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Doctor Atomic: J Robert Oppenheimer

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

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.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.