Doctor Atomic: J Robert Oppenheimer

"Inside the Centre: the Life of J Robert Oppenheimer" by Ray Monk reviewed.

J Robert Oppenheimer arriving in Paris in 1958
J Robert Oppenheimer arriving in Paris in 1958. Photograph: Getty Images

Inside the Centre: the Life of J Robert Oppenheimer
Ray Monk
Jonathan Cape, 832pp, £30

Behind the mushroom cloud, there’s a face. Wide-browed and skinny with staring eyes, it is handsome but in a disturbing way. It is a face that exudes great intelligence but also denies you access and that, in a nutshell, is J Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant, opaque creator of the atom bomb.

High intelligence combined with opacity is the first way in which Oppenheimer resembles Ludwig Wittgenstein, the subject of an earlier biography by Ray Monk. The second resemblance is that both were products of very rich Jewish families and the third is that neither could quite handle the ordinary human world. Wittgenstein’s entire career can be seen as an attempt to understand the ordinary; Oppenheimer’s as a failure to grasp the way his inner world would be seen by the outside.

Both, in their way, succeeded. Wittgenstein transformed western philosophy and Oppenheimer led perhaps the most astounding industrial venture in history, the Manhattan Project, which reached its climax at 5.30am on 16 July 1945 when the first atom bomb exploded in the New Mexico desert. The test was called Trinity and Oppenheimer later said he was reminded of a line from the Bhagavadgita: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He was also later to say, in the development of nuclear weapons, “The physicists have known sin.”

He was, from the beginning, awkward. Monk quotes Oppenheimer’s friend Isidor Rabi, who described him as “a man who was put together out of many bright shining splinters” and who “never got to be an integrated personality”. Torn between the easy liberality of American life and his European Jewish ancestry, he chose neither and struggled instead towards a form of patriotism that, to some, looked like treachery.

Oppenheimer never seems to have been a member of the Communist Party but he had communist friends and sympathies in the 1930s. As a result, he was, for decades, treated with intense and angry suspicion by certain key figures in the FBI. It is something of a miracle that he was appointed to lead the Manhattan Project at all. After the war, he made matters worse for himself by opposing the building of the “Super” – the hydrogen bomb – and by responding with tortured answers and even easily exposed lies to, among other institutions, the House Un-American Activities Committee.

He was awkward because, like Wittgenstein, he could not build a bridge between his mighty mind and the minds of others. In youth, this almost destroyed him. He seems to have tried to kill a tutor at Cambridge with a poisoned apple, a crime covered up with talk of psychiatric problems and through the influence of his rich and powerful parents, who were in town at the time. Back in the US, they also cleared up a tricky problem when he crashed a car while trying to impress a girlfriend – they gave her a Cézanne.

In physics he found succour. It was a way into the invisible depths of the world and away from its impossibly complex surface. Yet even here, he made life difficult for himself. He could not make up his mind whether he was a theorist or experimenter and he also tended to back the wrong horses, notably failing to see the full significance of Richard Feynman’s quantum electrodynamics. The truth is that, in any other age, he may have been the leading physicist in the world but, in the century of Einstein, Feynman and too many others, he was second rank.

Yet, for the subject, Oppenheimer pulled off a mighty coup born of his patriotism. He overthrew Germany to make the US the home of the most advanced physics, a title the Large Hadron Collider has recently stolen back for Europe. At Berkeley and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, he imported or nurtured the best in the world. In the latter case, this included not only Einstein and friends but also T S Eliot, who was perhaps the one man alive capable of overawing the assembled geniuses.

For all his awkwardness and his apparent disconnection from the world, Oppenheimer’s true destiny was leadership. Like many leaders, he was destined to do just one thing. The Manhattan Project was a staggering achievement involving the deployment of tens of thousands of workers, almost all of whom had no idea of the purpose of the mysterious work they were doing, and the balancing of the egos of the physicists and the demands of the military, not to mention dealing with the poison being poured into the system by the FBI agents who, without any hard evidence, had convinced themselves Oppenheimer was a traitor. On top of all of which was the sin that became burned flesh at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This is to scratch the surface of this mighty book, which feels suspiciously like the best biography I’ve ever read. Its primary quality is restraint. Monk accepts his subject’s opacity and does not pretend to penetrate it with easy psychology. He generously leaves the best insight to others. He begins with that moving quote of Rabi’s but ends with one even more moving, one that fully captures the pain and difficulty of being J Robert Oppenheimer.

“The arrogance,” said the diplomat and historian George Kennan, “which to many appeared to be a part of his personality, masked in reality an overpowering desire to bestow and receive affection. Neither circumstances nor at times the asperities of his own temperament permitted the gratification of this need in a measure remotely approaching its intensity.” Weep for Hiroshima – but spare one tear for Oppie.