Posts Tagged ‘J. Robert Oppenheimer’

Not very long ago, I wrote two rather long posts centered around the charismatic nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer:

>> Peace (Part three of this post – The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer)
>> American Prometheus

Since I have already written considerable amounts on Oppenheimer, I wouldn’t write more, though  I could write more. I would request readers to have a look at the above two posts.



[J. Robert Oppenheimer]

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Just today my friend Rod informed me of a movie on Oppenheimer. Rod’s pretty much a hawk on the Internet. I suspect he either defies causality or has a number of top-secret contacts  as he comes to know of stuff before it is posted on the web. ;-)


Robert Oppenheimer, once an inspiring character and a charismatic figure was a broken man after the security hearings of 1954, he was never the same person again. The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a very good BBC horizon like documentary on his life with a focus on the security hearings provided by PBS. It explores why Oppenheimer had to go through all the humiliation after doing such a great service to his country. It can be watched for free, even the transcripts are available here.


Click on the above image to watch the movie

The introduction to the movie goes like this:

J. Robert Oppenheimer was brilliant, arrogant, proud, charismatic — and a national hero. Under his leadership during World War II, the United States succeeded in becoming the first nation to harness the power of nuclear energy to create the ultimate weapon of mass destruction — the atomic bomb. But after the bomb brought the war to an end, in spite of his renown and his enormous achievement, America turned on him, humiliated him, and cast him aside. The question this film asks is, “Why?”

“The country asked him to do something and he did it brilliantly, and they repaid him for the tremendous job he did by breaking him.”
— Marvin L. Goldberger, Los Alamos scientist and former director, The Institute for Advanced Studies

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, featuring Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck, The Bourne Ultimatum) as Robert Oppenheimer. From multiple Emmy Award-winning producer David Grubin (RFK, LBJ, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided), The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer features interviews with the scientist’s former colleagues and eminent scholars to present a complex and revealing portrait of one of the most important and controversial scientists of the twentieth century. The two-hour film traces the course of Oppenheimer’s life: his rarefied childhood, his troubled adolescence, his emergence as one of America’s leading nuclear physicists, his leadership of the Los Alamos laboratory, and his tragic humiliation


As is my experience, there would be some people around who would think that Oppenheimer was a moral monster as he was instrumental in getting the bomb made and that his preachings on peace were just hypocrisy. I would not debate on that as I am spent on the matter. For knowing what I have to say on the matter I would direct the reader to this post by me – Peace (Please have a look at the third part of that post). Also Oppenheimer is not just about the bomb, he did some high quality work in theoretical physics as well.


[JRO Smoking, Oppenheimer was a chain smoker all of his life. It turned out to be his un-doing. He died of throat cancer]

Coming back, I liked the movie quite a bit in spite of the fact that most of what is in the movie I already read about in American Prometheus (that’s obvious isn’t it?). Oppenheimer is played by David Straithairn and this 110 minute movie has been directed by David Grubin. Just like American Prometheus, the “dialogs” in the movie are from the actual transcripts of the security hearings of 1954. The movie has some rare video sequences that I have always wanted to see, like for instance Oppenheimer’s short speech after getting the Fermi Prize.


I would have loved to write more on Oppenheimer and his life and what I get to learn from it, but I don’t think it would be a bright idea to put some very personal observations and lessons on a public platform. I might choose to do that sometime later maybe.

I’d direct you all to have a look at the movie, it has lessons for all of us in difficult times. Not just on an individual level but on a national level too. We have a lot to learn from the past.


Related Posts:

1. American Prometheus

2. Peace. (The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer)


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I wrote rather passionately about J. Robert Oppenheimer in one part of a previous post marking an anniversary of the first nuclear bombings. Those interested in Oppenheimer’s life might be interested in reading that part.

I read American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Buy it) by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin between 14-29 October. And it is amongst the best biographies I have read. It is a very different book, it is not inspiring like some biographies on great men are. It is not philosophical or based on some mad pursuit. I have never seen such a well researched biography before. Sometimes I found the details about Oppenheimer’s personal life nauseating, but that just indicates the amount of surveillance he was under.

This book is not inspiring, it is haunting*.


[American Prometheus- Kai Bird, Martin Sherwin. Image Source ]

A Pulitzer prize winner (2006), this book chronicles the life of physicist, administrator, poet, American patriot and the father of the atomic bomb from his very early days to his last. The authors delve into every aspect of Oppenheimer’s life from his birth, to his time in England and Germany as a student. His leftist days at Berkeley, his love interests, his role in the Manhattan project, his public humiliation in the security hearings of 1954 at the height of the red scare and his quiet life after that, till his death. Twenty five years of research by the authors culminated into a devastatingly sad biography of one of the most famous men of all time.

The prologue in the book quotes George Kennan (1904-2005) the famous American diplomat now known as the father of the containment policy during the red scare as saying the following about him:

“In the dark day of the early fifties, when troubles crowded in upon him from many sides and when he found himself harassed by his position at the center of controversy, I drew his attention to the fact that he would be welcomed in a hundred academic centers abroad and asked him whether he had not thought of taking academic residence outside this country. His answer, given to me with tears in his eyes: ‘Damn it, I happen to love this country’

The book is divided into 5 parts and 40 chapters, each part covering a stage in his life. I would request all who get the opportunity to read this book, even those who have personal enmity with science and scientists but read once in a while about general things.

Some sections of the book are striking and stunning and represent major turning points in the book and just stand out.

While reading I observed that the authors place very clearly facts about the “Apple Incident” in which I was interested ever since I read about it, where in a state of depression and enormous emotional distress in his troubled student days at Cambridge, England in the autumn of 1925 Oppenheimer placed a “poisoned” apple on the desk of his head tutor, Patrick Blackett (few people know that Blackett was an adviser to Jawaharlal Nehru). The authorities learned of the incident and after some talking with his parents he was allowed to stay at Cambridge subject to the condition that he visit the psychiatrist as per a mandated chart. Oppenheimer gradually recovered and thrived in his golden intellectual days at Gottingen, Germany shortly afterwards when he produced some fundamental research and became known as one of the best quantum physicists of the time. The time bracket from this period at gottingen to his days as the Director of the Manhattan Project were his best days. By the end of 1945 Oppenheimer was one of the most famous physicists of the time.


[The above photo of Oppenheimer’s porkpie hat was the cover of Physics Today in May 1948, exemplifying the high regard and respect Oppenheimer commanded at that time. Image Soure]

Taking a brief digression, I’d cite two of my favorite quotes from the book:

After the emotional turmoil of his student days in England, Oppenheimer was always trying to be above that. His guiding principles were discipline and work. Quoting him from a letter to his brother.

Discipline is good for the soul is more fundamental than any of the grounds given for its goodness. I believe that through discipline, though not through discipline alone, we can achieve serenity, and a certain small but precious measure of freedom from the accidents of incarnation…I believe that through discipline we learn to preserve what is essential to our happiness in more and more adverse circumstances, and to abandon with simplicity what would else have seemed to us indispensable.

There is another fantastic quote attributed to P.A.M Dirac, the legendary physicist who was known to be eccentrically single minded to his dedication of science. Once Oppenheimer gave him several books as a gift. Dirac politely refused and remarked:

Reading books interfered with thought.

The Beast In the Jungle: I mentioned just a paragraph earlier that there were some very strong parts in the book that represented a watershed in his life. Some of them were just stunning. Like this part named “The Beast In the Jungle“. Until this section of the book Oppenheimer had been doing fine even though the number of his enemies were increasing. It was after this chapter that his decline began or rather accelerated.

The authors mention that Oppenheimer had harbored a vague sort of a premonition that something dark was in store for him in the future for a while. In the late 40s he read a novella by Henry James written in 1903 titled “The Beast in the Jungle“. James’ story was one of obsession, tormented egotism and as the authors put it, of existential foreboding. The story is very short, I have placed a link below to read the book from, for those interested. I could finish it under a couple of hours only. The basic plot of this story is as (from wikipedia):

John Marcher, the protagonist, is reacquainted with May Bartram, a woman he knew ten years earlier, who remembers his odd secret: Marcher is seized with the belief that his life is to be defined by some catastrophic or spectacular event, lying in wait for him like a “beast in the jungle.” May decides to buy a house in London with the money she got from her Great-Aunt who passed away, and to spend her days with Marcher curiously awaiting what fate has in store for him. Marcher is a hopeless egoist, who believes that he is precluded from marrying so that he does not subject his wife to his “spectacular fate”.

He takes May to the theatre and invites her to an occasional dinner, but does not allow her to get close to him. As he sits idly by and allows the best years of his life to pass, he takes May down as well, until the denouement where he learns that the great misfortune of his life was to throw it away, and to ignore the love of a good woman, based upon his preposterous sense of foreboding.

Oppenheimer was struck by the charge of the story and asked his friend Herb Marks to read it. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the authors write citing evidence Oppenheimer lived with a similar feelings that someday he would be struck by his “beast in the jungle” which would alter his whole life. Oppenheimer knew he was kept track of and that people in the Govt and the intelligence were looking for evidence to destroy him. As it turned out, his beast in the jungle was Lewis Strauss, who destroyed him.

Einstein and Oppenheimer: The parts on Einstein in the book were interesting.

Oppenheimer and Einstein at IAS[Einstein and Oppenheimer at IAS: Image source]

The book mentions Einstein in numerous instances throughout. However the ones related to Oppenheimer are the ones that I intend to touch upon.

Einstein could not understand why Oppenheimer was so keen on maintaining access to Washington and the echelons of the government. Einstein by instinct disliked politicians, and figures of authority. I quoted him in one previous post on this:

To punish me for my contempt of authority, fate made me an authority myself.

Einstein was always uncomfortable with attention is a well known fact to all those who admire him. There was this unforgettable quote in the book by him. On Einstein’s 71st birthday, Oppenheimer was walking him to his residence and Einstein said:

You know, when it’s once been given to a man to do something sensible, afterward life is a little strange.

Einstein suggested to Oppenheimer that he resign just taking into account the sheer outrageousness of the attacks on him. Einstein had left Germany when the Nazi nationalist frenzy swept the country and never set his foot on Germany again. He believed that the rise of McCarthyism in America was alarming, and he thought that Oppenheimer would end up humiliating himself.

As the authors note that Einstein’s instincts were right. He confided to a friend:

Oppenheimer is not a gypsy like me, I was born with the skin of an Elephant; there is no one who can hurt me.

and he thought that Oppenheimer was the reverse.

I would once again suggest the book to everyone who can set his/her hands on it. I would also congratulate the authors for the extremely gripping and compelling biography, it is amazing to think that the authors could piece together research spread over 25 years in such a wonderful way and I am already not able to get myself to complete a 60 page report on a project based on Support Vector Machines, in which I don’t even have to “piece together” things.

* This line is in no way borrowed from, or inspired by the newsweek review on this book.


1. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer – Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin

2. The Beast in the Jungle – Henry James (Download it from Project Gutenberg)

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