Saturday, December 13, 2008

Oppy, we hardly knew ye

It is coming, a book on the Bomb that discloses all A-bombs can be traced from Oppenheimer's Abomb... But that is not the reason I am rehosting a bit of a homage or review [it focuses on his Cambridge life] of a great book on Oppenheimer and the bomb...

Reposted from RJ 11 - It is weird to think that the leader of the U.S. teams that created the first A-bomb was a delicate mesh of scientist and poet, in the end, a tragic figure, done in by his lethal invention and his soft-spot for arty friends who, in the style of their times, promoted liberal and communist causes.

Robert Oppenheimer is a truly haunting figure, well depicted in “American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin. [2005]

Doctorow is quoted in the book saying “The Great golem we have made against our enemies is our culture, our bomb culture-its logic, its faith, its vision.” Sensitive, Oppenheimer tried to put the killer genie back in the bottle after creating it. This proved another reason he was marked as haunted.

Oppenheimer did not have his roots in Boston, but he did pass through here, like so many others. Like these others, he helped build the military-industrial complex based on the startling strings of scientific breakthroughs and technical innovations of the mid 2oth Century.

The son of a wealthy West Side New York clothier, Oppenheimer refused the fellowship Harvard offered him when he entered the university in eighty-five years ago. [1922]Oppenheimer began his Harvard days as a chemistry student. The chemist had been the epitome of the scientist - but that was changing just as he was entering college. In the 20s, Physics was steep in its ascent. He looked to take as many advanced physics classes as he possibly could. He didn’t have the basic courses. But he read five science books a week. And he was picking physics texts unknown to the typical student. American Prometheus authors report that one physics professor, reviewing Oppy’s petition [replete with a list of texts he'd read] to take graduate classes, remarked: “Obviously, if he says he’s read these books, he’s a liar, but he should get a PH.D. for knowing their titles.” He was brash and precocious.

The famous of science and math [in which Oppenheimer thought himself deficient] passed through Harvard’s gates. Oppenheimer attended lectures by Whitehead and Bohr. Still, he nurtured a love for literature. He was a great polymath. He read The Waste Ladn, and wrote poetry of sadness and loneliness. He edited a school literary journal known as The Gad-Fly [under the auspices of the Liberal Club at 66 Winthrope St]. After Harvard, he discovered Proust.

He kept much to himself. Had but a few friends. “His diet often consisted of little more than chocolate, beer and artichokes. Lunch was often just a ‘black and tan’ - a piece of toast slathered with peanut butter and topped with chocolate syrup.” When he lived in Cambridge, like so many other great scientific thinkers in so many places, he took to long walks. He lived for awhile at 60 Mount Auburn Street.

His outsider status at Harvard could be laid to his sensitivity, but just as significant if not more so was his Jewish heritage. He came to the school at a time when its head was considering a quota system to reduce the growing number of Jewish entrants. Surely, the straight road to Harvard success was not fully open to him, even if that is what he’d desired. He was offered a graduate teach position but turned it down.

Oppenheimer graduated from Harvard in three years. He wrote a friend: “Even in the last stages of senile aphasia I will not say that education, in an academic sense, was only secondary when I was at college. I ploy through about five or ten big scientific books a week, and pretend to research. Even if, in the end, I’ve got to satisfy myself with testing toothpaste, I don’t want to know it till it has happened.” From Harvard he went on to study in Gottingen in Germany, Thomson’s famed Cavendish Lab, CalTech, Berkeley, and, after the War, Princeton. Surely the Jewish Ethical Culture School he attended as a lad, which had a summer school adjunct in New Mexico, and the mesas of New Mexico, where he placed the crucial workings of the Manhattan Project, were most formative. He and his friends skipped the Harvard commencement to drink lab alcohol in a dorm room. He had one drink and retired. A bottled killer Genie of a life still ahead.For more, read American Prometheus, Vintage, 2005

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