“We knew the world would not be the same … Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture … Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” – Robert Oppenheimer’s recollection of Trinity, the test explosion of the atomic bomb in New Mexico

Julius Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist in charge of the Manhattan Project and hence, father of the atomic bomb, was at times more than one person. If one were to analyze him under the microscope of human behavior, he shape-shifted from brilliant physicist to being contemptibly rude and, by his own admission, serially untruthful concerning his affiliation with communists.

The permutations of the Oppenheimer enigma are investigated in this nonpareil biography by Ray Monk, who also wrote “Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius” and a two-volume biography of Bertrand Russell.

Monk, in subtitling his book “Inside The Center,” wanted to concentrate on writing a biography of Oppenheimer that would try to understand his inner self. Of course, he fills in the scientific, social and political background. Think atoms, for example, as an extension of “inside the center.” There are pages of exquisite explanation of a relativistic quantum-field theory, among many other postdoc topics, that achieve clarity for the scientific reader, far more than I understand.

However, Monk writes so clearly that I had the feeling I understood his technical explanations – of course I do not – even though I had taken only a few classes of explanation of infrared spectroscopy in 1955.

Monk, who is professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton, quotes the American diplomat George Kennan who spoke at Oppenheimer’s memorial service. Kennan coped with the riddle of Oppenheimer and framed his analysis this way:

“The arrogance which to many appeared to be a part of his personality masked in reality an overpowering desire to bestow and receive affection.” Kennan continued, “Neither circumstances nor at times the asperities of his own temperament permitted the gratification of this need in a measure remotely approaching its intensity.”

The author picks up this thread, earlier articulated by another friend of Oppenheimer’s, Isidor Rabi, who characterized Oppenheimer as “a man put together of many bright shining splinters … who never got to be an integrated personality” and concludes, “The feebleness in Oppenheimer … the sense one has of him almost disembodied, is connected with his enigmatic elusiveness and his inability to make ordinary close contact with the people around him.”

This disembodiness may have been a reflex of Oppenheimer’s unwillingness to come to terms with his religion, which was Judaism. He avoided it by adhering as he grew older to the Ethical Culture Society, a reflex of his father’s beliefs as well. The credo of the organization was derivative of Immanuel Kant’s “moral law,” a “do as you will be done by” set of beliefs birthed from the ruins of religion.

Born in America and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan of German Jewish parents, Ella and Julius, he lived in splendid isolation, a world apart from the Polish and Russian Jews of the Lower East Side and different again from the still earlier migration of Sephardic families who had come from Spain and Portugal in the 19th century.

Robert’s father was in the apparel business and his mother was an artist. Oppenheimer later observed that he was “an unctuous, repulsively good little boy,” his upbringing having offered him “no normal, healthy way to be a bastard.” He lived in a world, according to Monk, “from which all coarseness, vulgarity and discord has been expunged.” Later, when bullied at a summer camp as a teenager, he never forgot it.

Oppenheimer, supremely gifted, attended private schools, Harvard University, and studied abroad. Earlier, a classmate remembered that he had a great need to declare his pre-eminence. “Ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek,” he once remarked to a girl in his class. George Birkhoff, the eminent Harvard mathematician, supported his application with this backhanded piece of prejudice common to the time: “He is Jewish but I should consider him a very fine type of man.”

Oppenheimer arrived in England in 1925, a time when, according to Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, “the most profound revolution in physical theory since the birth of modern physics in the 17th century” was taking place. Young physicists just a few years older than Oppenheimer were in the lead. There was immense pressure in being at the forefront of what was called Knabenphysik (boy physics.)

His destination was Cambridge, where he became so unhinged (he almost murdered two of his tutors), that he considered suicide. “I was on the point of bumping myself off,” he later wrote. His father made an agreement with the university to allow him to continue his studies on probation if he underwent treatment by a psychiatrist.

Oppenheimer was encouraged to leave Cambridge – he didn’t need much inducement - and go to Göttingen in the summer of 1926 by Max Born, later to be a Nobel winner, who recognized the young man’s superiority. Born’s most famous paper, “The Quantum Mechanics of Collision Processes,” which he had read at Cambridge, was translated by Oppenheimer, which boosted the young man’s confidence immeasurably, too much perhaps. He intimidated everyone there, looking for opportunities to condescend.

Monk notes that “His greatest love was possibly that which he felt for his country. In his mind at least, the answer to the question about the nature of his identity was simple: He was not German and he was not Jewish but he was, and was proud to be, American.”

Was he ever a communist? Monk says that there is some question about that, but he was certainly what became known as a “fellow traveler,” claiming to have read the complete works of Marx and Lenin.

More on the personal side: Oppenheimer married late. He married thrice-earlier-married Katherine (“Kitty”) Harrison on Nov. 1, 1940. She was already pregnant with his child. By combining aristocratic hauteur with bohemianism, she was almost universally disliked by Oppy’s colleagues; a far distance from an earlier “love of his life,” Jean Tatlock, who later committed suicide.

Back to the bomb: Once fission was recognized as a fact and that a chain reaction was possible, scientists encouraged Albert Einstein to write a letter to the president recommending a permanent contact between physicists working on chain reactions and the government. They didn’t want the Nazis to get the weapon first. The letter was delivered by Alexander Sachs, an adviser to the Roosevelt government on Oct. 11, 1939. Great space is given to the coordination of the Manhattan Project, which produced the atom bomb and which employed more than 150,000 workers at its peak. Oppenheimer impressed Col. Leslie Groves, whom the secretary of war had chosen to get things done on the prospective bomb, and Groves chose Oppenheimer to be at the center of things with him. The story of the building of the bomb is the nub of the story.

All in all, Monk’s biography satisfies what he set out to do. He does justice to Oppeheimer’s important role in the history and politics of the 20th century, to the singularity of his mind, and to the depth and diversity of his intellectual interests. He hobnobbed with the greats of 20th century physics: Niels Bohr, Born, Paul Dirac and Einstein. He delved into the secrets of the universe, helping to unfold them. Equally important, Monk describes and explains Oppenheimer’s contributions to physics and places them in their historical context.

Monk’s insight does more for the reader. He writes, “We want to understand Oppenheimer … just because he was an interesting man.”

Well, yes and no. Let me tell you why I hedge my bets on Monk’s conclusion, not because it isn’t admirable but because it is unattainable.

Oppenheimer and Born published another paper in 1927, “On the Quantum Theory of Molecules,” considered a classic because of the paper’s central idea, “which has become known as the “Born-Oppenheimer approximation.” It was a paper that used quantum mechanics to explain “why molecules were molecules.”

I think that after reading Monk’s exhaustive work, it is more apt to say that I have a sense of Oppenheimer the man as an “approximation” of why Oppenheimer was Oppenheimer. It is not complete because Oppenheimer the enigma goes beyond the wavelength of even this masterful biography by which he is incompletely measured.


Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside The Center

By Ray Monk


825 pages, $37.50

Michael D. Langan is the former headmaster of Nardin Academy.