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Prometheus Bound and Unbound in Los Alamos and Princeton

Book review by Stuart Mitchner

All these anniversaries. Albert Einstein 1905 and 1955, the Institute for Advanced Study's 75th, Princeton University Press's centennial. This would seem to be the year to contemplate Princeton's relation to some of the most significant events of the twentieth century. Fifty years ago three men who made history were residents at the "intellectual hotel" that had been conceived as "a paradise for scholars." Einstein had been at the Institute since 1934. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atom bomb" who became the Institute's director in 1946, had also been invited in 1934 but found the place to be "a madhouse: its solipsistic luminaries shining in separate & helpless desolation." George Kennan, the father of America's containment strategy, was there because Oppenheimer invited him, a controversial appointment at the time because Kennan lacked scholarly credentials; he was approved only after Oppenheimer promised to pay Kennan's stipend out of his own fund.

The chapters on Oppenheimer in Princeton are among the most fascinating in Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf $35). Like Kennan, who regretted the Cold War maneuverings made in the name of containment, Oppenheimer found himself speaking out against the Cold War paranoia that threatened to justify the warning he gave in his 1945 farewell address to his colleagues at Los Alamos, that if atom bombs ever became new weapons in the arsenals of warring nations the time would come "when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima."

You can tell a lot about American Prometheus from the Alfred Eisenstadt photo chosen for the cover. Taken in Princeton in 1947, it shows a man who knew how to create himself, much as a great movie actor creates an enduring persona. The so-called porkpie hat mentioned throughout the book (to me, it looks more like something a well-to-do cowboy would wear) was to Oppenheimer as Chaplin's derby was to the Tramp, and the eternal cigarette was no less a feature of his style than Chaplin's cane was. As can clearly be seen, however, there's nothing comic about the look he's giving the photographer. Bogart in his prime might have managed a look that intense. The man with the cigarette seems to be gazing into the photographer's soul and finding it lacking. Such a photograph suggests that this biography is not going to be cerebral or austerely scholarly. Here is not only the theoretical physicist but the horseman who once said his two great loves were physics and New Mexico; the poet reader who defined and guided himself through literature and learned Sanskrit so he could read the Bhagavad-Gita in the original; the onetime fellow traveler who married a communist and had an extramarital affair with another; the charismatic leader who survived a serious mental crisis (he once tried to poison someone, once came close to strangling his best friend); the chain-smoking maker of lethal martinis, who, in typically and perhaps fatally self-conscious terms (a character in his own novel) told President Harry Truman, "I have blood on my hands" (Truman's reaction was to dismiss him as a "crybaby scientist"); above all, here is the prophet who warned the world about the hydrogen bomb and nuclear proliferation and was punished for it in the Kafkaesque 1954 hearing rigged by his enemies in order to smear him as a security risk.

The downside of the story is movingly suggested by another photo; this one, the last in the biography's gallery of photographs, shows a man deep in despair, inconsolable ten days after the assassination of President Kennedy, even though he has just received the $50,000 Enrico Fermi Prize for public service Kennedy had awarded him in one of his last decisions as president, his way of symbolizing Oppenheimer's rehabilitation as a national figure. This might be a photograph of another man. No more the hat, the cigarette, the aggressive stare, the attitude, the sense of a cutting-edge force of genius. This prophet is beyond sadness and if he's wise, it's a wisdom without hope. You don't want to know what sort of future he would prophesy.

To describe the workings of the mind of such a man would be a lot to expect of even the most accomplished novelist, not to mention biographers with mountains of research to climb. The very field Oppenheimer worked in challenges articulation since it studies, as Bird and Sherwin point out, "that which doesn't exist – but nevertheless proves true." In the same context, they quote physicist Richard Feynman to the effect that quantum mechanics "describes nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense." No wonder, then, that throughout his life Oppenheimer turned to literature for consolation, expression, and enlightenment. Reading George Eliot helped him survive the nightmare of summer camp at the age of 14 by enabling him to see "the life of the inner mind in relation to the making and breaking of human relationships." Proust's Remembrance of Things Past lifted him out of the dangerous downward spiral that followed the poisoning and choking incidents at Cambridge. For the dread he felt prior to the 1954 hearings, he found a correlative in Henry James's long story "The Beast in the Jungle." To express the enormity of the atomic weapon, he took words from not only John Donne ("Batter my heart, three-person'd God") but the Bhagavad-Gita ("Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds"). He read George Herbert aloud to George Kennan, and when asked the ten books that had shaped his philosophical outlook, he put Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal at the top of the list. The same man who recalled in a 1963 interview that "the most exciting time" of his life was when Paul Dirac gave him "the proofs of his quantum theory of radiation" was busy during that same time reading French literature and Dante in the original Italian. "They tell me you write poetry as well as working in physics," Dirac once said to him. "How can you do both?" When he heard Oppenheimer was reading Dante, Dirac said, "Why do you waste time on such trash?"

Reading American Prometheus, particularly the Los Alamos chapters, it's hard not to wish for a Thomas Mann or George Eliot or Balzac to articulate the excitement of theoretical physics and thus the dynamic of Oppenheimer's genius. It still seems unfathomable that it took an entire community of scientists working for almost three years to produce a "gadget" (the accepted code word for the bomb) described as "an ugly metal globe studded with detonator plugs." Another new book – Jennet Conant's 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos (Simon & Schuster $26.95) – offers an in-depth study of what went on at Los Alamos. The Hardy Boys-style subtitle notwithstanding, the book not only gives a fuller picture of the enormity of the undertaking that makes the process at least marginally fathomable (complete with a map of the "secret city") but goes into more detail about the technical difficulties the scientists encountered along the way.

While it may not be that rarity "a great biography," American Prometheus does justice to a great subject, giving you just about everything you could hope for and sometimes probably more than you need.

Finally, one photograph that is absent from the interesting assortment in American Prometheus can be found in Philippe Halsman's Jump Book, a collection of jumping luminaries the photographer put together in the late fifties. The photo shows Oppenheimer performing his jump in front of a blackboard at the Institute. It is at once a spectacularly uninhibited and absolutely, gravely determined upward leap, one arm raised high above his head (his face peering straight up), the jacket of his elegant three-piece suit flying open, his well-polished black shoes well off the ground. Halsman calls the leap "metaphysically spectacular." It's nice to know that even after the 1954 inquisition that supposedly "broke" him, the director could still reach for the sky. Look closely and you may be able to make out the Langrock label on his open jacket. According to American Prometheus, while most of the Institute's permanent scholars walked around in sports jackets (not to mention Einstein in his old sweater and baggy trousers), Oppenheimer could often be seen wearing expensive suits hand-tailored for him at Langrock's on Nassau Street. It should be added, however, that at least one witness reports occasionally seeing him "in a jacket that looked as if it had been eaten by gerbils."

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