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Old 07-05-2013, 09:04 PM
Location: Los Angeles area
14,017 posts, read 18,725,559 times
Reputation: 32426


"Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center" by Ray Monk is a relatively new (2012) biography of America's best known physicist. At almost 700 pages not including footnotes, it is very complete and meticulously researched, but is also written with great clarity. Oppenheimer was a complex, and in some ways contradictory, man. He was a brillant student, accomplished in academic disciplines other than physics. He recited Baudelaire and other French poets in French, and he learned ancient Sanskrit in order to read the Hindu holy texts in the original. He also know German, and became passable in Dutch.

Personally he could be rude, egotistical, and over-bearing. However, when he was appointed scientic director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II, thus becoming the "father of the atomic bomb", he somehow hit his stride and by all accounts did a magnificent job in that difficult role. "When scientists were asked to recall their time at Los Alamos, one thing that is repeated over and over again is how inspirational Oppenheimer was." British scientist James Tuck is quoted:
"By the grace of God the American government got the right man. His function here was not to do penetrating original research but to inspire it. It required a surpassing knowledge of science and of scientists to sit above warring groups and unify them. A lesser man could not have done it...."

Oppenheimer's wife, an alcoholic, and two children lived with him at Los Alamos, the younger, a daughter, being born there. The wife apparently did not have strong maternal instincts; when her daughter was about four months old, she left Los Alamos to be away for several months, leaving her daughter in the care of another woman there. Oppenheimer's paternal instincts were hardly stronger; he would visit the woman but not ask to see his daughter. He offered for the woman to adopt the girl, saying he could not love her. Not surprisingly, their daughter suffered life-long bouts of depression and committed suicide ten years after her father's death and five years after her mother's. Hardly an uplifting family tome.

During the 1930's Oppenheimer was (even by his own admission), a communist sympathiser, a member of the party in all senses except the physical possession of a membership card. This came back to bite him when, in 1954, his security clearance was revoked despite there being no evidence of any disloyalty to the U.S. (The complexity of all this is well explained in the book).

Oppenheimer was personally acquainted with all the luminaries of his day: Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, and many more, including many who would become luminaries after WWII, such as Richard Feynman. The book is in one sense a wonderful history of physics in the first half of the 20th century for the general reader.

I have really just hit a few highlights here. I highly recommend this biography to any of you who are at all interested in the subject matter.
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Old 07-08-2013, 09:21 AM
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Sounds like an interesting read, thanks for the review.
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