paintings chosen by Ella. By the time Robert was a young man, the collection included a 1901 “blue period” painting by Pablo Picasso entitled Mother and Child. A Rembrandt etching, and paintings by Edouard Vuillard, André Derain, and Pierre-August Renoir. Three Vincent Van Gogh paintings – Enclosed Field with Rising Sun (Saint-Remy, 1889), First Steps (After Millet) (Saint Remy, 1889) and Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890) – dominated a living room wallpapered in gilted gold. Sometime later they acquired a drawing by Paul Cézanne and a painting by Maurice de Vlaminck. A head by the French sculptor Charles Despiau rounded out this exquisite collection. The Oppenheimers spent a small fortune on these works of art. In 1926, for instance, Julius paid $12,900 for Van Gogh’s First Steps (After Millet).