Posts Tagged ‘Robert Oppenheimer’

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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I am a pacifist but i don’t intend to write here about peace directly. I thought of writing about things related to the monumental tragedy of bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but in a rather indirect way. This is a “Non-Linear” post and is basically in three parts.

I believe August 6 and 9 will remain in human memory for eons for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am an optimist and i don’t think there will be any large nuclear conflict in the medium term future. On the latter date 63 years ago the city of Nagasaki was obliterated, Leaving 80,000 people dead by the end of 1945 (140,000 dead in Hiroshima) and a large number continued to suffer for a much longer time after that.

[The city of Nagasaki before and after the atomic bombings, Source: Wikipedia]

Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima

One thing that I have always imagined was thinking about how it would be like to be in a city that gets hit by an Atomic (Fission), Thermonuclear or a Neutron Bomb. And let me tell you it is one thing that is almost impossible to imagine. Also then there are a number of things, like your position and what you were looking at. If you are in the inner radius near ground zero, i don’t think there would be any time to react to anything. Seeing the bomb drop and being present at ground zero is even harder to imagine. Now being somewhere far, say 3-4 Kilometers from ground zero, is again really hard to imagine. It is really hard to think what would go in the mind in a short span of a few seconds if you do  get to see the wave approaching and destroying everything on its way for some moments.

My girl once gifted me a few CDs on my birthday (which was a very sweet gift, but let me not digress), and introduced me to a wonderful quote by Aldous Huxley (1931):

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

One of my favorite compositions is “Threnody For The Victims of Hiroshima“, it is a masterpeice by Krzysztof Penderecki. When I first heard it, I thought it was rather creepy. However after hearing it a few times, it started growing on me and it is only sometime back that I started marveling  at the intensity of this composition and admiring the depth it had. One afternoon I got into thinking that it was a composition on which no video cover could be made. It was impossible for me to assign any image to that music, which made a video on it impossible. This is somewhat related to the above paragraph where I expressed my inability to imagine what it would be like during a nuclear explosion on my city. And very rightly so, this composition is dedicated to the victims of the twin bombings.

[All copyrights rest with the composer and the producer ]

A black screen in my humble opinion represents best the composition and speaks a thousand words for the dead and the mentally shocked.

Pale Blue Dot

[Pale Blue Dot: The image of the Earth taken by the Voyager I from a record distance]

Carl Sagan was a wonderful man, an elegant speaker and a man of great learning. I have read almost all books by him and also thoroughly admired and enjoyed the Cosmos television series. One book that I particularly liked was “Pale Blue Dot“, a book based on the photograph by the same name. A photograph taken by the Voyager 1 from a record distance of 6.4 billion Kilometers that shows the Earth as an obscure dot in a beam of scattered sunlight. The video below has Sagan speaking from the book. Having him talk is something else, such is the effect of his voice. I think this is one piece that everyone of us should see once in while!

Such is the beauty of this part that it is worth quoting it:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

The Geeta of J. Robert Oppenheimer

[J. Robert Oppenheimer, Source: Wikipedia]

J. Robert Oppenheimer is probably best known as the father of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer was over-educated in a number of fields other than his forte, that was Physics. He was known for his mathematical acumen, erudition over theoretical physics, knowledge of eastern philosophy and languages particularly Dutch and Sanskrit.

On a personal front, Oppenheimer was emotionally troubled almost all his life often slipping into  depression. He was a chain smoker (which ultimately caused throat cancer and subsequent death) and neglected food for long periods in times of emotional and intellectual discomfort. A lot of his colleagues have said Oppenheimer had a self-destructive tendency, and with his insecurities and melancholy he worried his friends. People associated with him generally fell into two categories, ones who thought he was a silent man of great learning and a brilliant genius, while some thought he was unstable and a pretentious person.

General Leslie Groves was appointed the project director of the Manhattan project and inspite of doubts about Oppenheimer being a possible security risk he made him the scientific director. Many of the generals and people in the defense staff have maintained that inspite of Oppenheimer’s communist inclinations and doubts about his loyalty (that time any communist in America was viewed with suspicion, take for example the rise  of Mc-Carthy as an example of the narrow-mindedness prevalent at the time ), Manhattan project would have never been completed without him. He was so indispensable for the project and for keeping the people from diverse backgrounds working on it together.

[Trinity : The first ever nuclear explosion]

Click to Enlarge

After the end of the great war Oppenheimer became an outspoken critic of the arms race and supported the establishment of an international agency that would have been in control of all the nuclear arsenal. He opposed the development of the Hydrogen bomb initially on technical grounds. Increasingly worried about the danger to humanity from scientific discoveries he lectured on peace till his death, and also joined with Einstein, Bertrand Russell and formed what later became the world academy of art and science in 1960. He had to pay for his outspokeness, for decisions he took that appeared to be plagued with confusion, his leftist leanings and the ire of the politicians that he attracted as a result of his outspoken character after the war in the form of a very publicly humiliating hearing in 1954, which resulted in his security clearance being revoked. For the remainder of his life surprisingly Oppenheimer never showed much resentment for the hearing and it seems he took the humiliation rather gracefully.

In a rare recording in 1965 Oppenheimer was persuaded to quote again the phrase from the Bhagwad Gita  that he claimed crossed his mind when he saw the Trinity explosion.

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi armed form and says “now I become death the destroyer of the worlds”. I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

In this rare footage, Oppenheimer has tears in his eyes, in what seems to be due to intense guilt and regret.

A lot of people think Oppenheimer was a hypocrite, a moral monster who was instrumental in making  the bomb, for scouting for both the locations over which the bomb was eventually dropped and for supporting the development of the Hydrogen bomb and other devices and that he was a person who was a poser, who lectured on peace but yet supported the bomb and its development and even its use in WW-II.

I think this is unfair on the man, for those who have read stuff on Oppenheimer would know that he had a deep interest in some eastern scriptures, particularly the Bhagwad Geeta. It won’t be wrong to assume that the Geeta had a very marked impact on Oppenheimers thinking and his philosophy on life and duty. The ideas in the Geeta in a way marry the seemingly inherent contradictions that were apparent sometimes in what Oppenheimer spoke about and clear the fog over some of his ideas on peace and support for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and even scouting for a place for bombing.

The Geeta like many other scriptures is subject to interpretations and obviously Oppenheimer’s interpretation is bound to be different. However his knowledge and his interest in the Geeta were enough for him to formulate a code on ethics and life loosely based on the principles of it. Oppenheimer never said in the open what the importance of the Geeta in his life was, but there is enough circumstantial evidence to show that it was indeed very important.

After the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki he was dispirited by the continuation of the development of nuclear weapons and constantly wrestled with moral and ethical problems as he thought he was instrumental in handing over humanity the means of its own possible annihilation. He at this time revisited the Geeta, his old favorite and drew power from it which steadied him in his work and worldview.

Also like i said earlier, the Geeta makes comprehensible some acts of Oppenheimer that were otherwise difficult to grasp for example not only did Oppenheimer build the bomb, he maintained till the end that he did the right thing and yet he always said that he had blood on his hands. Let us try to see that there was no real contradiction in Oppenheimer’s views about peace taking the Bhagwad Geeta as the base. It makes it understandable why a man of such a great persona would become inactive and confused at times and why a man of peace would build the atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer studied Sanskrit at Berkeley in 1933 with Indologist Arthur Ryder and acquired a deeper knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita that he had read in the original tongue. Much later in life Oppenheimer was to call the Geeta the most beautiful philosophical discourse in any known tongue. He kept a copy of the Geeta always at hand on his desk and often gifted the Geeta as a gift to many of his colleagues. often his own translation. An indication of the impression that the Geeta had made on him.

The Geeta is the single most important sacred text for the Hindus and is a piller of Hinduism. The importance of the Geeta in Hinduism is perhaps the greatest as compared to the other scriptures. It is essentially on philosophy, ethics, code of conduct and life and is set in midst of the Mahabharata (to be precise the Geeta is from the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata), the longest epic in the world. Things in the Geeta are told in the context of a story of good against evil. The story has a royal family in which all the cousins grow up together but as they grow up to be men they are torn apart due to a quarrel resulting from the royal inheritance. The differences are only resolved by war. Arjuna, the third oldest of the five Pandavas is shown to be a warrior and an archer unparalleled in history.

The geeta begins with Arjuna riding onto the battlefield with lord Krishna, the 8th avatar of Lord Vishnu but on seeing amongst enemy ranks his own friends and relatives, his heart breaks. He is confronted with the prospect of killing his own people and with the fact that if he did not fight it would mean more humiliation for the Pandavas. Depressed by this, he refuses to fight. He is given solace by Krishna, who is being Arjuna’s charioteer.

The geeta has 18 chapters in the course of which Krishna counsels Arjuna on why he should take part in the war. The arguments given are diverse and take care of even the slightest doubts. Inspite of the lengthy nature of his discourse, Krishna’s arguments can be summed up in some very basic points, out of which these seem to have had a major bearing on Oppenheimer’s conduct and view of duty and life :

1. Arjuna is a soldier, his duty is only to fight.

2. Krishna (god or fate) will decide on who lives and who dies, so there is no point in mourning or rejoicing over results. There should be a detachment from the result and one should only focus on the work. “Worry only about the job at hand, don’t worry about what the result would be”.

Oppenheimer’s position was like that of Arjuna before the war. Arjuna was the younger brother of Yudhistra who was more intelligent, a better man than Duryodhana, his cousin who is driven by hate. Duryodhana was so blinded by hate that he tries to kill his cousins, the Pandavas to rule. Krishna’s message to Arjuna was clear. He MUST fight. The message would have been equally clear to Oppenheimer. One other important idea in the Geeta is the idea of duty. Another is of fate, The Geeta espouses that duty and fate should not be mingled together and that one should only focus on his duty and not worry about what is responsibility of others (in his case the politicians and President Truman for example). This and many simple yet profound ideas defined how Oppenheimer acted. He only did his duty as a scientist and as the director, he did what he had to do.

Professor James Hijiya gives a very beautiful commentary of this aspect. I would recommend you to read it (link given below). It is not possible to analyze most of Oppenheimers actions on a blog post. It might need a book. So I would direct all interested to that link. It is short and makes a brisk read for those who get scared by volume. Please read to get the whole point of me mentioning the Geeta of Robert Oppenheimer in this post. I believe that the man who made the atom bomb did not sin. That is my point. And though I greatly admire J. Robert Oppenheimer, that is not the reason why I think that he did not sin, and that he only did his duty.

Recommendations and References:

1. Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima – Penderecki

2. Pale Blue Dot– Carl Sagan

3. The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer – James Hijiya. Click Here >>

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