This is an excellent biography of Robert Oppenheimer (Oppie), the physicist who successfully created the first atomic bomb in the United States. The author is a fellow physicist and a close friend of Oppenheimer, writes his observations about a man who is as complex as any human being can be. In 1920's, the author recalls several incidents' of violence and troubled nature of Oppie partly due to his inept performance in the laboratory and his unsatisfactory sexual adventures or his overall insecurities in life. In one instance, the author states that he seemed agitated because he gave a poisoned apple to one of his friend. Oppenheimer had a dysfunctional family; his wife Kitty was a confirmed alcoholic who was vicious to anyone she did not like. The troubled relationship between two parents had significant negative impact on their two children. Peter did not get along with his mother and left home in his late teens and their daughter Toni committed suicide.
While in Berkeley in 1936, his girlfriend Jean Tatlock of Stanford introduced him to communist party and her left-wing friends in San Francisco which led the way for great deal of trouble during McCarthy era. In 1949, Oppenheimer appeared before the house committee on un-American activities (HUAC) and answered some tough questions about his brother and left-wing friends. The Security Board's hearing in 1954 on Oppenheimer's security clearance was traumatic when they revoked his clearance. This was a sad time in his life, since he emerged from the war as an American hero, and the War department called him "a man of boundless energy, rare common sense, and possessing tremendous organizational abilities." The year 1949 was not good for Oppie, since in the same year Soviets had successfully tested an atomic bomb. The quickness with which the Soviets had produced the bomb had many people to believe that American physicists may have given secretive information to Soviets. Klaus Fuchs was the first suspect who was convicted for his crime. Harry Gold in Philadelphia, David Greenglass in New York, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's were also convicted of passing on the nuclear secrets to Soviets. A security officer falsely accused Oppenheimer was responsible for passing on secrets to Soviets. This did not sit well with McCarthy and Hoover who disliked him strongly.
Oppenheimer delivered brilliant summaries as a keynote speaker. He explained complex physical problems, turned unforgettable phrases, attracted reporters, and idolaters. He was half-legendry; he was loathed and feared for the brutal way he treated people. He was highly respected and cordially disliked. Oppenheimer was also notorious in getting math wrong although his physics was always sound. Oppenheimer implicitly predicted the existence of positions just about the time Dirac explicitly stated that. His contributions included; Born-Oppenheimer approximation, Oppenheimer-Phillips effect and physics of black holes. During his tenure as the director of prestigious Institute of advanced Study at Princeton, he showed leadership for the advancement of physics by assembling the right people just like he did at Los Alamos laboratory. He concentrated mainly on young physicists. He hired Freeman Dyson and C. N. Yang. Other notable visitors were Hideki Yukawa, Sin-itiro Tomaya, David Bohm, John van Neumann, and Oswald Veblen.
Oppenheimer was more interested in Hindu philosophy since early 1920s and spent more time studying Vedanta and Vedic literature than his study of stellar structures at Pauli's Institute at Zurich. In his letters to his brother Frank, he expresses his interest in studying Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy. In some respects Oppenheimer was over educated in those fields which lie outside physics, especially religion and Hinduism in particular. Oppenheimer himself translated the following hymn from Vedic literature just two days before the first testing of atomic bomb at Trinity site near Alamogordo in New Mexico.
"In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before will defend him."
Shortly after the successful testing of the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer saw the fireball glowing and two hymns from Bhagavadgita came to his mind. One is from Gita 11.12
"A thousand simultaneous suns
Arising in the sky
Mighty equal that great
With that great radiance glory vie"
The second, the most quoted is when Krishna speaks to Arjuna (Gita 11.32)
Death (time) am I, the great destroyer
Of the world
This hymn is variously stated in the literature on nuclear weapons. One form "I am become death, the shatterer of the worlds" is most common. William Laurence, a New York Times reporter who interviewed Oppenheimer was the first one to hear this quote, and latter quoted by Robert Junk in his 1958 book. According to Vedanta, death is an illusion, even though the body perishes but the soul is eternal. It appears that Oppenheimer was more focused on the duty to act and not the results of the action, which is another important message of Gita. You can hear the video recording of Oppenheimer reciting this verse on YouTube.
1. James Hijiya, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Volume 144 (2), P.123 (2000)
2. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
3. Oppenheimer's Choice: Reflections from Moral Philosophy (S U N Y Series in Philosophy)